What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake, The Tyger
Ehrlich Architects recently beat out Zaha, Foster, and Massimiliano Fuksas to win a competition for the UAE Federal National Councils Parliament Complex (UAEFNC).
Their winning design has received mixed reviews from the online audience. Many are laden with bile and downright hostile. I imagine these online critics spitting with dismissive contempt as they violently bang away at their keyboards. I usually stay clear of architectural scuffles, but in this case I’m making an exception.
Keep reading after the break.
This resounding negativity is more indicative of the bankruptcy of irony and cynicism as modes of meaningful expression at this stage of late-capitalism. Such rhetorical violence leveled at the design is the expected norm, especially in highly academic architectural circles. This is also an expression of the importance placed on seeming negative, edgy, and hence relevant.
Undoubtedly there is also a fair amount of professional jealousy and envy in the remarks. Setting this aside, Ehrlich’s win reminds us of what is possible when a firm takes a risk to reach out to a part of the world where people are still spending money…spending lots of money, in fact. Because, let’s face it, architecture needs money to exist. It has to somehow go where the money is.
What, then, is a meaningful way of judging the UAEFNC design? For one, it could be properly contextualized within the hybrid, fast-paced setting of the progressive Middle East. The Ehrlich design, like it or not, spatially and materially embodies the aspirations, as well as history, of the UAE in ways that transcend mere coolness, hip-ness, or other such fashions prevalent in the culture of critical western architecture. These things are fleeting. Architecture that communicates in significant, culturally-grounded ways to real people is not.
Having experience with projects in the Middle East myself, I’m guessing one of the prime motivators for the negativity is the obvious symmetry and monumentality. In the West, we supposedly left these values behind in the dust of the Enlightenment. They made a brief reappearance in postmodernism, crawling out of the grave as kitsch and irony. This is the only legitimate way they could be tolerated. Symmetry was desperately recovered because of a crisis in the culture of modernity, but it was done so with a wink and a nod—except for maybe Michael Graves who was able to do it with sincerity and make it work.
More recently, though, symmetry has come back on the scene with a correspondingly infuriating sincerity: the Middle East, where it embodies higher cultural principles such as harmony, balance, reverence, intelligence, and respect. It also represents an important visual and spatial link to history—something that is still valued in societies that are grappling with the flood of cultural signifiers from outside.
The symmetry expressed in the Ehrlich design, while anathema in our hyper-theoretical, post-post culture represents the highest ideals in the cultures of the Middle East where symbolic signification is still of central value. This is not to say that people in the Middle East are simply “traditional” or exotic for maintaining such belief systems. They have found ways, chief among them contemporary architecture, to embrace modernity without jettisoning long-standing beliefs. In sum, the brand of modernity found in a region like UAE does not perfectly mesh with the norms of modernity typically associated with the West.
The Ehrlich design captures this hybrid quality perfectly. First, they understood that space is a powerful communicator of meaning. Second, they respected the cultural values of their clients and avoided falling into the trap of demonstrating western superiority. Third, once they understood the importance of symmetry and symbolism—especially given that this was to be a government complex—they went the distance and explored this logic instead of fighting it. Fourth, Steven Ehrlich, had the sensitivity and insight to understand what this competition called for in part because he has lived in that part of the world and opened himself up to learning from it, rather than merely criticizing it for not being enough like the west. He also resists criticizing it for not being enough like itself or how the west imagines it to be, how it “should” be.
In closing, the design embodies hope for the continued advancement of the UAE as well as hope for architecture that is not constrained by temporary, fleeting aesthetic values based on concepts divorced from humanity.