Architecture and Globalisation in the Persian Gulf Region is an impressive volume that deals exclusively with the architecture of a region in need of much historical analysis and scholarly attention. This book is a very timely and important contribution to our improved understanding of the region and its global impact. Such understanding is imperative not only because the region itself is, and has long been, a hotbed of debates and solutions, but also because many of the most extreme manifestations of globalism—both in breathtaking architectural works and in the most ghastly violations of human rights that make them possible—are played out here.
The text is divided into three parts: “Western Coastline of Persian Gulf,” “Eastern Coastline of Persian Gulf,” and “Contemporary Design Approaches.” In the first and second parts each chapter examines a different city in the region, while the third part comprises four thematic explorations of contemporary stylistic, ideological, and design strategies. Murray Fraser provides a comprehensive introduction, outlining the unique approach of the book to the study of the region as a cultural and historical unit. While methodological and thematic concerns—for instance, the rather controversial question regarding the name of the Gulf—are well traced in the introduction, the collection of essays would have benefited from an in-depth historical examination of the Persian Gulf’s architectural and corresponding sociopolitical history.
In part I, Tanis Hinchcliffe lays out a brief history of the region and explores the relationship between the discovery of oil and large architectural commissions in the Gulf states between 1950 and 1980. He examines the motivations, disparities, difficulties, and lingering colonial stereotypes that conditioned interactions between Arab clients and British architects. While British architects found in the Gulf region a laboratory of experimentation on “a scale they could never dream of at home” (34), Arab clients and the indigenous population at large faced the challenges of rapid modernization, including a disappearing local cultural heritage. Through a personal walk in Kuwait City, Gwyn Lloyd Jones traces the ongoing ties between Frank Lloyd Wright’s fantastic and “organic” design for the opera house in Baghdad and the equally fantasy-driven contemporary architectural trends in Kuwait and the western Gulf states. Mashary Al-Naim examines Dammam in Saudi Arabia, Olivia Duncan and Sonny Tomic focus on Abu Dhabi, and Hassan Radoine traces the urban history of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Methodologically, these chapters foreground a statistical approach and trace the development of these cities through a rather uncritical and, in the case of Abu Dhabi, reverential tone regarding institutions of rulership and class, as well as urban interventions in the city. The essentialist constructs of “tradition” and “modernity” are treated as uncontested givens that produce stylistic differences (i.e., “modern” versus “traditional” buildings) in contemporary design.
Robert Adam’s analysis of Doha, Qatar, touches on larger urban history while focusing on specific iconic structures. From roadside strip malls to gated communities to a world-class museum by I. M. Pei, Adam argues that Doha exists as “not as a westernizing reform but rather as a modernizing and formalizing of traditional Muslim and Arab governance” (127). Urban development diagrams of Doha from 1947 to 2009 effectively sustain his arguments; other chapters would have benefited greatly from similar graphic aids. Ali A. Alraouf and Kevin Mitchell provide excellent explorations of, respectively, the cities of Manama, Bahrain, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Each critically examines the historical and contemporary conditions that led to particular urban and architectural developments in the city under discussion. Both authors foreground the sociopolitical dynamics that have produced what we understand as a “global” form of urban expansion defined by social inequality, loss of public space, rapid infrastructural growth, economic speculation, environmental damage, and so on. Tracing the urban power play, Alraouf argues for a certain model of “hybrid urbanism” in relation to the phenomenon of “Dubaification” (79) and places Manama’s changes in the larger context of urban development in the region and the world beyond. In a similar tone, Mitchell poses the paradoxes of a neopatrimonial system and its interventions in the working of Dubai society. He problematizes the relationships among a civil sense of belonging, iconic form making, and economic sustainability. Perhaps the most provocative essay in the collection is Nicholas Jewell’s on the phenomenon of the shopping mall. Jewell presents a useful history and theory of the typology of the mall and demonstrates, through several Dubai examples, the coercive link between design and consumption as well as that between users’ agency and corporate disciplinary power. As he puts it, in the case of a mall, “there is a hefty environmental price tag required to sustain this fantasy” (185). Jewell suggests that there might not be a city without a civil society, yet he remains optimistic that Dubai, if allowed sufficient freedom of expression, will transform itself and the very function of a mall/civil space.
The second part of Architecture and Globalisation in the Persian Gulf Region moves the discussion to the eastern/northern coast of the Persian Gulf, and the chapters in this section draw much more heavily on Iranian sociopolitical and architectural history to examine their respective cases. Within these narratives, we observe the centrality of the Iranian cultural presence and state apparatus that help shape the built environment. Nasser Golzari traces the urban histories of Abadan and Khorramshahr and provides contemporary examples of improved responses to environmental and social concerns. Semra Aydinli and Avsar Karababa read Bushehr through a photographic and contextual narrative of “locality within globalization” (260). Reza Shafaei addresses urban and sustainable development in Kangan and Banak, discussing the use of new technologies to implement a set of traditional environmental solutions that could help to sustain local identities and particularities. Tim Makower explores Kish Island through a personal talk, walk, cycle, and sketch of/around the island, including its commercial trappings, the local architecture of wind towers, the shah’s unimplemented master plan for Kish, and other socioarchitectural qualities. The main question for Kish, Makower notes, is how to maintain the design and economic diversity needed to continue to sustain tourism. In examining the important port of Bandar Abbas, Widari Bahrin foregrounds the relationship between the qualities of a “transient city” and the use of public and green spaces. The main concern, Bahrin maintains, is the disappearance of heritage through the loss of meaningful spaces, which often give way to tourist amenities.
The book’s concluding section includes three thematic essays that deal with the identity and sustainability of the Persian Gulf’s built and natural environment vis-à-vis the forces of globalization: well-known Iranian architect Nader Ardalan on questions of architectural design, Susannah Hagan on the wind-catcher and other local prototypes, and Tim Makower on successful contemporary architecture in Doha. Murray Fraser concludes the book with reflections on the cross-pollination of identity, urbanism, and globalization, not just in the Gulf but also globally, as an open process that defies definition on all grounds: economic (“the economic fallacy”), anthropological (“the homogenization fallacy”), historical (“the origination fallacy” and “the novelty fallacy”), and technological (“the technological fallacy”).
The comprehensive nature of Architecture and Globalisation in the Persian Gulf Region is imperative to the book’s success in telling a coherent story about the region’s architecture, and the editors’ decision to include the entire basin of the Persian Gulf is vital to the methodological soundness of the undertaking. However, the lack of a more in-depth analysis of the history of the region lends itself to some serious misconceptions and misrepresentations. For example, the national borders of Iran, unlike those of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and many other Gulf states, have never been a result of colonial mapmaking. This is a major historical factor that should be taken into account in any examination of the Persian Gulf basin and its urban growth, yet a number of the book’s contributors seem to underestimate it.
Although some chapters lack critical approaches to the study of this loaded region, Architecture and Globalisation in the Persian Gulf Region is well edited and richly illustrated with both color and black-and-white drawings and photographs, including aerial photos of the cities discussed. A bibliography would have complemented the collection by providing avenues for further research in this important area. Further, it must be noted that, with only a few exceptions, the essays remain silent on the horrendous human rights violations in the region. Despite these concerns, Architecture and Globalisation in the Persian Gulf Region is a major contribution to the study of the Persian Gulf region and its architecture, providing much-needed instructional materials in these areas of inquiry.