Design Philosophy and Approach

Since the late 1970s, I have been trying to develop architecture in the Arab world that expresses the historic specificity, local diversity, and dynamic nature of Arab-Islamic cultural identity. A dynamic and what I would call a “hybrid” identity in architecture today would reflect a living context and respond to the forces of globalization, with its capacity for both the homogenization and enrichment of cultures.

To reflect a dynamic Arab-Islamic identity in architecture is not to record a confused reality; it is rather an attempt to understand this reality, and provide a critique of it, to extract human, cultural, and environmental values from it, and highlight those values through an architectural approach that respects and sustains these values. When architects reach out to people through an architectural language they understand, it increases their sense of belonging in the built environment. It reduces their sense of alienation by encouraging creative participation.

As an architect, I have always been a keen observer of the diversity of the built environment in the Arab world.  Yet I also seek a better understanding of the constant and deep-rooted values that comprise “common denominators” among the peoples of this world. I endeavor to understand the cultural changes taking place in this world and the effect of these changes on urban and architectural transformations. In addition to studying the Arab world, I have researched transformations that have taken place in the built environments of Europe and the United States, and the relationship these transformations have to the diverse cultural identities of the West. This study and analysis has helped me to better understand the relationship between form and context. I have been interested in comparing and contrasting Western and Arab environments, which has made me more careful when importing Western concepts and ideas for use in the Arab environment.

Negotiating and working through these concepts is the primary goal of my practice. I am interested in both the academic study of Arab-Islamic history as well as the first-hand experience that can be gained through visiting the cities, villages, and monuments of Arab-Islamic civilization. As a student and practicing architect in the West (1977-1993), I closely watched and experienced this civilization, and even modestly contributed to its built environment through design and research, while continuing to look to my Arab-Islamic world from a distance, being critical of it through analysis and research. This was particularly manifested in my design thesis at Manchester, for which I chose Cairo as the field of study, and the Arab Courtyard House as the subject for my dissertation, and through the Aga Khan Program for Architectural Studies for Islamic Societies at MIT, where I chose for my master’s thesis the subject of self-representation and the question of identity for Islamic community centers in America.

The architecture I have been advocating is one that respects the specificity of place, time, and man; one that opens doors for constant human interaction with different places and times. The methodology I have adopted for almost thirty years has influenced the nature of projects I worked on and participated in, as well as the ideas I have written and lectured about. This methodology is reflected in my work with the Kuwaiti Engineer’s Office, Dar Al-Omran, Jordan, and Chemonics International, Washington D.C., as well as the universities where I worked and taught – the University of Southern Indiana, USA, the University of Petra and the University of Applied Sciences, Amman, Jordan.

My work includes several milestone projects starting with the Development of Al-Hossien and Al-Azhar District in the heart of Fatimid Cairo, which won the Napper Urban Design Prize from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1984. It also includes one of my earliest projects – the charity organization of Al-Mabarrah of Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, which was nominated to the Aga Khan Award in 1997, as well as a number of residential projects and private residences in Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon. Larger projects include the Sharq Al-Sief and the Heritage Village Projects in Kuwait City, and Madinat Al-Fahaheel Development in Kuwait, which won several local, regional and international awards, together with master planning projects in Makkah, Amman, Rabat, Dubai, Sharjah, Beirut, and Lahore and other cities in the Arab-Islamic world. Moreover, I have written a number of research papers, articles, and lectures, concentrating on the issue of identity in contemporary architecture in the Arab region, and the impact of rapid urbanization of the region especially in Kuwait, Jordan and the UAE, as well as writing on my personal experience of reviving the courtyard in the Arab house, and advocating holistic cultural, environmental and economic sustainability and green architecture in the region.

With the launching of my own practice, Wael Al-Masri, Planners and Architects, based in Amman, Jordan in the second half of 2009, I continue my architectural approach with the same vigor and determination of the past three decades. I have gained a deeper understanding of the characteristics of the local environment – its identity and culture – and I continue to look for common links between Arab and Western cultures. It is with this understanding that I formulate local architecture in the Arab region that belongs to its global age.

One of the aims of my new practice is to advance research and work in collaboration with a larger circle of architects and intellectuals who share these views. My objective is to relate architecture as a cultural product to a deeper understanding of contemporary local culture while engaging with the cultures of others. My intent is to contribute to global culture by highlighting – through planning, architecture, and interior design – the human aspects of the Arab-Islamic culture, which are largely missing in the age of globalization. I believe this culture has the potential to be an important contributor to global civilization today, as it was in the past.