Architecture with Identity Crisis: The Lost Heritage of the Middle East

by Marwa Al-Sabouni

This important paper has been first published as part of the International Journal of Biourbanism, 1&2 (2016)  devoted to the subject of epistemology of design, on pages 81–97. We share it separately from that 310 pages volumes, wishing for a discussion on the specific problems presented by the Author.

 

ABSTRACT: We live in a world that suffers from conflicts, wars, and political discords all over its parts. We are told that nations’ sovereignty is in threat. And that what has been the world’s urgent quest for achieving prosperity all along the past decades, namely, globalization and modernity, needs now to be seriously reconsidered as the main reason for the very opposite. Much of what has been taken for granted is renegotiated again; free markets, open borders, even human rights. This should not come as a surprise — we must admit that we have collectively misused and overused so much of what the age of modernity has brought us. However, there is one notion that sits in common at the core of all our fearful world of today — identity. Looking closely, we can see that the havoc and instability in so many parts of our world today have proved a common feature, i.e. that when identity is threatened, existence is what becomes at stake. It is sure that debate on the concept of identity is needed more than ever before. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that the best place to embark on such a debate is the built environment. Our built environment is the most evident record of our existence, and it plays an important role in who we are and what we do. In the following pages, I shall consider the case of the crisis of identity in the Middle East — a region where I come from, and one that struggles to find its own identity on many levels — especially that of the built environment. Middle East architectural approaches and their disconnection from the Islamic past exhibit such an identity crisis. To prove this, I analyze what has defined the architecture of the past in order to shed light on the kind of error committed in choosing the way forward.

Keywords: identity, home, place, Islamic architecture, traditional architecture, value, pleasure, accomplishment, Zeitgeist

 

INTRODUCTION: THE IMPORTANCE OF IDENTITY

In his book Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph points out the importance of what he calls “points of departure” from which people can orient themselves toward the world they live in, and without which they “are lost and without identity” (Relph, 1976). Naturally, our built environment is where “place” can happen or not. There is an ascending global awareness toward the importance of what is now called “placemaking”. But how do we make a place? Places are naturally “there” — what else can one add to a place for it to become a place? The very long discussion about this subject, in my opinion, can be narrowed down to a main thought, namely identity. If we can identify ourselves with what is in a place, then we can simply call it our place. The importance of this can be summarized in a simple fact: when people feel belonging to a place, they are more likely to preserve and maintain it. We see the kind of destruction spread over vast areas of conflict in the Middle East today. We cannot oversimplify things by claiming that the loss of identity and sense of place is the only cause of instability in the region, yet we can surely consider it as a main factor (Al-Sabouni, 2016). In the following pages, I will try to show what kind of identity loss has occurred in the Middle East and how this feature affects architecture and built forms. The comprehension of this loss is meant to produce a needed “diagnosis” about reality, from which one can later set off toward possible solutions.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF ARCHITECTURAL DISCOURSE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

The quest for “identity” has dominated architectural research in the Middle East, both academically and practically. Most of the region’s architectural discourse has been concerned with it. It is interesting that there is a serious lack of genuine architectural critique or theory, where most academic discussions indulge in a long-lasting search for a “lost identity”. Terms like “originality”, “locality”, “globalism”, and “Arabic architecture” versus “Western architecture” dominate the architectural literature, conferences, and academia. This has led to no conclusions and accomplished nothing other than either celebrating the adulated “past” or despising it in order to glorify the modernized West.

Clearly, people admit the existence of a crisis — an identity crisis. And this crisis needs to be dealt with. The debate is over how this should be done. First, a state of polarization has dominated architectural approaches” those who admit the crisis (the ones who are “for”) proclaim the “defeat”. They see that their region is no longer capable of producing, and that they must seek the “ready-made production” available thanks to the “advanced countries”. Identity for them should not be a burden, although a settlement with the idea can be made when it is confined as a pasted layer over imported architectural forms, which will be discussed more thoroughly later on.

People who belong to the other party define themselves as being “against”. They resist the trend of what globalization has brought to their doorsteps and rather see in it a threat to their existence — an identity threat, to be fought. How have they chosen to fight? As traditional conservatives would do, i.e. by holding on to their inheritance. However, they seem to hold only on the surface, leaving any investigation into the values that have produced the built forms out of consideration.

Hence, their invention of hybrid styles is an approach that does not differ much from that of the contradicting party. I therefore will try to prove the fragility of any attitude that refuses a serious process of questioning.

STYLIZING IDENTITY: BREAKING DOWN THE TERMINOLOGY

The countries of the Middle East have many different cultures that have historically belonged to different kingdoms and civilizations. They have not been unified until Islamic rule. However, it should be noted that Islamic rule in itself has stretched over different eras with different characteristics. Islam has brought Arabic language to different places, too. Some of them have already been familiar with it, and some not. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire — the last grand Islamic rule — the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) had produced the borders of separate countries known to the world as the Middle East. However, the people of these areas, despite all the foreign effects, have maintained a sense of affiliation toward their shared beliefs, language, and history. This sense has been strongly attacked and further damaged. Moreover, the world is witnessing the vandalism of Islamic conceptions and the consequent sufferance by terror made in its name. This has resulted in a deepening of the crisis of identity we are discussing. Consequently, we see invented architectural styles that have avoided the “Islamic charge” by resorting to the so-called “Arabic Style”. The Arabic Style is defined by certain elements like patios, arcades, vaults, and geometric patterns. These elements, though, can be detected in many other architectures, such as “othic or Islamic. This leads to the question: is this a kind of pseudo-architecture by which we are seeking to pacify our instinctual need for expression? And what is it that makes it unreal or ungrounded”

Our identity crisis was the main leitmotif of the entire architectural scene in the Arabic region. Obviously, we were not able to produce a style of our own without paying tribute to the Islamic tradition. And this tradition, in turn, was the subject of highly polemical expositions. I think that these expositions overlooked some imperative aspects of their subject. Islamic Architecture has stimulated the curiosity of scholars, historians, and architectural critics both regionally and in the West. Westerners especially have presented very informative works documenting, analyzing, and categorizing what has remained of this architectural tradition, disputing how to study and evaluate it, and even how to give it a name. However, it seemed to me that most of those works had something in common: they overlooked the architectural experience.

The centrality of experience seemed to have been lost between two scholarly fantasies. On the one hand, Orientalism tended to view Islamic architecture as mere decorated surfaces associated with the desert and nomadism (architecture as a temporary relief from carpets, so to speak) — even though much of it was accomplished in flourishing urban centers. On the other hand, Sufism had gone overboard in its search for poetic and symbolic messages without any supporting grounds in the physical reality.

Researchers from Arabic-speaking regions have tended to focus on passive design and local construction techniques, using certain architectural elements with a “copy and paste”