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    Dr Taha Al Douri
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Published: 1 April 2009 - midnight
By: Jeff Roberts

Art, history, timelessness and pursuing platonic happiness.

Dr Taha Al Douri was born in Baghad, moved to Jordan with his family when he was six and remained there until enrolling in the Masters of Science in Architecture at Pennsylvania State University [USA]. In 1995, Dr Al Douri moved to Philadelphia and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s PhD in Architecture programme.

In 1997, Al Douri moved to New York City to practice architecture and teach, in an adjunct capacity, at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). 

From New York City he moved back to the region to be closer to his Amman-based parents. After a four-year stint at the UAE’s University of Sharjah – where he helped set up the university’s architectural engineering programme – Dr Al Douri was contacted by former colleagues at NYIT to lead an Abu Dhabi branch of NYIT and create an interior design programme.

He has been chairing the programme since 2007 and recently completed the accreditation process with the UAE’s Ministry of Higher Education. Jeff Roberts caught up with Dr Al Douri to find out more about the man behind the lecturer’s podium. 

Why did NYIT choose to launch a programme for interior design rather than architecture?

Al Douri: We decided to focus on interior design because when you’re introducing design culture, interior design seems more intuitive. Architecture is much more theoretical, complex and collaborative.

It requires an extensive background of study; there seems to be quite a bit of interest in design culture here, but there’s not enough knowledge of how to approach, utilise and express that interest. It’s our belief that we really need to train people from this region to work in their own environment rather than import designers, which is what has been going on far too long in the region.

How does the design culture differ here from in the US?

Al Douri: The Gulf region has historically revolved around commerce and maritime life. So, design, as it relates to the built environment, has always hinged on the availability of materials, geography, climate and things like that.

The Gulf has specificity to it so when we talk about it, we need to distinguish it from cities like Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus – larger cities with longer histories in urbanism and design.

If we’re to create any type of parallel with the United States and use it as a basis for comparison, it would have to be the US at its very inception.

At its inception, the US was also a land of transplants. Although there is a defined local identity, the resultant identity of the place is essentially a mixture. Dealing with this type of transplanted culture and heritage and still making reference to the environment is very much a parallel with the US.  

It’s been said that the architecture in the UAE is patchwork; that it lacks harmony. Do you agree?

Al Douri: Yes. This is the result of a number of factors, some of them are technical and some are aesthetic. First, the aesthetic: In order for you to develop any kind of design taste, time needs to pass. There is a functional aspect of design which cannot be fully understood until it’s tested. The time for testing and experiencing has not passed yet. So, it’s inevitable that you end up with that patchwork.

Dubai is built around a concept of text and erasure or re-establishing and removing. They make the flashiest or most interesting and then they quite happily tear it down to replace it with something else. This kind of balances the patchwork because a city like Dubai will eventually harmonise and homogenise. 

In fact, being a painter myself, there is always a vast difference between a painting when it first forms and when it’s finished. A lot of the lines do actually get erased and covered by something else. This allows the artist to reach that point where the space on that particular canvas is his or hers. A masterpiece takes quite a bit of trial and error; a city’s not very different from that.  

To go back to the technical aspect: The biggest problem is the lack of enforcement of a specific and universal building code. Building codes lead to specifications, installation techniques and maintenance solutions. Building codes go to the heart of build quality. 

Building codes are about having the rules and regulations enforced harmoniously without too many exceptions. A lack of [codes] results in variation and unevenness. Now, one could argue that it results in interesting things but ‘interesting’ is a rather nondescript term that could lead to disaster. ‘Interesting’ is good but when you’re dealing with people’s lives, interesting must stay within limits. The lack of enforcement of these codes is partly responsible for this quality of patchwork.

Tell me about the NYIT experiment and the students its attracted.

Al Douri: We are the only co-ed university in Abu Dhabi. I don’t know how relevant that is to the nature of the students I’ve had, but I was very pleasantly surprised by their level of sophistication. They have manifested a great ability to mature and development. There is a vast difference between where they were two years ago and where they are now. I was struck by how adolescent they seemed when I first began. 

For example, it was difficult to discuss some things that we would consider quite basic, such as, ‘What does it mean to put your name on a project? Why does it matter to perfect it just because your name is on it? What is professional integrity? What does it mean to be on-time for your morning class? Why is attendance mandatory?’


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