Arts & Culture

How Memar Muscat preserves the city’s modern architectural history

“We believe that the first step to promote preservation of anything is to simply start documenting it in all forms.”

العربية

By Sekka Editorial

Star Cinema in Muscat, Oman, built in 1972. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.

From the towering buildings of Old Jeddah to the glistening modern buildings of the UAE to the mighty historical fortresses of Oman, the Arab Gulf States’ architecture is rich and versatile. With a desire for greater national initatives to be put in place for the protection of landmark buildings in a number of Gulf cities, individual efforts, such as those of Sharjah’s Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, have arisen in recent years to spread awareness about the need to preserve buildings and structures of arhictectural and historical value, and to document them and their history in the face of continous modernization efforts and changes across the region.

In Oman, a country known for arhictecture that blends tradition and modernity, colleagues Rawnaq Al Ismaily and Aisha Al Khalili have recently emerged on the scene with their Instagram based initiative, Memar Muscat. Memar Muscat was founded less than a year ago by 22-year-old Rawnaq and 25-year-old Aisha, who are both practicing Omani architects, and is dedicated to documenting and preserving the modern architectural heritage of Oman’s capital city of Muscat through the social media platform. We speak to the young women about the reason they were inspired to start Memar Muscat, why they have chosen to use social media to document and preserve the architecture of Muscat, what buildings in the capital city we should be paying attention to and their expansionary future goals for their growing initiative.

What is the story and goal behind Memar Muscat?

Rawnaq Al-Ismaily: I c0-founded Memar Muscat on December 2nd 2020, with the aim of shedding light on neglected buildings in Oman that were built or established between 1970 and 1999. My co-founder and I observed, after research, that there was a lack of publications and documentation of Omani modernist architectural heritage, as we certainly did not go from living in traditional mud houses to the contemporary houses that we live in now, there was something in between. That’s when Memar Muscat’s idea was born; we decided to visually document Oman’s neglected modern architectural heritage and educate people as much as we can about them. We believe that all architectural heritage should be documented as it tells a story of the country’s history.

Abaya Souq in Muttrah. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.

Your are currently only present on Instagram. Who takes the photos for your Instagram account?

Rawnaq Al-Ismaily: Both Aisha and I manage the visual documentation of the Instagram account, but have different roles. When going on site visits, Aisha takes the photographs specifically for the Instagram feed. She uses her camera to capture beautiful angles of the buildings, and showcase details not everyone would particularly pay attention to.

I take the role of taking videos and photos for Memar Muscat’s Instagram stories, through which we aim to give the viewer a more intimate feel of the building covered, and to give them an idea of how the atmosphere of the building and its surroundings is like.

Why have you decided to use social media, particularly Instagram, to document and preserve the architecture of Muscat?

Aisha Al-Khalili: Social media is a free media platform with a direct reach to our target audiences: young professionals. The reason why we chose Instagram as our media platform is because is it the most popular form of sharing news or any information, promote new businesses…etc. It is also a visual platform, which is important to us as our main focus is on photos and videos. In addition, it allows us to interact with different people on the topic of preservation, we learn so much from our audience through it.

Minaret of Sayyid Hamad bin Homood Mosque in Al Hail, built in 1980s. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.

Why the focus on the architecture of Muscat in particular? And why do you think it deserves more attention then other areas of Oman, for example?

Aisha Al Khalili: Rawnaq and I were both born and raised in Muscat, so to explore our city first and discover the hidden gems in it was something important to us, as it brought back childhood memories of all the places our parents and grandparents used to take us to visit.

More importantly, since Muscat is the capital of Oman, its architectural development is certainly more diverse and more developed compared to other Omani cities. It is also seen as part of Oman’s rebirth during the early renaissance period, when the late Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said acceded the throne. That means that these buildings showcase a great part of our history and our late Sultan’s effort to take Oman from the unfavourable economical state it was in to how it is now.That’s why these buildings deserve the most attention. Some of them are already demolished. But to demolish them, simply means that you are demolishing a great part of our history.

We believe that the first step to promote preservation of anything is to simply start documenting it in all forms. We hope that our efforts to this initiative will be recognized and help make a difference.

What more could be done to shed a light on it, in your opinion?

Aisha Al Khalili: It would be more effective to have the idea of preservation of these buildings in university or school curriculums, or have them as a research study that the country would give grants for, as well as to incorporate preservation laws that protect these buildings from being demolished.

Intercontinental Hotel, built in 1977. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.

What distinguishes the architecture of Muscat from that of other Gulf cities, for example?

Aisha Al Khalili: Muscat has preserved its historical urban fabric very well compared to other cities and countries. This is because the late Sultan Qaboos had enforced building regulation laws that obligated architects of that time to embed some of Oman’s traditional architectural elements like arches and castellations.

Why is it important to shed a light on it, in your opinion?

Rawnaq Al-Ismaily: Simply because it is considered as a souvenir of the past; it’s a big part of our history and deserves to be preserved as well as used to learn from for future building designs. Also, when the future generations live to witness Oman’s great future developments, it would be important that they could see the timeline of that development through these buildings.

Sami Building in Ruwi’s CBD area. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.
Residential building in Khuwair, built in the 1980s. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.

What do you look for in buildings when you’re searching for buildings, houses, or structures to document?

Aisha Al Khalili: We usually walk around a certain part of the city and search for eye-catching buildings or monumental structures. We also look for certain interesting visual characteristics and elements on them.

Do you take inspiration from other documentation initiatives by individuals or entities? If so, who/which inspire(s) you the most?

Rawnaq Al-Ismaily: We certainly have our own unique way of documenting and photographing. However, here are some of our favourite Arab individuals, who we consider as our inspiration [and their Instagram accounts]: Dia Mrad (@diamrad), Hussain Al Moosawi (@Hugraphy) and Sheikh Sultan Al Qassemi (@architectureofsharjah).

Bayah House in Madinat Sultan Qaboos. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.

Your favorite buildings/structures in Muscat, or those you think people should pay more attention to. Why?

Rawnaq Al-Ismaily: Oman Housing Bank in Ruwi, the Sultan Qaboos University campus, the buildings in Ruwi’s Central Business District (CBD) area, as well as many of the governmental buildings in Muscat. This is because we witnessed a great synergy between the traditional and modern architecture of that time within these buildings, the architects carefully derived traditional Omani architectural elements and successfully combined them with the new modern architectural building style and technology, so that we as an Islamic country do not lose our architectural identity, preserve it and do not become internationalized like many other countries have.

Your favorite Omani and non-Omani architects.

Rawnaq Al-Ismaily: Muath Al Aloosi , who designed some of our favorite buildings from that time period, and Salma Damluji, who is a researcher and architect who specializes in the preservation of vernacular buildings.

Children’s Museum, built in 1990. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.

What makes a building, structure, or house noteworthy, in your opinion?

Rawnaq Al-Ismaily: There’s always something to learn from these buildings, like their unique designs, that tend to play a crucial role in the building’s overall functionality.

You’ll be launching a website soon. How will the website be different from the Instagram page?

Aisha Al Khalili: Having a website will be a more formal approach for Memar Muscat. We would include more information rather than simple artistic photographs. We will also be able to inform our audience about the modern architecture in Oman as we are limited to doing that on our current media platform.

It will be a website dedicated for Memar Muscat, we will have our future publications, updates, digital booklets, shop…etc.

Royal Oman Hospital, built in the 1980s. Image: Courtesy of Memar Muscat.

What are your other future goals?

Rawnaq Al Ismaily We have many plans in mind. The first is to expand our documentation efforts to other areas in Oman, and perhaps areas in the GCC. We also plan to organize exhibitions, put together publications and hold photography walks and research sessions. We also hope to have the chance to work on re-vitalizing a building and integrating it into our modern way of life, as it is known that the greenest buildings are the existing buildings.

To find out more about Memar Muscat, visit their page on Instagram.


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