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11 December 2023

The UAE needs to get emotional about its urban architecture

Emilio Ambasz Architect (ERIK ARAZAS)

By Ryan Harrison

When Emilio Ambasz was at Princeton University, he finished his degree in one semester – it usually takes six – and earned a Master's degree in architecture the next year.

Since then the Argentinian architect has gone on to revolutionise the design world, pioneering the integration of nature with architecture. His trademark has been installing garden space on building rooftops to replace the land swallowed up as a result of the construction.

His defining moment came in rural Spain in 1975 with The House of Spiritual Retreat project – a striking update of a traditional Andalusian home. His modern re-take of old Spain by-passed the need for air conditioning in the hot-dry climate by building the living area insulated by earth.

Ambasz, who is also a former New York Museum of Modern Art curator, talks to Emirates Business about how to design a rapidly growing city, what's missing from Dubai's skyline and his plans to design a building in the UAE.

What do you think of the architecture in the UAE?

You can look at a thousand facades here and you won't see one flower. It is not a concern, it's a regret.

Buildings are well-built and the craftsmanship is here, and there's a willingness to do something good but there's a great amount of haste to get things done.

There's a great opportunity lost to create a unique type of architecture, which would contribute to give it a distinct identity.

You recently visited Abu Dhabi. What do you think of the expansion taking place there?

Abu Dhabi is the great triumph of the modern movement. The problem is that it came eight years after the modern movement, when we already knew what was wrong with it and what was right, and they were repeated in Abu Dhabi.

There was no reason to do that. It's a very young country so it can change. Most of the buildings in Abu Dhabi are very up-to-date and professional. But there's nothing that moves the heart, and that's something everyone needs.

You should look beyond the statistics – that we've built so much – and go into a deeper more emotional level, otherwise it has a certain amount of aridity.

You've said before that you were "frightened by the design of immense cities". Does this go for the UAE's rapid growth?

The country's experienced rapid aggregation, I don't know if it's had rapid growth. Growth is an organic term – if you have an organism you have growth.

I have yet to find the core of the organism. I have seen many components, but all of them together still require a spiritual spark to give it a soul. These are the views on someone who's visited Abu Dhabi for three days, so what do I know?

How would you design a city?

In the past 35 years, I have designed a couple of different buildings you could have in a city. I've proven that in a city you can have all the buildings being green and people being able to open up their balconies and walk out onto green no matter what floor they're on. There are many practical advantages to that, for example insulation – heating and cooling – which reduces a tremendous amount of the energy load.

Would you like to design anything for the UAE? If so, what would it be?

I would certainly like to design an Arabic building in the same way as I did in Spain with an eminently Andalusian building. One can be a very good architect but unless you have a very enlightened client who pushes you and says this is good but not good enough you don't get an extraordinary building, you get a good building.

So, yes I would like to have a building in the UAE but I would like to have a client that is committed to the idea that it would be an expression of his personality.

Are you impressed by Abu Dhabi's first carbon-neutral city, Masdar?

I consider it one of my children. It's one of the things I've been told is inspired by what I do. I would be very happy to get involved with it.

PROFILE: Emilio Ambasz Architect

Emilio Ambasz was born in 1943 in Argentina.

He has served as Curator at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he directed and installed a number of influential architectural and design exhibitions.

He was also the subject of two architectural exhibitions at the museum in 1989 and 2005, and twice at the Triennale di Milano, in 1995, for his industrial designs, and in 2005, for his architecture.

Ambasz holds a number of industrial and mechanical design patents. He was awarded the coveted Compasso d'Oro prize in 1981 for the Vertebra seating system, in 1991 for his Qualis seating system, and again in 2004 for his street lighting system, Saturno.

His industrial design and architecture work is also included in the design collections at the Metro-politan Museum of Art in New York.