Arts & Culture The Arab Art Issue

“The pandemic will affect floor plans for years to come”

Bahraini architect Ali Karimi on housing architecture in the Gulf.

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The U.S. has a problem with social housing. The U.K. has a problem with social housing. What’s the problem with social housing in the Gulf?

The idea of social housing in the region evokes a very different picture in our mind than let’s say New York or London where the visual narrative is mostly based in neighborhoods that are in the throes of gentrification. Although you do see social housing deviating from the traditional boxy tower block design now in said cities, eschewing practicality for beauty. However, in the GCC, we are already ahead of the curve with aesthetically-driven housing, architecturally blended into the surroundings.

But, experimentation isn’t at the top of the agenda. “The government doesn’t see itself as an entity that is meant to take risks – and citizens don’t want to feel like they are guinea pigs. Of course the governments know they will lose money in this but they gain political cache,” says Ali Karimi, a Bahraini architect.

Ali’s work scopes social housing, public space and the urban landscape of the GCC countries. He is a wearer of many hats in his sphere, including teaching part time at the University of Bahrain, working at Gulf House Engineering and collaborating alongside Kuwaiti Hamed Bukhamseen for Civil Architecture, a research and publication-led cultural practice about the makings of buildings.

Images from Good Arab Bad City, a proposal by Ali Karimi for government-built housing in Muharraq presented at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Images: Courtesy. Click on each image to enlarge it.

He received his masters in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design prior to which he spent a year in Santiago, Chile working for Elemental, an architectural firm that focuses on affordable housing for the low income sector. This “fascinating experience” offered an unlikely comparison to the GCC. “Chile’s wealth is tied up to its extractive economy, similar to us,” he says. But the distinguishing difference is that social housing in Chile is apartment-based, catering to destitute areas for impoverished communities.

While the cause and case for social housing everywhere in the world falls under the same broader spectrum, the reality on the ground in the region is notably very different.

It was Ali’s Singaporean thesis advisor, who upon examining the social housing status of the Gulf (Ali’s thesis looked at government built housing in the Gulf, with a focus on Bahrain), pointed out that “you don’t have a housing issue, you have a villa issue. Why are you building expensive and big houses?”

Part of the reason for building villas is because apartments are seen as temporary and not as visually appealing – and villas reduce the propensity for tensions. “Things like arguing over parking spots is diminished or complaints about drilling through shared walls is not going to come up” – these common grievances are taken out of the equation. “However, I feel these kinds of frictions make us better members of society. Take Beirut as a generic example – naturally there is a certain kind of urban quality and ability to interact with each other. Obviously it’s a city that is made up of a diverse religious makeup but living in that proximity means you are able to lubricate social interactions and collectivize and organize,” he adds.

Images of ELEMENTAL half-house projects. Images: Courtesy. Click on each image to enlarge it.

The irony is, against the rat race of urban life, urban spaces can make us more human. Social housing among many things, fosters a sense of community engagement, however Ali says, “community engagement is not as studied here. In Chile I found that there are forums, organizations and meetings set up with neighbors for collective decision-making for projects and plans that are going to affect everyone. That doesn’t happen here. One of the main measures of success with government housing here, is autonomy,” Ali notes. That’s not to suggest society is not engaged with each other here, but within the established cultural parameters, the set up is such that public and private spaces have visible lines between them.

The fundamental marker of Gulf-based government housing are the cultural alignments. “Unlike other parts of the world, government or social housing here is not necessarily tied to low-income communities. Even though it started off as part of a post-war welfare state policy, it began to fall into the tribal structure of society. In the early to mid 20th century the welfare state was provided to solidify and reinforce cultural notions of family life. This in turn emphasized systems of loyalty and tribal allegiance to maintain a social makeup. There is a performative aspect to the nation-building endeavors of social housing, where the ideal premise of how a citizen should live are thrown up.  While social housing in the Gulf takes into account matters of need, it also centers on this idea of what it is that makes a modern Gulf citizen. The issue, though, is our government housing doesn’t make sense if it solely falls under the rhetoric of ‘social housing’ in the traditional sense – there are those who need it, but they also serve as requisite benefits to nationals. It’s hard here to separate social need from political necessity,” says Ali.

Of course social housing does not solve a nation’s problems. But a crisis like the novel coronavirus is often the spur for innovation. If the pandemic and the government directive to stay indoors for prolonged periods of time has taught us one thing, it’s that the need to be outdoors is more prevalent than ever.

Photographs of housing projects in Bahrain . Images: Courtesy of Camille Zakharia. Click on each image to enlarge it.

With lockdown eased across a number of parts of the Gulf, public spaces are packed to the gills: “There is a dramatic rise in people running, jogging and sitting outdoors. It’s the middle of summer but this picture looks a lot like a winter vacation or a national day weekend! It highlights the need for a space that isn’t the home. The challenge now is creating spaces that are not about being in touching distance with each other. How do we meet the constraints of a space with more imaginative ways of shaping and using it? We need spaces where people can relax and enjoy the outdoors because outdoor life has always been weak,” Ali says. Even though we don’t have a forecast on when the pandemic will end, the paradigm has officially shifted to a new social norm where spatial dimension and awareness are woven into our collective psyche.

As for our homes, “hyper-specialized spaces are making a return in place of open plan layouts” confirms Ali. “Clients are already requesting to add a gym or a pool into the house in case restrictions return. Even the Majlis has been turned into a workspace after working from home saw a sharp increase. The longevity of these decisions is still not clear but the pandemic will affect floor plans for years to come.”

Ultimately social housing becomes an introspective exercise of questioning, “who do we want to be? Is this the society we want? What is the cost? How do we maintain our values and keep moving forward? How do we achieve a sense of belonging? For these questions to be answered, an open and continual dialogue needs to happen.”

Georgie Bradley is a British-Greek editor and journalist based in Dubai after a lifetime in Bahrain – which she still frequents on a monthly basis. She is also a certified crisis counsellor for women victims of domestic violence, having volunteered for Women’s Crisis Care International in Bahrain. Elevating the voices of the region’s change-makers is what makes her tick.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.