If you attended Dubai Design Week in November, you'll have seen the Audi Innovation Hub, the most striking structure on display at the event. With its swooping white lines, racks of interconnected tensile cables and bold curves, the hub, which hosted a series of talks throughout the week, resembled some sort of futuristic space craft. It reflected quite beautifully Audi's mantra of "Advancement through Technology".
And yet, there was a more rugged, textured element to the structure, too. The flanks of the hub were covered in a black matte rubber surface made from recycled vehicle tyres. Black and white; metal and rubber; technological innovation and sustainability – the whole thing hummed with the tension and energy of these conflicts.
The Audi Innovation Hub was the work of the Middle East Architecture Network, or MEAN, a Dubai-based design collaborative founded in 2015 by Riyad Joucka. He says it comprises a community of architects, designers, programmers and artists, who collaborate to design the architecture of the future.
'We want to be leaders in the field'
MEAN – which works in unison with the Middle East Architecture Lab, or MEAL, the research arm of MEAN – has operated in Dubai for less than a year but it is already proving to be one of the most exciting architecture outfits in the Middle East.
Each of MEAN’s projects incorporates the latest technologies and computations, such as 3D printing, into its designs – the steel pipes in the Audi Innovation Hub, for example, were bent using Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology, a digital process of manufacturing. And there is an insistence throughout MEAN’s work on revealing pleasing aesthetics, while also finding pragmatic solutions.
"We want to be leaders in the field," Joucka tells me when we meet at MEAN's head offices, a converted shipping container, in Dubai. "Right now, the Middle East lacks a small practice working at the nexus of design and technology. There is a huge directory of architects you can go to if you want a villa. We're offering a very niche service here."
The projects being worked on
As if to prove the point, Joucka, who studied at London's Architectural Association School of Architecture, shows me some of the projects he and his team have been working on. There are the designs for a ferry terminal in South Korea that feature glass developed by Tesla, that people can walk on and which harnesses solar energy. "Over a period of 35 years, the structure would actually pay for itself," says Joucka.
Next is a prototype for a bus shelter, which would be 3D printed in several parts and fitted together like Lego. Based on the geometry of sea shells, this elaborately curved, white structure would allow light to pass through it and redefine our idea of how a bus shelter might look. It would undoubtedly reinvigorate tired urban districts.
What else? 3D printed chairs, which can be made in a matter of hours and renderings of a vast, 3D printing campus in the heart of Dubai; an installation, now permanently displayed in the National Museum of Jordan, featuring stones cracked apart to resemble the fractured ground during a severe drought – all done, of course, by a complex, computer-generated script.
There is something of a hipster Willy Wonka about Joucka, always testing and tweaking to see how far he can take his radical ideas. "We use nature as a prime example of performance and efficiency but also beauty," he says. "Much of what we see in nature is beautiful but it looks like that for very specific reasons. We don't think beauty is very far from performance, [in fact] we think it is integral to performance."
One impressive example of this is a structure called the Shell Star, which Joucka designed and that was built in Hong Kong in 2012. The pavilion, created using digital modelling, simulation, and fabrication tools, references the five-petal flower of the Hong Kong orchid tree, which you can see on the city's flag. It is a self-standing structure made up of a series of perforated arches. These holes had a practical purpose – to prevent uplift, since Hong Kong is prone to typhoons. But they also created stunning pools of light on the ground beneath the pavilion.
Constantly exposed to creativity
With the UAE determined to innovate and progress, the country seems to be the ideal location for Joucka and MEAN. "It's a healthy place to be, especially as we approach Expo 2020, which will be the showcase of all the new technologies from around the world," he says. "We want to take vernacular architecture here in the UAE, combine it with technology, and then you have something that can only exist here, similar to how nature works."
Joucka was born and raised in Amman. Both his parents are architects, while his grandfather was the influential Syrian modernist painter Mahmoud Hammad. "Living in that environment, I was constantly exposed to creativity," says Joucka. "I used to go to my dad's offices when I was younger and draft places for fun."
At the age of 17, Joucka, now in his 30s, emigrated to Canada and studied architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa. After moving to London to do his masters, Joucka has since worked at architecture firms in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Sydney and New York.
But it was while Joucka was in New York that the idea of a collaborative architectural network, where people with different skill sets shared ideas digitally, began to take shape. “I’d get together with a bunch of friends and we’d work after hours, after our day jobs, over the iCloud on projects, competitions or whatever,” says Joucka. “Sometimes we’d just make up our own briefs.”
So what's next?
Given that so many people today work remotely from their laptops, it made sense to Joucka to start a company that was not based at a physical location. “Everybody has high-speed internet connection and everyone has access to free apps, such as [file hosting service] Dropbox and [communication service] Slack,” he says. “These people can be in different countries even, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we start a company around that?’”
Throughout this time, Joucka visited Dubai frequently and decided to move there after seeing the appetite for new technology in architecture.
Joucka is aware that not every project can be as ambitious as the Audi Innovation Hub or the ferry terminal and continues to accept more prosaic commissions, in order to balance the books. "It's about having a real pragmatic sense of the financial world we live in," says Joucka. "It's about generating profit that we can put back into our research arm."
And what about his ambitions for the next few years? "In five years, I'd love to design a multi-storey building that is 3D printed," says Joucka. You really wouldn't bet against it.
For more information, visit www.m-e-a-n.design