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Saudi Arabian Historical Motives in Architecture Report (Assessment)

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About 45 years ago Saudi Arabia entered a new economic era which began as a response to the increase in oil revenues. Such drastic changes triggered a comprehensive alteration of all spheres of life, including the architectural look of Arabian cities, towns, and villages, which have been gradually losing their traditional characteristics to acquire contemporary style and shapes. New types of buildings and fabrics have been introduced (Al-Qawasmi 82).

Office buildings, skyscrapers, stadiums, college campuses, shopping centers, and modern houses have come to substitute for historically small, unadorned, simple buildings of the past. Under these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that a clash between representatives of two generations has become inevitable. The social change is reflected in the dynamic style of life, interest in higher education, a new status of social independence for a single-family, the appearance of new social classes, and the gradual transition from one of the most conservative to one of the most advanced societies in the world (Saleh 2).

This paper will attempt to explicate how conventional and contemporary patterns in architecture interpenetrate to smooth over the differences between the older and the younger generations of the Arabian society. The research will touch upon the particularities of urban and regional identity as exemplified by the three main regions of Saudi Arabia.

It will trace the continuity of traditional values and norms of the society in the design of houses and the way human values and needs of different generations blend to manifest themselves in the residential environment, which is considered to be more than just a sum of material constituents. On the contrary, it comprises a whole set of religious, socio-semiotic, secular, cultural, and other aspects of life.

The study is based on the idea that tradition is deeply ingrained in modern architectural styles and constitutes a relevant foundation for producing new building environments that possess the capacity of bridging the gap between the two contradicting mentalities and lifestyles.

The case study approach will be used to carry out a cross-analysis of building patterns of different regions that have their unique vernacular architecture. The paper will give a bird’s-eye view of growing disparities between tradition and modernity as well as attempts of synthesis.

However, before discussing the novelties appearing in the residential environment, it is necessary to give an idea of the traditional patterns that reflect the values shared by the older generations. First and foremost, Islam for older Muslims is not merely a mandatory religion but a holistic picture of life, combining behavioral patterns, culture, ways of interaction, and living conditions.

According to one of the rules, all the two- and three-dimensional images of daily life on either public or private houses are prohibited. That accounts for the fact that the traditional design favors geometrical patterns and calligraphy. The same rule is followed in modern buildings as well, however, there are some exceptions concerning two-dimensional images (Petersen 301).

Older generations of Muslims perceive life as a transitional stage that a person should devote to good deeds, prayer, and humble way of life that would satisfy only basic needs, without any extravagances. Thus, the traditional quarters of Arabian cities reflect the tendency for frugality and functionalism, completely rejecting arrogance and conceit. That is why both exterior and interior surfaces of walls in a house are plain and unadorned. Besides, it is difficult to find any non-utilized space, except in a mosque or a palace (Attia 87).

Muslims also find it obligatory to observe a list of duties towards their neighbors’ property and privacy. Therefore, a nearby house cannot be overviewed by a higher roof, and entrances cannot face each other directly. The attitude to privacy issues preconditions segregation between men and women in the house. Besides, practically all buildings have an inner yard, which is not seen from the street. Since all the space in the house is used productively, each room performs several tasks and can be used as a bedroom, a living-room, or a study room. Thus, the traditional house is considerably less spacious than a modern one (Petersen 302).

The older generation of Muslims is strongly against the construction of gigantic buildings for the amusement purpose, which sets a major architectural value of the traditional style favoring simplicity, security, sense of comfort, and identification with the community. The slow pace of technological development explains the application of simple tools and materials, which makes old houses rather equal in their height, texture, and design (Saleh 4).

Nowadays the Arabian society shares with the rest of the world all the effects of modernization. Since the pivotal value components transform, it cannot help telling on the visual image of the cities (Alotaibi and Sinclair 398).

The respect to Islam has remained intact; however, the observance of the rules is much less strict. Young people are more educated, influenced by mass media, new lifestyles, and globalization. They no longer keep in touch with the extended family – on the contrary, small, single families emerge as an institution. Most of the families now have a female maid and a male driver. All these changes are reflected in a new type of house. Modern villas have more windows opening to the street, a lot of space in front of the house, and no inner yard. However, certain traditional features found their way to the modern design: for instance, it is still uncommon for neighboring windows and doors to face each other, and physical isolation remains important (Alotaibi and Sinclair 400).

Because of the rapid economic change, which gave rise to urbanization, new types of buildings appeared, including shopping centers, fast food restaurants, stadiums, and others. The consumptive perception of life made private houses take on more elaborate and luxurious designs (Alotaibi and Sinclair 400).

This analysis gives grounds to claim that there exist in Saudi Arabia two distinct and contradicting philosophies in terms of the modern and traditional approach to life, each having its own set of values. The older generation favors a balanced and humble way of life which manifests itself in the simplicity and harmony of the architecture. The youth opts for motion, independence, energy, and luxury. Nevertheless, the co-influence of the two approaches is evident and is not as direct as it may seem. The traditional patterns are now widely implemented to smooth over the glaring contrast (Mahmoud and Elbelkasy 51).

Saudi Arabia is a large country indeed, which means that, though the traditional architectural styles have some characteristics in common, they still differ across the regions.

The architecture in the Western region of the country is represented by such cities as Makkah, Jeddah, and Madinah. Since the climate is hot and humid, the following techniques are applied for sustainability:

  • constructing a building with more than five floors with windows that provide cross ventilation; bedrooms situated on the upper floors;
  • erecting coral columns as a building skeleton;
  • using volcanic stones, gypsum, and coral stones for building;
  • making wooden floors and roofs for natural ventilation (Mahmoud and Elbelkasy 53).

The Eastern region is characterized by an extremely harsh climate featuring heat and humidity. The buildings here differ from those in other regions by gypsum decorations. The common characteristics of an ordinary house are:

  • from one to three floors;
  • narrow passages between houses;
  • thick walls protecting from heat;
  • wooden roofs with palm leaves and trunks;
  • wind catchers for the same purpose of natural ventilation of houses (Mahmoud and Elbelkasy 53).

The central region of Saudi Arabia presents an introverted type of buildings. It means that houses are built around a square or rectangular yard, which serves two major functions simultaneously: creating the microclimate and protecting the privacy of the family life. Unlike other regions, the Najd region mostly uses earth bricks for construction. Other typical features are:

  • thick external walls;
  • small windows;
  • compacted design with shared sidewalks for reducing heat;
  • triangular-shaped decorations (Mahmoud and Elbelkasy 54).

All these traditional techniques and materials were abandoned and replaced by Western patterns in the 1970s. However, things have changed considerably since then. The whole society now supports the idea that the growing disparity between generations may result in the total loss of identity, and the social policy has changed its direction towards the unification and revival of the old traditions. A lot of architects made use of a new trend and adopted Islamic elements in their projects. Their primary goal was to modernize the residential environment without resorting to Western models. Both formal and informal buildings were erected to demonstrate how vernacular patterns can be incorporated into the modern style. The fact that ordinary people supported the initiative shows that representatives of all generations are interested in coordination, not confrontation (Saleh 10).

These are the main practices that are applied to revive traditional patterns in contemporary architecture:

1. Incorporation of some historical elements and decorations.

Certain traditional elements have been successfully placed in the context of the modern style: for instance, parapets, tiny windows (mostly triangular), and triangular decorations of the main entrance (typical for the central region of the country). Wind towers are now used not only for residential houses but also in office and public buildings for better ventilation. As a result, the new identity of the cities is created. It is often referred to as a neo-traditional design, which is sometimes criticized for eclecticism. Nevertheless, it meets its initial purpose of satisfying the needs of both the old and the young.

2. The use of traditional building material such as earth, coral stone, and others.

Efforts have been taken not only to go back to old designing traditions but also to the usage of conventional local construction materials, namely earth, stone, and sand. Architects have succeeded to unite them with modern concrete and steel. They have developed a design that presupposes the application of these materials for the skeleton. As soon as the building is ready, its exterior surfaces are covered with mud to give them a historic appearance. Moreover, mud is often covered with the transparent waterproof polymer to prevent its erosion because of heavy rains and humidity (Saleh 12).

The use of sand and earth is necessitated by practical purposes as well. The point is that almost 90% of the country is a desert with scarce water resources. Besides, the population continues growing, which means that the Saudi Arabian economy is susceptible to the changes of climate, as well as the successful application of the existing resources to save on modern construction materials. The government has already launched programs to train professional workers in mud and stone construction. Stone is again used throughout the country for both private and public sectors (Saleh 12).

3. The use of traditional yards. The yard has been reintroduced in many residential and commercial buildings. Sometimes, it is separated from the main building by a glass wall with doors, because the buildings are now fully ventilated without its help. It often has a roof making it the inner building within the premises (Saleh 12).

Despite the evident success in integrating two conflicting approaches to architecture, many people criticize the neo-traditional style for its artificial pseudo-historic looks and an exaggerated visual gaudiness and elaboration, which is out of place in the modern architecture. Besides, many researchers believe that it is wrong to apply traditional patterns to the buildings that have nothing to do with local customs and are foreign to the country in their essence and functions. Such interpretation gives rise to the accusation of kitsch and low-quality design.

Another point for criticism is connected with the fact that many conventional elements are applied without any regard to the context, which makes them look absurd and out of place. For example, Mashrabbiyah cannot be used in public buildings because it was initially created for allowing women to keep the windows in the house open while preserving their privacy. Thus, a lot of vernacular elements do not perform any function at all and serve only decorative purposes, which comes in contradiction with the traditional respect to functionality.

However, there is a way to reconcile the form and the content. It consists of a deeper understanding of the mechanisms underlying the conventional use of space and decorative patterns and their careful integration into modern architecture. The attempts of eliminating the discrepancy between generations should not limit itself to the mere creation of the atmosphere of the past.

Modern professionals should understand why and how space was used earlier, in which secular and religious grounds exist to justify every single element of the traditional house. Thus, the primary objective is not to return to the style of the forefathers, meeting all the criteria of that time, which simply cannot answer all the requirements of the present-day life. Instead, architects must learn all the lessons that previous generations left for them, reconsider them in the modern context, and partially apply for contemporary designs.

The possible conclusion of the research could be that the traditional system of values managed to produce the environment which was compatible with people’s needs, both cultural and practical. That is why the contemporary style is directly affected by the Islamic culture and cannot ignore it. The fact that the changes are supported by both the government and the population proves that the integration of traditional and modern systems is heading towards a new era of Saudi Arabian architecture.

Works Cited

Alotaibi, Fahad, and Brian R. Sinclair. “Building tall in the Arabian Gulf: Perception| Performance| Place-Making.” of Architectural Research (2015): 394-403. Print.

Al-Qawasmi, Jamal. “Vernacular as a Renewable Resource: Toward Region-Specific Architecture in Saudi Arabia, a Case from KFUPM.” Architectural Engineering and Design Management 12.2 (2016): 81-96. Print.

Attia, M. K. “Sustainability in Saudi Vernacular Built Environment: The case of Al-Ahsa.” Signals and Systems: A Primer with MATLAB® (2015): 87-90. Print.

Mahmoud, M. F., and M. I. Elbelkasy. “Islamic architecture: between moulding and flexibility.” WIT Transactions on The Built Environment 159 (2016): 49-59. Print.

Petersen, Andrew. “Arabian Peninsula: Islamic Archaeology.” Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer New York, 2014. 296-305. Print.

Saleh, Mohammad Abdullah Eben. “Significance of Prominent Urban Design Projects: Inherited Meaning and Symbolism in King Abdulaziz Historic Center in Arriyadh, Saudi Arabia.” (2013): 1-23. Print.

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