Places, UAE, Architecture

Wael Al Awar on the Future Vernacular

The co-founder of waiwai architecture studio discusses their foundation and approaches

waiwai office in Dubai (left) and in Tokyo (right)
Images courtesy of waiwai design

In an architectural landscape dominated by globalized modernity, the architect Wael Al Awar and his architecture studio waiwai serve as a source of unique perspectives. In an interview with EastEast Senior Editor Ben Wheeler, Al Awar discusses his pragmatic approach, influenced by natural phenomena, local climates, and a sensitivity to each site's unique characteristics. He also underlines the philosophy that unites waiwai across two distinct architectural realms: Dubai and Tokyo.

Ben Wheeler: What does tradition mean to you? How do you understand it in architecture, and beyond? How do you work with traditional typologies?

Al Awar: I was born in Lebanon but lived in Cyprus until I was fifteen. Then I returned to Lebanon and after university, I moved to Japan, where I lived for eight years. Since 2009, I have been living in the United Arab Emirates. Each of these countries has its own highly distinct culture, and my experience of moving between them has taught me the value of studying particular traditions in context.

I think of tradition as being something you draw certain things from and use again and again. In architecture and in any creative field, tradition is there for us to learn from, to reread, and to adapt. I believe architects should feel free to study the lessons of the past and to take from them the aspects that are most relevant or applicable to the contexts that they work in today. This is especially important given the environmental crisis we are experiencing, brought on by the rapid pace of urban development over the past several decades. The patterns of urbanism that have been ingrained in contemporary life are clearly unsustainable, and traditional architecture can show us an alternative way of building and living in our local environments.

Hayy Jameel Cultural Center. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2021
Photo by Laurian Ghinitoiu and waiwai design

BW:You’ve been quoted as having influences in natural phenomena and they are included in the list of waiwai’s design principles - light, wind, etc. When would you say your interest in these phenomena began? Are there specific childhood experiences you remember that sparked this fascination and are these the same that brought you to architecture?

AA:This isn’t so much a personal fascination of mine as it is a very pragmatic reaction to the conditions of site and context. These conditions are always the point of departure for waiwai’s projects. I am highly skeptical of the modernist premise of a universal solution that can be applied across all contexts. Instead, I look for the things that make each setting special and try to adapt a project to them. Natural phenomena such as light and wind are the most fundamental of these things. At a basic level, architecture is the design of physical spaces for people to occupy. There is nothing more pleasant than sitting in the shade of a tree with a gentle breeze and light filtering through the leaves. In Japan, this is called komorebi. As architects, we can design spaces like this. In the UAE, we have bright sunlight for most of the year and frequently experience strong winds. Vernacular architecture from this part of the Arabian Peninsula responds to these conditions, and I believe that contemporary designs work best when they demonstrate the same sensitivity.

Hai d3 mixed-use community. Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2015
Photo by Sadao Hotta

BW:Given this interest in visual phenomena (you’ve also cited paintings such as "Children's Games" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and ethnographic photographs as sources of inspiration), are there more intangible elements that have influenced your work? I’m particularly interested in the ways that the soundscapes of specific sites are considered and conceptualized.

AA:I would say temperature and weather are the most important intangible things for waiwai’s designs. We always try to frame these conditions as an initial premise, to set the stage for the intervention with the elements of climate that are already in place. In the hot, humid climate of the UAE, for example, we design spaces that are open to natural light but that also bring air into the interior, allowing for cooling. This approach draws on strategies in vernacular architecture that are generations old and provide important lessons for us today.

Jameel Art Centre. Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2018
Photo by Mohamed Somji and bradley

BW:Can you tell us a little about the origins of waiwai? How did you form your relationship with Kazuma Yamao?

AA:I studied in Beirut and as a young architect, I moved to Tokyo, where I worked with SANAA and Arata Isozaki for several years. I met Yamao-san in Tokyo and we collaborated on several projects led by these two firms. We shared similar design values and worked very well together. In 2009, I left Tokyo and moved to Dubai, where I set up my own firm, while Yamao-san established his firm in Tokyo in 2011. We remained in touch, and eventually an opportunity came about that allowed us to start collaborating on a few projects. Over the years, this grew organically into a partnership, and we decided to rebrand our two firms as a single one, becoming waiwai. We always liked the idea of starting with offices in two very different cities, rather than the conventional model of having a single place as your initial base of operations and then establishing satellite offices in cities for strategic reasons of business development.

Left: Sakura Home. Aomori, Japan, 2020
Photo by Koji Kobayashi

Right: Otaru Harbor Café. Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, 2013
Images courtesy of waiwai design

BW:You may be one of the only studios with offices located solely in Dubai and Tokyo—how does this geography, including local influences, knowledge, and aesthetics, influence your decisions and projects? Does each office draw more from the surrounding environment, or do you actually find that “Dubai” ideas make their way to Tokyo and vice versa? What would you say is the philosophy that connects these, some would say, “disparate” architectural spaces?

AA:One of the things at the core of our design philosophy is the importance of being informed by the places in which we work. Living and working in Dubai is a very different experience from living and working in Tokyo, and rather than trying to define a universal approach that can be applied regardless of what the context is, we respond to local conditions in our thinking and practice. We don’t really try to apply specific “Dubai” design ideas in Tokyo or vice versa, because each context requires its own set of solutions and strategies that are rooted in that context. What unites our approach in the two cities, and what we try to convey in all our projects, is this sensitivity to the immediate context. At a practical level, our colleagues communicate constantly between Dubai and Tokyo to ensure that we remain one team with a shared approach. We bring advanced knowledge in architectural detailing from Japan to the UAE, and we bring the UAE’s strongly multinational working culture to Japan.

Project of Beirut Museum of Modern Art in Lebanon, 2016
Images courtesy of waiwai design

BW:In your proposal for the Beirut museum of Modern Art, you focused on the Japanese term “Komorebi” - sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees. Are there similar ecological/linguistic terms from Lebanon and UAE that have caught your attention and/or informed other projects?

AA:"Sabkha" is a term that resonates in much of our work and research in the UAE. It is an Arabic word found in the English dictionary, referring to crystalline salt formations in the UAE’s wetland ecosystems. Many people think of the natural environment of the UAE as being just desert, but the country is host to both inland and coastal wetland habitats that support a wide range of plant, animal, and aquatic life. In addition to fostering rich biodiversity, these wetlands are also great carbon sinks. The construction industry is one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis globally, largely due to widespread reliance on Portland cement as a cheap and easy-to-use building material. We have looked to the sabkhas and the wetland environment as a source of inspiration for an alternative solution. Specifically, the UAE is a leader in large-scale desalination, and the wastewater brine produced as part of this process is often channeled into the wetlands, which damages the marine habitat and destroys coral and other forms of life. At waiwai, we developed a cement compound that uses salt as a binding agent. The salt can be sourced from brine as a byproduct of desalination, proposing an ecologically sensitive local response to a global problem. Building with salt also has a lineage in vernacular architecture. Most famously, the oasis town of Siwa in western Egypt is built with a salt and mud compound called karshif. This is a stunning example.

Above: Wetland at Al Ruwais, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Farah Al Qassimi

Bellow: Wetland prototype casting at the University of Tokyo Sato Lab and Obuchi Lab, Japan
Photo by Muga Miyahara
Images courtesy of the National Pavilion of the UAE, La Biennale di Venezia, and waiwai design

BW:What would you say are some misconceptions about sustainable approaches to architecture? Are there attempts to “remake the wheel” that could actually be solved by referencing traditional forms of architecture, or do these new global environmental crises indeed require completely radical, unconventional, and/or spontaneous approaches?

AA:We can learn a lot from traditional forms of architecture. By definition, vernacular architecture is rooted in its local environment and is therefore suited to the environmental conditions of that environment. Strategies of heating and cooling, building with local materials, and methods of sustainable construction are all embedded in these time-tested approaches. But we can’t simply embrace vernacular architecture as a magic-bullet-type solution to the climate emergency. The vernacular as we know it can’t keep up with the demands of population growth and urbanization that we face today. What we can do is devise a way of working with vernacular knowledge, materials, and techniques that is adapted to the conditions of today and that anticipates the needs of tomorrow—importantly, conditions that are different from one place to another. This is what we can call the future vernacular.

BW: Where does your interest in vernacular architecture stem from? How do you work with it or research it?

AA:A frustration with modernism, to put it bluntly. It’s clear that the modernist project in architecture has led us into trouble in relation to the climate. Modernism also moved us away from the layers and layers of knowledge that have been developed over centuries in each specific context in favor of an all-encompassing universalist ambition. For the sake of our cities, climate, and planet as a whole, it’s important that we find a way to recover the wisdom embedded in the vernacular. As an architect working in Dubai, I focus on researching vernacular architecture of the Middle East. In order to really learn from the vernacular and find a way to adapt it for the future, it’s important that we stay anchored in our immediate contexts. What works well in one environment won’t necessarily make sense in another.

BW:How did you begin using the term “Future Vernacular” and how do you conceptualize this term? Is there a particular project of yours or another architect you think embodies this concept?

AA: Essentially, the future vernacular is meant to signify a vernacular architecture that is suited to our contemporary modes of building and of living. I am not advocating for a reduction in the scale and pace of societies today—that would be impossible to achieve, in any case. Instead, I think it is critical that we understand how the vernacular can lead us into a more sustainable, climate-sensitive future. I am deeply interested in the question of whether industrial waste produced by our cities can become the new vernacular. I see this as critical to the future of cities around the world. In waiwai’s work, the projects developed as part of our Wetland Lab research are meant to demonstrate that solutions derived from and inspired by vernacular architecture are viable alternatives. We developed a prototype structure made from salt-based cement, which we exhibited at the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021.

Wetland at the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates. Venice Architecture Biennale, 2021
Image courtesy of National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia, and waiwai design. Photography by Frederico Torra for PLANE-SITE

BW:The first of waiwai’s design principles is a focus on cultural and contextual sensitivities - as part of this understanding, you’ve also mentioned the importance of attention to the unique geographic climates of cultures. In this era of climate change, are you considering the longevity of your projects and their endurance in a climate that continues to be altered? What steps can be taken to ensure a structure is fit for a changing climatic, political, and/or cultural environment?

AA:Many of our projects involve aspects of heritage conservation or adaptive reuse. With this work, we can see how the lifespan of buildings can be extended or reconceived for contemporary needs. I believe this is essential for contemporary architectural practice. We should not always think about building new, but rather study our built environments and develop projects that can reinvigorate existing structures. From a design perspective, this presents interesting challenges, and environmentally, it is clearly the responsible choice. Of course, we can’t predict what will happen to our cities, but we can make decisions that contribute to a more sustainable future. As members of a profession that is central to shaping the built environment, we have a responsibility to think along these lines.

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Wael Al Awar
An architect and founding partner of Dubai- and Tokyo-based firm waiwai. He founded waiwai (formerly ibda design) after returning to the Middle East from Tokyo. Wael layers his interests in natural phenomena into an architecture of light, time, structure, and landscape. He seeks to create an architecture that is more than fabrication, that remains open to adaptation. His site-specific designs encourage unexpected experiences. Wael curated the UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021, which was awarded the Golden Lion. (photo credit: Jacopo Salvi)