Against the Tide


Sheyma Buali


Melchior de Tinguy


Noura AlSayeh is a hard girl to catch. As Head of Architectural Affairs at Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture, the acting director of the country’s Fort Museum and a curator of international exhibitions, it’s clear that her schedule is tough as she squeezes in a Skype chat before travelling yet again, this time from Milan to Beirut.
AlSayeh is a young, hardworking and stylishly monochrome-clad woman. Her clear and piercingly perceptive way of thinking rattles in all that she does.

‘I think what interests me in this job is how far I can take things, questioning and being critical in what we can do – commissioning conceptual and daring architecture from within a governmental institution is really interesting to me,’ she explains from the balcony of the Arab Center for Architecture in Beirut, where she is working on this year’s Bahrain pavilion for the Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition.

I have made the decision not to compromise

Working for the Ministry of Culture, AlSayeh often faces criticism and red tape. As a commissioner of contemporary architecture in the country, she’s tasked with realising the ambitions of a forward-looking vision and appeasing the public at the same time. ‘I don’t take it for granted that at the end of the day I am a civil servant working with public money. So with every decision I make I have to question how it is beneficial to Bahraini society. Is it worth spending money on? It makes it all the more interesting that it’s from a governmental standpoint. It’s extremely important to take this opportunity.’

AlSayeh was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, and grew up moving between Paris, Bahrain, Geneva, Lausanne, Jerusalem and Amsterdam, all of which have richly informed her understanding of both natural and built environments, she says. She spent her formative high school years in Bahrain in the 1990s, and only came back to stay again in 2009. ‘Bahrain completely transformed between when I left and and when I came back. I had a very western view of what was happening in the Gulf, because at that time a lot of what was making headline news was all the reclamation going on.’

With an architectural eye trained for precision and detail, she returned to Bahrain to find the island physically tainted by unzoned urban planning. Her reaction to the chaos was the impetus for ‘Reclaim’, AlSayeh’s first project with the Ministry of Culture, which would become Bahrain’s inaugural entry into the Venice Biennale, landing the country the prestigious Golden Lion Award in 2010. ‘My first thought upon seeing all the

reclamation was how have people responded to this? It was impossible that no one had reacted. I wanted to look deeper, so we interviewed fishermen and heard what people had to say, and what the social consequences of all these urban developments were from a community perspective.’

The resulting exhibition transported three fishermen huts from Bahrain to Venice. These depleting vernacular structures, which signify an appreciation of the sea, were central to the installation. Renowned Bahrain-based photographer Camille Zakharia was commissioned to photograph a series of the seaside huts and their surrounding environments along the island’s shorelines, while Bahraini film director Mohammed Rashed Buali produced a video series of interviews with the fishermen, discussing how the reclamation had affected them, entitled ‘The Sea Interviews’. The project’s research team also produced a publication featuring maps of urban study, available to download from its website.

‘One of the most important things I learned in architecture school is to be critical about things. That first exhibition was really important because we were trying to say that we don’t accept things as they are, that we have a duty to say that maybe this isn’t how we should do things, and we can make things better,’ she says with genuine care.

While accolades and awards abound, AlSayeh isn’t immune to the public questioning of her own methods. In the five years since she joined the ministry, she has commissioned buildings such as the Riffa Fort and Bu Maher Fort extensions. ‘When we started commissioning architecture work about four years ago, I knew it was important to involve local architects, and that the construction work should benefit young architects in the Gulf and in Bahrain specifically. But it was a difficult question because we didn’t want to compromise the quality of the architecture that we wanted to commission and build.’

AlSayeh points out that her decision to often work with international architects on these new buildings has caused some disdain. ‘We had a basic understanding that if you introduce a certain standard of architecture in Bahrain and oblige contractors to work at that standard, it is a first step that will offer architecture students examples of what they can refer to. It introduces a new benchmark,’ she says, explaining the logic behind her decisions.

‘The first time I had an idea that it was successful was last year. I got about 25 emails in a week from first year architecture students at the University of Bahrain who were asked to do a case study on cultural buildings in the country. The buildings they were referring to in the emails were buildings that were newly commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, like the various fort extensions. It’s a small thing, but if it was five years ago, the kind of architecture they would be referring to would be completely different.’

While the urban landscape of Bahrain has changed dramatically in the last ten years, the average aesthetic of architecture has remained somewhat constant. ‘The large part of what is being built is commercial and corporate. There is a lot of copy-paste architecture, without a lot of attention to detail, sustainability or local identity. If it does incorporate these elements, it becomes a pastiche of traditional architecture – or they’ll stick a wind tower on something to make it look sustainable.’

AlSayeh takes a hard line in her decision making, which stands out amidst the softer, politer way of working in the Gulf. ‘I have been very clear, especially with myself, that this job is very interesting and I will give it 100 percent of my energy. It is really all that I do, and I have made the decision not to compromise. And I’m very lucky that until now I haven’t had to compromise on anything.’

This article appears in the issue45Buy Now