Designing in the Middle East: a Contextual Approach

Most of us are familiar with the concept of contextual architecture. In its simplest form it can be described as a building that responds to its local environment. However responding to the local environment isn’t simply about fitting in with the building next door, or replicating traditional elements. Spaces should acknowledge the cultural identity of the location.
Many countries throughout the Middle East have a long and sustained past which strongly imprints a sense of identify on the culture and place. In order to maintain the character of a place and thus preserve its identity, it is critical to first understand the specific historical, social and physical conditions of that particular place.
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The Saraya Bandar Jissah project in Oman is set in an area of such outstanding beauty that the strategy for this project is one of minimalist intervention on the existing environment. Carefully integrated architecture based upon traditional local responses ensures that the development’s visual mass is kept to a minimum.
The architecture of the resort is intended to compliment the setting in which it’s placed. The incorporation of flat roofs and stone cladding, both in keeping with traditional Omani architecture, responds to the context and culture of its location. Simplicity of form and space is the paramount design strategy for this development with the emphasis being on a ‘wall architecture’.
This project has drawn inspiration from the country’s ancient and rich heritage taking into consideration the historical, social and physical conditions as outlined:
Historical
Historical approach to design
Omani civilisation dates back more than 7000 years, and as early as the first century, Greek geographers noted it as a prominent port, often referring to it as the ‘ Hidden Port’. An integral stop on the world’s earliest long distance route for seaborne trade. Muscat quickly accumulated a layered culture that merged the best of East and West.
Rich with commodities, including copper, crafts, stone, agricultural goods and aromatics, like frankincense, it was a bustling treasure chest for traders and nomads alike. Centuries later, Muscat continues to be dominated by trade. Drawing commerce from around the world, it is peppered with government and oil offices, trading companies, lively markets and historic sites.
Social
Originally grouped around water sources, Omani nomads scattered across the desert while trade villages dotted the interior mountains and fishing shacks lining the shore. Both in the past and the present, Muscat has served as the meeting place for groups. Arriving in the city, they mix with foreign traders and adventurers who arrive on foot, by sea, plane or caravan. The continuous cross cultural exchange fills the streets daily, as politicians mingle with international businessmen and Bedouin nomads blend with modern shoppers. Together they assemble in the city cafes for a traditional tea accompanied by renowned Omani hospitality and the distant scent of incense.
Physical
Muscat’s surroundings are a geographical mosaic made up of the soaring Western Al Hajar Mountains, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the desert plains of the Ad Dakhiliyah Region. Connected to the interior by the Sunail Gap through the mountains, the city originally comprised three smaller towns: Muscat, which is often referred to as The Walled City; Muttrah, initially a fishing village; and Ruwi, which is generally considered the commercial and diplomatic centre of the city. Over time, the three merged into modern day Muscat, an enchanting metropolis and melting pot of cultures.