Architecture and Representation: the Arab City

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Despite the contestation of meaning produced by Postmodern thinking in the West, today’s expectation of Architecture to continue to represent is overwhelming. With the flurry of pagoda-inspired skyscrapers, a bird’s nest-metaphoric stadium, patterned museums and oasis-like cities, the resurgence of ‘meaning’ in global architectural practice is everywhere. This is particularly notable in the Middle East where orientalist approaches to architecture and urban planning have become norm.

And yet, without architects’ critical engagement in the construction of (or resistance to) these various representations and the content produced, as well as a deeper investigation of the modes of representation enlisted, we are left with only caricatures and a flattening of the cultures being addressed. Especially at a moment when claims to the city as a stage for marginalized counter-narratives to be practiced are erupting everywhere and the pressures towards more pluralist and inclusive approaches to the shaping of our urban environments continue to mount, “representation becomes significant, not just as an academic or theoretical quandary, but as a political choice” (E. Said, 1988).

Taking the ‘Arab City’ and ‘Islamic Architecture’ as sites of investigation, this symposium critically engages contemporary architectural and urban production in the Middle East in an effort to move beyond reductive notions of identity, myths of authenticity, the fetishizing of tradition, or the resilience of constructed oppositions between tradition and modernity. Through the careful reframing of the region’s buildings, cities and landscapes, presentations will work towards a broadening of the architectural and urban canons with an emphasis on past intersections, contaminated models and hybrid conditions.

Finally, with the understanding that no paradigm shift in architecture happens without a shift in its mode of representation as it registers the evolution of our perceived relationship to the world, we will explore the other meaning of representation as one that has become synonymous with the ubiquitous gloss of the ‘rendering.’ Instead, we will turn to other moments in architectural history—whether 11th century Baghdad where Alhazen’s understanding of vision as measure of light turns geometric fields into a specific mode of ‘seeing,’ or MoMA’s 1988 Deconstructivist show in New York and its launching of a newly ‘destabilized’ architectural sensibility—to create the possibility of a more complex, layered and multi-dimensional approach to the question of representation in the global practice of architecture today.

International architects and scholars gathered at Wood Auditorium in Avery Hall on November 21, 2014 to investigate cultural representation, the evolution of historical cities, contemporary architectural practices, emerging urban conditions and responsive urban imaginaries in the Arab World.

This conference is a partnership between Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) and Studio-X Amman with the Columbia Global Centers | Middle East, with supporting partners Qatar Foundation and Aramex, and in collaboration with Studio-X Istanbul and the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.