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Computation for Culture: Evaluating Computational Design Features of Contemporary Arab Architecture

Muhammad Hegazy Ali, Ahmed Fathi Ahmed, Ahmed Muhammad Saleh

  Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, Suez Canal University, Egypt


     In the last two decades, architecture in the Arab world has undergone dramatic changes, driven by three major paradigms: globalization, environment, and technology. However, these changes seem to ignore the rich architectural heritage of the region, especially Islamic architecture, to replicate the same western building forms and concepts. The paper aims to experiment new evaluation criteria for contemporary Arab architecture that utilizes computational design to approach sustainability and regionalism, as well as deducing the relationship and combination between the three main evaluation dimensions (Computation, Sustainability, and Regionalism). The methodology of the study relies on selecting six regional case studies, then applying the stated evaluation method on them. The output scores are then compared, and the sub-scores of each case are inspected for their correlation. The study revealed several findings that can be illustrated in an average achievement ratio of 55% in the reference cases. Besides, the study shows the potential constant correlation between performance of a given project in the three dimensions. Finally, the study raises a question of why the regional features of contemporary Arab architecture are still immature and merely represented in mimicking some mashrabiyas or Islamic patterns.

  Keywords: computation, sustainability, regionalism, Arab world, contemporary architecture

1. Introduction

The impact of technology (specially the digital one) can be clearly noticed since the architecture of the 90's. These technologies, which related to the west, are often linked to the concept of globalization, including marketing, capitalism and commercial culture. However, According to Ali Raafat (Raafat, 2007), the world has adopted a new approach where preserving environment has a priority, as a result of the massive pollution and destruction of natural ecosystems by man actions. Therefore, Architecture paradigms followed consequently that environmental movement, leading to a paradigm shift where design is based on nature and respects it locally, regionally and globally. This hi-tech approach, driven by capitalism, led to flat buildings with no identity.

The traditional architecture in the Arab world is considered a true expression of local heritage and culture as it reflected people's lifestyle and interacted with natural environment, as well as religious references. Recently, the character of such architecture has been lost, altered by the new design elements of western architecture, which led to the loss of local identity and transformation of Arab city skylines to be a bit closer to global capitals. This transformation can be explained in terms of;  the rapid urban growth, domination of new design paradigms, fascination by western civilization , the rise of Iconic architecture , and finally relying on international design offices and famous star architects to have their signature on Arab city's skyline.

The Arab city started, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to lose its local image, uniqueness, and ability to meet its particular needs. It has experienced dramatic changes in cultural arenas where architecture has been characterized as culturally alienated and Westernized. This characterization, which is, ironically, publicly known as "progress," is related to the search for national identity. This change resulted in an attempt to be freed from the past. Those countries have adopted and transferred foreign architectural forms without any deep consideration of the underlying changes in the social or cultural structures that developed them, with the exception of some successful cases that linked local and global forces (Eldemery, 2009, p. 347).

In the context of this study, Regionalism, in architecture, means an architecture that is resulting straight from its local setting. The concept of regionalism leads to the building being intrinsically site specific and responding to the local climate and culture of the place, where it is being built. From its initiation, regionalism has often fallen in opposition to modernity and the language of modernism. Regionalism may be viewed as a specific form of modernism, thus becoming an integral part of the search for both identity and modernity. Regionalism recognizes modernism, but is critical of many of its features, such as its high level of abstraction. (Agrawal, 2013).

1.1 Research Problem

In Contemporary western architecture, both Computation and Sustainability are in balance and integration where none of them overshadows the other. However, when monitoring the state of contemporary architecture in the Arab world, it is obvious that regionalism appears strongly as a third dimension of design and a tool for the continuity of regional architectural heritage that goes congruent with environment and society. Nevertheless, in contrary to the western architectural model, Arab contemporary architecture-mainly designed by western architects- is far from integration and satisfaction, regarding computation and sustainability. Moreover, when evaluating regionalism as a third dimension of such architecture, it can be observed how much superficial the abstraction is, merely limited to revisiting some regional architectural elements (Mashrabiya, Patterns, etc) with almost no genuine local concepts or deep satisfaction for society needs.

1.2 Research Aim/purpose

This study aims to analyze, compare and evaluate a set of successful contemporary trials to approach Arab regional architecture through computational design. This approach includes explicit reconstruction of architectural elements (patterns, domes, arches, etc.), revisiting vernacular sustainability techniques (Mulqafs, Mashrabiyas, etc.) as well as form generation and digital fabrication. The study will review a set of vital facts of each building as well as the workflow of from concept to construction and, eventually to building management. In addition, the framework used to imply computational design in every aspect of project would be thoroughly analyzed. Finally, a comparison and an evaluation checklist will be held to conclude a full overview of contemporary Arab architecture and its classifications in the light of new design paradigms.

1.3 Research Questions

- To what extent have the contemporary Arab architecture succeeded to achieve balance between modernism and originality?

- What are the potentials of computational design tools regarding reinventing regional Arab architectural vocabulary?

- Do computation go with or contradict sustainability and regional features of a native project?

2. Literature Review

The Arab countries hold 61% of the world oil reserves, and 26 % of the world gas reserves. They produce nearly 30 % of the oil production, and 11 % of the world gas production (LAS & ESCWA, 2005). The  Arab  World  has a number of known environmental issues  such  as  shortage  of  fresh  water  and  desertification,  expanded  urbanization, air  pollution,  and  high  consumption  pressure  and  energy  consumption (Al-Zubaidi, 2007, p. 48). On the other hand, the loss of identity in lifestyle and culture-consequently in architecture- can be one of the major social problems facing the Arab world today, (Al-Zubaidi, 2007) has approached the following factors as the urging needs behind sustainable architecture in the Arab world:

- Lack of Fresh Water: The  Arab  world  has  5%  of  the  world  population  but  only  1%  of  the available  global  water  resources  and  only  70%  of  the  population  now  has  safe  drinking water (Krayem, Nehme, & Abdul Hadi, 2000). Moreover,  most  of  these  water  resources  are  not  controlled  by  the  Arab countries, an example is the Egyptian-Ethiopian crisis regarding " Renaissance dam". In addition, 57% of the countries that have more than 50% desert are Arab countries, thus desertification is becoming one of the serious environmental problems facing these countries. (Esty, Levy, Srebotnjak, & de Sherbinin, 2005).

- Rapid Urbanization: Urban population in the Arab world is growing at a higher rate than the national population. This  rapid  urbanization  is  declared  by  the  United  Nations  Population  Division  reports  that indicate: on an average, urban areas in the Arab World are growing a percentage point faster than  in  the  rest  of  the  world,  especially  in  the  Gulf  region (LAS & ESCWA, 2005).

- Air Pollution: Air pollution has become an increasingly important environmental issue in the Arab world. High  levels  of  suspended  particulates  have  become  a  common  parameter  of  many  regions. Emissions  of  sulfur  dioxide  have  been  rising  increasingly  as  industrialization  occurs.  Nitrogen oxides have been increasing steadily in many vicinities. Projections indicate that potentially large increases in emissions may occur during the next twenty to fifty years if current development patterns persist (Air Quality and Atmospheric Pollution in the Arab Region, 2002).  

- High Consumption of energy: The Arab world has an energy consumption higher than the world average, especially in oil- rich countries.  Connection  between  per  capita  energy  consumption  and  human development  indicators  of  the  Arab  countries  indicates  that  per  capita  energy  consumption rises  in  the  countries  ranked  high  in  the  human  development  scale (LAS & ESCWA, 2005, p. 4).

- Unused Renewable resources potentials: The Arab world has a very high availability of indigenous, clean and non-depletable renewable energy resources, specifically hydro, solar, wind, and biomass. However, renewable energy has never been a priority for Arab governments. During the past two decades, most renewable energy activities in the Arab world were mainly linked research and development by the academic communities, but were not considered as an integral element of the national energy plans. (Chedid & Chaaban, 2003).

As a result of those factors, along with the loss of identity, and the invasion of globalized technology, (Fathy & Nassar, 2014), proposed the following three approaches the Arab architecture has to respond with:

- Follow Globalization: which means omitting regional identity, importing global forms and concepts utilizing smart new materials, which can overcome regional constraints.

- Follow Heritage: By ignoring the massive stream of new design and construction technologies, contradicting new paradigms of architecture and keep straight copying from the past, producing naïve superficial buildings not as efficient as modern ones.

- Glocalization (Regionalism Architecture): which means integrating and mixing the original with the modern, developing a new type of architecture inspired by the heritage and uses its sustainable and aesthetic elements, while makes use of digital technology in form generation, construction and materials. This architecture can reflect the social and cultural values of the Arab world, while sustaining environment and uses natural surroundings to keep the building alive.

Therefore, a successful response should feature the use of technology, represented in computational design, as an approach to the heritage of Arab architecture. It is evident that advanced geometry and mathematics-which are the base for today's computation-, were used by the prominent Muslim architects. Geometry was used not only to solve structural problems, but also in the details of the designs of various structures (Mashayekh, 2003). In Islamic art, geometric and floral patterns are generated by some basic geometry rules such as isometric transformations and Boolean operations. Translation, rotation, reflection, repetition. (Cenani & Cagdas, 2007)

Moreover, according to a groundbreaking study by (Lu & Steinhardt, 2007), the tiling used in Islamic Architecture may not be just strap work tiling, as they show strong evidence on the use of advanced mathematical approaches, such as self-similarity and  nearly perfect fractal quasicrytalline tiling. Such approaches were not developed until 1964; five hundred years after these patterns were created. Their studies assure that Islamic designers had all the conceptual elements necessary to produce quasi-crystalline girih patterns using the self-similar transformation method: girih tiles, decagonal symmetry, and subdivision. The pattern on the Darb-i Imam shrine is a notable example of how these principles were applied.

As a result, the mathematical nature of such architecture makes it reliable for computational design applications, which already have enormous potentials in many aspects, including reconstruction, documentation, form generation, digital fabrication, and simulation.

For example, (Baik, boehm, & Robson, 2013) piloted a project to use computational documentation approach to build Building information modeling (BIM) for historical buildings in Jeddah. Terrestrial laser Scanning and Architectural Photogrammetry are used as tools. The resultant BIM model automatically provides full engineering drawings orthographic, sectional and 3D models.

Also, (Çolakoglu, Yazar, & Uysal, 2008) used computational design as an approach to generate parametric star patterns. First, the shape grammar (rules) for the pattern generation was defined mathematically. Then, maxscript was used to develop a plug-in for 3Ds max following the same parametric rules of the mathematical description. The generated iterations are limitless and can be exported to other CAD software for fabrication.

On a similar regard, (Sherif, Sabry, Gadelhak, & Aly, 2014) developed a solar screen design for optimized visual comfort and minimal energy consumption in residential desert settings, through simulating the effect of changing solar screen axial rotation and the proportions of the opening. Several computational design tools were used to simulate and calculate related data sets. "Dynamic Daylight Performance Metrics (DDPM)" was used for simulating year-round performance. The DIVA plugin was used to perform the daylight analysis via integration with Radiance and DAYSIM. DIVA (which stands for Design Iterate Validate Adapt) is an environmental analysis plugin for the Rhinoceros 3D Nurbs modeling program.

3. Research Methodologies

3.1 Case studies selection criteria

It is a matter of fact a growing number of native contemporary projects in the Arab world has been targeting sustainability and regionalism through technology, especially computational one. The initial surveying process for selectable case studies has concluded 46 projects covering almost all the Arab world. However, many of these projects were excluded from the evaluation comparative studies due to various reasons including the lack of documented data, being conceptual projects, unclear construction plans, and the superficiality of computational applications. Selection criteria were developed to assure the selected cases are reliable and will give accurate results; these filtering conditions were as follows:

- Selected case studies should be successful role models for their approach, mostly developed by recognized or runner up architects, and have positive feedback from architectural communities.

- The building should be devoted for the Arab regional identity.

- The selection set should express variety in building types (housing, mixed use, cultural, etc.)

- The building should be a contemporary experience, expressing implications of the latest computational design tools.

- Unbuilt concepts are not favoured. The building should be a constructed one or have a clear plan for construction.

- Adequate technical documented data should be available for the building, including concept development, form finding, computational framework and construction.

- The building should express a strong regional identity, integrating traditional forms and techniques as well as matching society needs.

- Sustainability should be a primary approach of the building concept, especially techniques inspired by vernacular architecture.

- The regional identity of the building should have used computational design as a main approach for the workflow, including form finding, fabrication, simulation and management.

- Case studies should express a variety of building environments (countries).

After applying the previous layer of conditions for selecting cases, six projects were selected as final cases for analysis and evaluation. These projects show a reliable utilization of computational tools, a sustainable design concept, an eye on regional architecture and local identity, and a variety within their locations and functions (See Table 1). However, the scales of the compared projects were maintained reliable and close. All of the cases are multi-building projects, featuring compact planning. Al-Bahar tower is the only exception where it is a twin-tower project, but the total area and the overall scale is equivalent to the other cases, in a vertical manner.

3.2 Evaluation criteria

The evaluation methodology is based on the assessment of three major elements within the case studies; Usage of computational design tools, sustainability features, and regionalism approach. A set of sub elements were subsidized under each major one, all with the same relative weight, only checked to be achieved or not in each case (See Table 2). Each of the three concluded assessment tables are analyzed into quantitative charts, by giving one score point to each of the evaluation checkpoints to express the percentage of achievement within each of the three elements. For the scope of this study, no relative scoring weights were identified for different elements. Then, a comprehensive chart is made, showing correlations between the cases, achievements percentages for the three elements, and average ration of achievement in each case. Based on the previous integral chart, a graph will be made to assess the correlation between the three elements in each case, to know whether they are linked or not. This will lead to a set of "type" patterns define the anatomy of the similar cases according to the evaluation criteria. The following table explains each of the three evaluation elements and their sub-elements.

4. Results and Discussion

An evaluation matrix was developed to link the cases to the evaluation criteria. Each of computation, sustainability, and regionalism were evaluated in separate charts, where surveying, documented data about every project provided adequate information to check whether it achieved a certain point or not, the shaded cells within the chart means the project achieved this very point of evaluation, (See Tables 3, 4, and 5).

All the previously deduced data, including achievement ratios for each project in each of the three evaluation phases, are integrated in one comprehensive graph (See Chart 1), to be able to compare these ratios to each other. The following results can be deduced from the graph:

- Masdar institute: the average achievement rate is 23/34 (58.3%), with the highest achievement in sustainability (69.2%), and the lowest in regionalism (58.3%). This can be due to the project is a part of a majorly sustainable master plan (Masdar city), so the sustainability features had the first priority. Computation was used widely in BIM, pattern generation, and digital fabrication of some units. However, the regional approach is yet based on form inspiration for Mashrabiya, and some vernacular ventilation techniques.

- Al Bahar towers: the average achievement rate is 19/34 (55.9%), with the highest achievement in computation (100%), and the lowest in regionalism (25%). This can be due to the sophisticated dynamic louver system, which is designed, fabricated and controlled computationally, while the regionalism features are almost focused in the mashrabiya concept inspiration.

- AUC New Cairo: the average achievement rate is 23/34 (67.6%), with the highest achievement in regionalism (83.3%), and the lowest in computation (33.3%). This can be due to the intention of the architect to create a traditional looking campus using the same forms and techniques of Islamic architecture, as well as rejection of the over decoration and using minimum glass areas. This eliminated the need for advanced computational tools, as well as boosting the sustainability features of the project.

- Abdul-Aziz center for world culture: the average achievement rate is 16/34 (47.1%), with the highest achievement rate is in computation (100%) and the lowest is in regionalism (8%). The project adopts a sophisticated concept of organic masses resemble three rocks standing on each other; computation was heavily used to optimize the form and construct it. However, the project does not show clear regional identity or any aspiration from Islamic architecture.

- King Abdul-Aziz University for science and technology (KAUST): the average achievement rate is 25/34 (73.5%), with the highest achievement rate is in sustainability (92.3%) and the lowest is in computation (8%). The project concept shows simple cubic forms, with advanced technology on the back stage, controlling all the buildings' systems. The resultant was a fully sustainable campus inspired by many traditional architectural concepts. The computational tools were mainly utilized in BIM, environmental simulation and building management.

- USJ campus: the average achievement rate is 11/34 (32.4%), with the highest achievement rate is in regionalism (41.7%) and the lowest is in computation (11.1%). The project integrates with site's topology and context, as well as memorizing local heritage of Lebanese civil war, through the bullet hole-like façade openings.

Accordingly, the previous graph (Chart 1) was used to analysis and deduce the similarity patterns within the six cases, according to links between the three evaluation sections. In each case, the peak points of the achievement ratios in each section are marked then linked (See Chart 2). Two straight lines are formed in each case, visualizing the relationship between the three sections. When shapes of these lines are compared to each other, a similarity pattern can be found in the following three types of applying this approach: Computational-driven, Regional-driven and Sustainable-driven (See Table 6).

5. Conclusions

After applying the developed criteria on selected case studies and developing results, several conclusions were noticed in the very methodology of such criteria, these can be considered limitations for the study, but can be overcome in future research by enhancing the criteria and expanding the sample size. Firstly, based on integral achievement ratios in each case, the evaluation criteria developed three patterns (classifications) of such architectural trends, according to the correlation between achievement ratios of cases in each of the three dimensions. However, this methodology neglects the "Gap factor" that varies from one case to another. For example, both Masdar and Abdul-Aziz Center for world culture are classified as computational driven. However, the difference between achievement ratios in the three dimensions in each case varies vastly; such anomaly is neglected through this study.

Moreover, as the evaluation criteria are applied on a wide spectrum of building types and areas, evaluation points must be generalized in order to fit such variety. However, some checkpoints (e.g. automated louvers, PEARL, compact planning) are unique features that may not be applicable in some projects regarding function, location, and area. On the other hand, in regionalism evaluation, design elements like mashrabiya, Islamic patterns, courtyard, domes, arches, and wind catchers, could be gathered as one point under "traditional design elements" as they are not necessary to exist to reward a project as a regional one, except in vernacular driven cases. For example, King Abdul-Azziz center for World Culture shows no signs of Islamic architecture, but it still strongly related to surrounding environment and culture.

In addition, applying the same evaluation criteria on some projects that may explicitly vary in functions, areas, and master plan could lead to minimal anomalies in results of some cases. In other words, a checkpoint like "compact planning strategies" is applicable only to multi-buildings projects, while "use of site topology" can be only notable for projects built on contour lines.

There are growing examples of buildings in the Arab world applying the glocalization approach, to create a reliable balance between computational design technology, sustainability, and regionalism. The gulf area, especially United Arab Emirates, is considered an open playground to experiment the state of art in the field of computational design and sustainability, as a result of the pursuit for the iconic skyline and tourist attractions. However, the opportunity seems less offered to Arab architects favoring recognized star architects.

Through the study, it also became obvious that regional features for sustainable projects in the Arab world are still stuck in mimicking traditional design elements such as Mashrabiya and Islamic geometric patterns. A real reflection for the culture and needs of society is still not clear in most of related projects.

Finally, the concluded classification for this type of projects made it clear that there is a state of imbalance and fragmentation between computation, sustainability, and regionalism, where one feature often overshadows and weakens the others. For example, when the project features strong computational applications, it seems to have poor regional characteristics, and vice versa. This conclusion can lead to the fact that technology is still approached in the Arab world as a showy objective and not a creative tool to reach regionalism and sustainability, which urges the need for further studies to develop a local framework to bridge the gap between the three features, towards a more mature contemporary Arab architecture.


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Journal of Buildings and Sustainability - 2016 - Volume 1, Issue 2