There is a new addition to the arts family in the UAE.. in the form of a building. The opening of the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai’s Cultural Village took place during the busiest time of the year for designers and art lovers.
From a distance, the 10,000 sqm center has three distinct “sections” - the continuous ground level colonnaded walkway which allows visitors to see through the building onto the creek; the central double-height glass space; and the series of cladded boxes on either side of the center.
The late Abdul Latif Jameel was a Saudi businessman who helped people in the fields of healthcare and education in the 1940’s; the Jameel community was set up in 2003 to continue the family’s philanthropic tradition.
Art Jameel is an independent organisation that showcases and supports contemporary art, cultural heritage protection, and creative entrepreneurship, starting with the MENA region and beyond. Although the Art Jameel community has been around for a while, the opening of the arts institute is exciting as it's the first venue in the Gulf with an open-for-all arts library and resource centre. The library is home to a bilingual collection of nearly 3,000 books, journals, catalogues, theses and material crowd-sourced from Art Jameel’s network of academic and cultural organisations. Art Jameel center is also home to ten gallery spaces, eight gardens, a studio/ event space, a restaurant and a shop.
Students, artists, researchers, writers, professionals - everyone is welcome to visit and explore.
So, who was responsible for the design of this institute?
Award winning Serie Architects is an international architecture and urban design practice founded in 2008. Christopher Lee, co-founder and principal of Serie Architects, dressed in shades of grey and a quizzical smile, answered some of our questions.
Who is Christopher Lee?
What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
Christopher (C): Hug and kiss my sons.
When you were a child, did you always want to be a designer or an architect?
C: No, although I was constantly drawing and painting.
What books have you read lately?
C: Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and Richard Sennett's The Foreigner.
Have you read Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’? What were your thoughts?
C: Yes. I don't subscribe to the conception of the hero architect.
As an architect, what inspires you? How do you get into the ‘inspirational mode’?
C: As Chuck Close used to say, inspiration is for amateurs, we just show up and get to work.
What is your favorite building?
C: No favorites as I see merits and shortcomings in the works of other architects I look up to.
Can you tell us about the house you grew up in?
C: It's a low cost one-storey government terrace house in a small town in Malaysia.
How would you describe your signature style? Do you have a favorite style of architecture?
C: I don't think we have a style. I definitely have no appreciation for work that deals with ‘style’.
The World of Academia
You have a lot of experience in the academic side of Architecture - Tell us more about your experience with the students.
C: I have taught in the AA, London for more than 10 years and now I'm teaching in Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Research and inquiry is important for our practice and working with students in the these two schools is a privilege.
How do you inspire them?
C: I don’t go out inspiring students or anyone for that matter. I'd rather my teaching and work arouses curiosity in them and challenges them.
Tell us more about the name ‘Serie’
C: To work in series is to be able to recognize and detect shared characteristics in any object or situation that we are analysing, and to then project these shared qualities and intelligence into new solutions. It's pattern recognition in architectural knowledge.
Are you concerned about environmental and social sustainability in your buildings? If so, what role does green building play into your work?
C: It would be deeply irresponsible otherwise. We always ensure that our buildings consumes as little energy as possible whilst generating as much as possible. This is evident in our NET Zero Energy School of Design & Environment, National University of Singapore. We also see our buildings as an open framework, that allows changes and adaptations, so that they are more inclusive and welcoming.
Many of your fans would say that you design your buildings with a spatial intelligence, formal elegance and contextual engagement, is this correct? Can you tell us more about this?
C: Yes, our architecture always have a strong and visible spatial organization. Formally simple and elegant and it always draws lessons from its context, and in doing so feels part of the context whilst offering a new interpretation of what is typical.
What is your ultimate goal when it comes to your work? What do you want to be remembered for?
C: The final judgment is in the built work, so part from the discursive aspect of architecture the built artefact is very important to us. I'm not concerned at all with immortality, as Woody Allen said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying."
Tell us about one of your favorite Serie projects
C: No favourites.
If you would describe architecture to a ‘non-architect’, what would you say? How would you describe architecture to someone who knows nothing about “architecture”? How would you describe your design aesthetic to someone who knows nothing about “architecture”?
C: I don't think we need to say much, when it is built, it should be evident, especially when they use the spaces.
‘Serie advocates the careful study of historical building precedents as a basis for speculating on new solutions’ - what would be a starting point to understand existing historical buildings? What can we learn from history?
C: We always begin with the most common element that you can find in the city or context, rather than the unique and extraordinary. This is because common elements, or the typical, has a longevity and relevance that has come into being by prolonged use and acceptance over time. In that sense, these elements holds a certain collective value and memory to the context. Upon identifying these elements, we will then locate what are their irreducible characteristics and from there re-appropriate and validate them for our own use. In doing so we hope to create an architecture that is both surprising and yet familiar to its context.
You have offices in London, Mumbai and Singapore - do your locations influence your design aesthetic? Or are you more focused on a consistent design aesthetic throughout? How important is context?
C: Yes of course, by virtue of our interest in precedents. All the design of Serie is led by me from London, so that gives an overall consistency whilst allowing the peculiarity of different sites to manifest themselves.
Jameel Arts Centre
Is the ‘Art Jameel Center’ your first project in the UAE? Middle East?
What was your design inspiration behind ‘Art Jameel Center’?
C: Our design is based more on the study of historical precedents. There were two precedents that we were looking at, one involving the scale of a house and the other the scale of the city. If you look at the Sha'abi houses, you'll see that they were based on the accumulations of rooms around a courtyard. On a larger scale, the Madinat is an accumulation of houses with courtyards. The architecture that we tried to create here for the Jameel Art Centre, thus is formed out of a series of rooms huddling around courtyards.
What is your favorite “room” or “design element” at Art Jameel Center?
C: I wouldn't say favorite but the important elements in the art centre is the courtyards. They are intended as enchanting gardens, that will tempt people to linger on in them, exchanging glances with other and perhaps initiate a conversation. The galleries are also overlaid in such a way that one could see several spaces in one glance - a garden and another room beyond. - so that one is aware that one is among others, sharing and participating in the appreciation and making of art. The galleries are also made of boxes that huddled together to create self-shading courtyards. This huddling creates a low surface to volume ratio, reducing heat it absorbs.