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Contemporary Arab Design: Dynamism, Cynicism and Neon Caligraphy

The Arab Contemporary exhibition, at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, displays tremendous energy and potential in the fluctuating identities of this vast and dynamic region

Reflecting the Louisiana’s tradition of representing architecture in its natural and social condition, Arab Contemporary (curator Kjeld Kjeldsen, and co-curators Mette Marie and director Poul Erik Tøjner) is the second on the theme of Architecture, Culture and Identity − following New Nordic (2012). Denmark is a fitting context in which to hold such an exhibition as Danish architects have been at the forefront in the economies of exchange of formal and social patterns whereby identity is constructed and contested.

Thus Jørn Utzon’s Kuwait Assembly Building (designed 1972) subliminally resonates with its Arab context: in return the region enriched Utzon’s development of the courtyard house form, while one of his unrealised schemes for the interior of Sydney Opera House experimented with Islamic ‘stalactite’ (muqarnas) vault forms. Henning Larsen’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1984) was also a landmark in its dialogue with Arab traditions, and Henning Larsen Architects (Copenhagen) appear here, along with Ateliers Jean Nouvel (Paris) and X-Architects (Dubai), in a section that looks at new interpretations in the region.

Manal Al Dowayan

Manal Al Dowayan ‘I need pause to choose what path to take’ painted aluminium and led lights

Visitors spiralling down to the lower galleries, from the early spring Nordic light of Louisiana’s conservatory, are immediately assailed by the scent of frankincense wafted above the arabesque concrete floor of Danish artist Martin Erik Andersen (inspired by the mosaics of a Cairo mosque). Here also the Saudi Arabian artist Manal Al Dowayan − in aluminium calligraphy lit like a neon sign − invokes a ‘pause to choose what path to take’.

This very diverse exhibition gives pause to these choices of path, within the broad framework of two resilient themes. The first is language, which in Arabic culture also provides the visual ground through calligraphy and the arabesque. The second is the distinctive spatial organisation of the Arab world, shaped on the one hand by the existential fact of the desert (80 per cent of the region), and on the other by the cultural weight given to domestic privacy accordingly patterns of dwelling are orchestrated between the two archetypes of the tent or pavilion of the nomad, and the hortus conclusus or enclosed courtyard of the city-dweller.

Compared with the Western urban condition there is an extreme privileging of private space. This is not to deny the presence of public space; there are the passages of the suq and generous maidans, and those intriguingly hybrid mutations of originally Western forms such as the piazza, the roundabout and the corniche, which have come to prominence in the protests of the Arab Spring (Tahrir Square, Cairo).

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X Architects blackboard sketches ‘Towards Manhattanism’

The exhibition examines these ‘New Public Spaces’ and the related use of social media spaces such as Facebook and Twitter. One response of the authorities has been to attempt to erase public arenas of dissent altogether, as in the case of the disappearing clocktower and roundabout of the former Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain.

In contrast to the fierce battles to defend these relatively new forms of Arab public space, the precious private paradise-garden of the courtyard has everywhere been freely surrendered to build the kind of high-status villas that stare at us, in varied PoMo dress, in the house-portraits from Dubai of Richard Allenby-Pratt − included in the section on ‘My Father’s House’. In an example of the exhibition’s effective voicing of different issues through video, X-Architects’ (Dubai) blackboard-sketches show the failure of these block-compound villas whose vestigial ‘gardens’ are unusably hot and exposed to public gaze.

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Richard Allenby-Pratt’s photographs capture the PoMo essance of Dubai’s high-status villas© Celia Peterson&Richard Allenby-Pratt / arabianEye.com

For her minutely registered Visitors’ Centre project (2011) in the Libyan desert, Francesca Torzi (Italy) sampled 30 sands in colours from red to palest ochre. Henning Larsen Architects show a new town situated in a desert area outside Riyadh which is site specific in its resonance with local idioms and patterns, but introduces more public spaces for women and children on the model of the great Danish social tradition.

Like many of their contemporaries − such as Kilo Architectures (France-Morocco) − they are making new typologies, with smaller courts and indentations, which marry ancient virtues to the social patterns of nuclear families. At the other end of the urban scale, Boris Brorman Jensen’s video sketches represent similar issues in Dubai, which has grown from its creek as a pattern of encapsulated developments surrounded by inoperable residual spaces.

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Fracesca torzo’s study of the desert as a ‘place’

The double-height gallery of the exhibition is also one of the most inspiring in its recall to genius loci, presided over by the image and spirit of Hassan Fathy’s ‘new vernacular’, and presenting several projects that unaffectedly confront the social and climatic challenges of the region. In an interview the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahaim Al-Koni evokes the desert as a ‘symbol of human existence’ − a place of absence but also the place from which the prophets have come.

For her minutely registered Visitors’ Centre project (2011) in the Libyan desert, Francesca Torzi (Italy) sampled 30 sands in colours from red to palest ochre. Henning Larsen Architects show a new town situated in a desert area outside Riyadh which is site specific in its resonance with local idioms and patterns, but introduces more public spaces for women and children on the model of the great Danish social tradition.

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Artwork by Nermine Hammam depicting the beaten Woman in the Blue Bra in a Cairo demonstration of 2011

Go round the corner and this quality of reflection evaporates in the who-needs-context of the ‘Genius Logo’ section. Zaha Hadid’s Signature Towers project (2006) for Dubai is a different kind of signing than the measured calligraphy-making projected on the floor of the version of the majlis (traditional reception room) at the opening of the exhibition. Hadid’s towers face Mounir Fatmi’s (Morocco) video Speed City, 2010 which symbolises the frenetic growth of skylines like these in manic oscillations of Kufic lettering; so the oldest, and potentially most architectonic form of the Arabic script, bemoans the collapse of language into a confusion of tongues.

From such urban scenarios, or the image of the beaten Woman in the Blue Bra (Nermine Hammam, Egypt) in a Cairo demonstration of 2011, there is ample scope for cynicism and gloom; yet Arab Contemporary also suggests tremendous energy and potential in the fluctuating identities of this vast and culturally dynamic region.

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The Desert City of Shibam, Yemen by John Andersen

Arab Contemporary

Where: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark

When: 31 January until 4 May 2014

 

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