Khalid Alnajjar will soon be on Saadiyat Island alongside Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel. Youssef Rakha meets the country’s pre-eminent young architect.
Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company appointed 19 architects to design pavilions for the Saadiyat Island Cultural District's Biennial Park, a series of multipurpose spaces to be arrayed along a 1.5km canal; the Dubai-based Khalid Alnajjar is the only Emirati.
Bird-like behind an enormous desk in the office of his firm, dxb.lab, in Jumeirah, he talks excitedly about how the mind experiences space and architectural form. When you sit in a chair, any chair – so begins his object lesson – you unconsciously expect your back to settle into some kind of vertical support. The statement does not hold for, say, a stool: it is into the blueprint of the Chair, not the Stool, that a back support is written. But what if the back of the chair you sit in is missing a diagonal? What if it is triangular rather than square?
"Then, sitting," Khalid Alnajjar goes on, gesturing ever more wildly from behind his desk, "you feel something is wrong. You will turn to look," he performs the reaction. "Then something happens." A conceptual mutation, to paraphrase his reference to evolutionary theory: in the mind's eye – the fact that you know, involuntarily, that you are going to feel the vertical support against your back before you actually feel it – the universal chair acquires a new variability, disturbing and unpredictable, but full of creative promise. "That's exciting."
"Exciting" is one of three words Alnajjar will never tire of using no matter what the context. The other two are "progressive" and "activate". Both have left-wing connotations, but he is quick to dissociate them from politics.
"No, no, no, no, no, no – no," he laughs. "When I say 'progressive', I mean avant-garde, cutting edge, doing new things. Nothing to do with left-wing."
Yet even in enjoying the well-heeled ease of a young architect who has made a name in the world's most vigorous construction hub, Alnajjar manages to sound revolutionary.
He speaks excitedly of "the urban condition": the phenomenally dynamic energy of cities undergoing explosive growth. Its effect on the national sense of self does not worry him.
"Identity is embedded in the genes, but then you have to accept that things evolve. To me it's extremely exciting: not just architecture but being in a dynamic city; your identity also matures and develops with your surroundings."
The tendency can be traced from his work, in which the vernacular housing of his early childhood finds abstracted reflection, to his dress sense.
Setting it off with long hair parted down the middle, nerdy-chic glasses, unobtrusive cuff links and sock-less burgundy deck shoes, Alnajjar manages to make the traditional dress look positively fashion-forward.
He cuts a slight figure in the sunbathed room: a wide rectangular space cluttered with black and white photos, textured tricolour drawings, found objects of ambiguous significance, candles, fragments of Plexiglas, and "personal" architectural sketches that look like comics. "On the computer, we work organically, starting straight with 3D forms", so there is no need for the kind of formal flat sketch architects have traditionally worked with.
With Shehab Lotfi, a businessman, Alnajjar also owns and manages the company, employing a staff of 18 from Germany, Japan, Brazil and Syria. "What interests me is to know people from different cultural backgrounds. Their sensibilities are different yet complementary." An emphatically informal place, the office of the big boss does feel like an "artist's atelier".
Alnajjar puts Dubai's recent international renown in a deeper historical context. "The development of Dubai has been happening since the 1970s. Although it's now happening in this amazing way, although it's so much bigger, it's not new," he says. "I'm used to it." In this context he talks of an emergent scene of "local globals" – Emiratis who can speak eloquently to the world.
Designing Biennale Park Pavilion #2 was the kind of challenge he cherishes, he says, shifting alertly in his seat in that subtly animated manner I am already associating with him. He sees his involvement in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District not only as a honour and an opening but, more relevant to the evolution of "one country", as an "amazing experience, like nowhere else in the world": a conceptual mutation of unprecedented magnitude, altering the blueprint of the cultural venue everywhere.
In the Saadiyat pavilion design as elsewhere, he stresses two things: teamwork and an organic approach to the surroundings.
The greatest challenge for Alnajjar was to combine the flexibility of a multipurpose space with "powerful architecture and something futuristic too". He had designed smaller exhibition spaces, but this was his largest cultural commission to date. The result of "a long time thinking about it" is the three-level giant cube now on display at the project exhibition in the Emirates Palace Hotel.
The uppermost level, "the Vessel", is a 17m by 17m glass case in which "a huge art object can go; it's almost like a huge theatre," while the ground floor, the ever present activator, is a more traditional exhibition space. The black "skin of the building" is a digitised pattern that instantly evokes marble.
"Conceptually we are re-creating a certain pattern that occurs in nature using technology, so it has a reference to what technology can do. Because if you put natural marble there you won't get this grain, which is probably a thousand times bigger. It basically has a fritting effect, which represents natural marble, but basically the skin is just a digital screen that potentially could change. It could even be used to project what's happening inside..."
Buildings are interactions and architecture "not just a profession but a way of life", open to influences as wide ranging as musical rhythm and movie montage. But barring a teenage obsession with car design, it was sculpture – "making things with my hands" – that first drew Alnajjar into the profession.
"The family house was in Jumeirah," he recalls. "My father owned a joinery business" (najjar is Arabic for carpenter) "so I grew up in an atmosphere of things being made... I am the only architect in the family... They always knew that I was inclined to art and design. Of course they're always curious about what I'm designing, because it's always different from the typical. Now I'm designing my own house in al Barsha."
In the 1970s and 1980s, he explains, there were very few foreign schools in Dubai and he did not go to one of them. He learned his English – along with "painting, photography, poetry, sculpture" – on summer vacations in England. So when he obtained a scholarship to study at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, aged 18, Los Angeles was not all that much of a culture shock, in the end, nor was he ever particularly homesick.
"Of course, whenever you go to a new city there's a certain excitement in the new and it's good. I was so immersed in architecture, my friends were designers, my brothers were studying with me there later. But it was also about being in New York or Los Angeles. While you're learning architecture you're also experiencing the city, that's very important also."
State support carried him through a master's degree at Columbia University, and between two of America's best architecture departments he benefited from being taught by Coop Himmelblau, Thom Mayne, Michael Rotundi, Bernard Tschumi. He brought back not only this experience but, perhaps more even pertinently to his vision, an American wife, a "surface designer" whose sensibility, he says, colours the work of dxb.lab (Alnajjar's two little boys, Ziyad and Talal, have ancient Arab names). "She loves it here," he says.
For 10 years after his return in 1996, Alnajjar worked as the head of the detail-planning department of the Dubai Municipality, where he was all too eager to participate in "the city's growth", later starting up dxb.lab with help from a Tumooh grant. "The programme was initiated by Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum," he explains, "of whose Young Leaders Programme I am also a grateful member." In 2004, Alnajjar received the Mohammad bin Rashid Award for Young Business Leaders in the design category. For a while, working at both the municipality and dxb.lab, he also taught part time at the American University in Sharjah.
"Let's say I was very busy," he says and sighs. It was only two years ago that he finally made up his mind: "I had a great time there, I learned a lot, and it was time for me to focus on my architecture." With the Saadiyat commission, he feels he is well on course, but "always the next project is the most exciting," he says.
"You're thinking process, your ideas are always evolving. So maybe you're happy with what you've done, but still you look to what you will do next."