UDG Event Review

A Century of Evolution in Architecture and Urbanism in the Arabian Peninsula

Judith Ryser

This packed event was attended by urban designers from around the world. The lecture by Professor Ashraf Salama (University of Strathclyde) formed part of a series of international events, which started with Evolution of a City: Aleppo, given by Husam Al Waer and will be followed by Evolution of the City: Isfahan by Farnaz Arefian.

Ashraf illustrated the extremely complex and well-researched evolution of the region in its pre-oil, oil exploitation and post-oil periods with many masterplans and examples of new urban quarters and iconic buildings in this fast-developing area. These were accompanied by chronological data on key events, political and social, and how they influenced the changes that took place in urban development, design strategies and architectural styles - influencing and being influenced by a changing society and lifestyles.

His talk was in three parts: the first addressed the contextual issues of how geo-cultural politics may have instigated a contemporary discourse on architecture and the urban environment. The second explored evolutionary processes, both physical and socio-cultural, against the backdrop of oil discovery, oil exploitation and current post-oil strategies, based on key incidents over the past 100 years and how they had shaped architecture and urbanism. In Ashraf’s view, the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the role of British colonies and protectorates changed the desert culture and tribal traditions during the oil period. Independence led to a revival of pan-Arabism, linked by language, culture and religion throughout the Middle East and North Africa, expanding into Turkey, Iran and even Israel. He illustrated how these shifts took specific forms under nationalism and created their own mix of modern architecture, responding to global conditions. He explained in particular, how in this process the Arabic house built around inner courtyards had shifted courtyards outwards, and how compounds for extended families were turned into Western-style denser urban living areas, including tower blocks.

He showed the influence of Western masterplanning on changes at the city level and in large-scale regeneration projects. It was sometimes difficult to follow the rapid succession of slides, especially for those not familiar with this part of the world and it may have been preferable not to include a discussant, Professor Attilio Petruccioli (Sapienza University in Rome), who talked about his own experiences at length.

There was still time for a very animated discussion with many questions of clarification and reflections on the possibly disturbing interaction between Arabic culture and Western design practice. Some asked how these modern cities, which had also left a legacy of increased social and spatial segregation, would be able to survive and accommodate a more sustainable way of life in the future.

Judith Ryser, researcher, journalist, writer and urban affairs consultant to Fundacion Metropoli, Madrid

URBAN DESIGN 161 Winter 2022 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 161 Winter 2022

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In collaboration with University of Strathclyde and University of Dundee


Dr Husam AlWaer  UDG Exec | University of Dundee


Professor Ashraf M. Salama  University of Strathclyde


Professor Attilio Petruccioli  ICOMOS / UNESCO expert | Doctoral School Architettura e Costruzione, Draco, Università di Roma, La Sapienza

See event page for more info and recording of presentations