Rethinking Tradition in Architecture

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A House in Bahrain

The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small island in the Persian Gulf. The Island’s area is 665km?. Bahrain was inhabited by people since prehistoric times. Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and Arabs all ruled and influenced the Island. In the year 1971 the British withdrew from the Island leaving it to be an independent country. Today Muslim Arabs occupy and rule Bahrain.
In my thesis I am going to explore the architecture in Bahrain, especially the architecture of dwellings and houses in that area. I believe that the architecture in Bahrain is lost between tradition and modernity. The drastic political and economical changes that occurred over the past thirty four years had a major hand in influencing the changes that went through the architecture in Bahrain. Oil was discovered in Bahrain in the year 1932. The oil boom that followed in the seventies and eighties played a big role in the drastic changes to the architecture in Bahrain.
The oil boom caused an overflow of money in Bahrain that was never experienced in its history before. Modern industries moved to the Island, and people started to hire modern architects to build their houses. Since the native people were not educated enough to design and build in their new modern lifestyle, they had to hire foreigners who were more qualified. Modern architects from the Western world got hired to design and build in Bahrain. The result was building modern European buildings on a Middle Eastern land. After that, students traveled to the West to learn about modern architecture and then went back to their land to apply what they had learned. The students wanted to incorporate their own tradition in their designs, so they designed modern European buildings with traditional middle eastern looks.
I believe that another factor for not finding a solid fundamental foundation for theory in Bahraini architecture today is the conflict in the culture that the people are living in. People are living under contradicting values of their political system, their economical system, and their religious beliefs. These three conflicting factors create contradictions in the culture which consequently affects the architecture.
Although the Bahraini architect is not responsible for solving the cultural contradictions he must deal with them in his designs. This is why whenever contradictions occur he has to have priorities in his choices. For example, the architect has to make a decision between decorating a building, which is a symbol for a hierarchy system, or not decorating it, which is a symbol for a system where everyone is equal.
I have to point out the fact that architecture of houses is different than other kinds of buildings. Dwellings and houses are buildings that are overwhelmed with practical and functional parts. For this reason it is much easier for a person with no architectural background to design them. On the other hand, mosques and churches for examples are not so overwhelmed with these functional parts, and this is why it is much more difficult for a person with no architectural background to design them. This led to the fact that most houses were designed by the people themselves rather than by trained architects. Therefore; to understand the theory behind the architectural style of the traditional houses and neighborhoods, you must understand the people’s beliefs and values.
Another thing that you have to keep in mind is that the people used to design their houses on the land with the materials. In other words, they usually designed while building. They did not design on paper with graphite or on a computer screen with some software. This means that the houses were designed by the human scale for the human scale. Modern houses are not designed by the human scale, although it tries to design for it.
The following are some of the specific problems in the architecture of houses in Bahrain:
The Islamic religion asks for the women to cover up from strange man. This fact by itself had a large influence on the design of houses in Muslim countries. The privacy factor had a large influence on the design of houses, and one of the parts that was influenced is the plan. The plan of the houses were designed in Bahrain such that there is a courtyard at the center of the house. Having the courtyard at the center of the house makes it protected having all the rooms around it, while still being open to the sky. The courtyard is usually an outside world for the women. It is where the women can work and sit down without necessarily covering up. Some of the times the courtyard will be so exclusive to the women to the extent that even the man of the house cannot enter it without permission, because there might be strange women sitting there. Another advantage in using courtyards is that it allows the rooms to be cross ventilated. This is extremely important in the hot and humid climate of Bahrain. the courtyard is usually designed as a form of an indoor oasis. Fountains, decoration, and sometimes greenery are placed in the design of the courtyard. By doing this the house will be inward focused, where the best views from the windows will be towards the courtyard and not towards the streets.
Today houses are designed to be at the center of the land, and the yard usually surrounds it. The first thing that this plan eliminates is the private outdoors space the women used to have. It also cancels out the cross ventilation through the rooms. In addition, if the women are not covered up they cannot open the windows especially at night, because people may see them. The outdoors yard now is usually strips of small pieces of land that are just waste, and the land is now surrounded by long and tall walls for privacy and protection. Contemporary neighborhoods became very lifeless because of all the walls that span along the roads. It also gave the general impression that people are over protective about their houses and property. I believe that this is part of the reason for why modern neighborhoods are lifeless compared to the traditional neighborhoods. Traditional neighborhoods do not have these large walls, instead the doors lead directly onto the street. That makes the house much more welcoming compared to having to go through the gates of the large walls and then walking through the yard to enter the house.
In traditional houses windows were designed different than today. Windows were designed mainly for light, air flow, and for the view. To allow the sun light in the rooms, the windows used to have transparent glass or stained glass on top of the opening of the window. That part of the window is never covered because it is so high in the room, therefore no one can look inside. The lower part with the large opening is for air flow and for the view. It has shutters with grooves in them to allow the flow of air inside the room without opening the shutters. If someone wants to look outside he can then open the shutters. Today windows are designed differently. You will often find houses with large glass windows. The sun in Bahrain is very bright and hot, and the large windows do not help with preventing heat from entering the rooms. Therefore, people have to cover the windows with large curtains from the inside, and since the women still have to cover up from strange men, the curtains will always be closed to prevent the view inside the room. This makes the whole idea of having the large glass windows very useless. The new window is also not designed for air to flow in the room without letting light and heat in like the old traditional windows.
The materials that were used for construction traditionally are mostly materials that were abundant in the land. Bahrain’s most abundant building material is limestone, which is the geological surface of the Island. Traditional buildings were first made out of limestone masonry. Then they used to fire the limestone and to turn it into powder. After that, they would add water to the powder and plaster it over the stone in order for the walls to have smooth surfaces. Limestone in its nature absorbs water really well, and this is why it work really well in regions with humid climates. The fact that limestone is a good absorber for humidity makes the rooms cooler than rooms that uses a lot of the other construction materials. Limestone also has a beautiful quality in it and that is that it ages. When the plaster applied on the building ages it turns from a white color to a calm orange color. This adds to the beauty of the building as it ages. What adds more beauty to the building is that the materials are made from the same land that it stand on. This makes the building look much more fitting in its environment. The ceilings and roofs were usually held up by fire resistance wood that was imported from India, and then you would stack dirt and stone on top of it. Before importing wood the ceilings were either made out of stone vaults or date tree leaves and trunks.
When the modern industries came to Bahrain the materials that were used for construction were more industrialized than the traditional materials. Factories were built to mass produce concrete products. Today the most common material used for construction is concrete. Walls are usually made out of concrete blocks, and the ceilings are either poured in place concrete slab or pre-cast concrete slab. The aggregate that is used in Bahrain is usually imported, and the reason for that is that the limestone in Bahrain does not make good aggregate because it is very soft. Concrete blocks made out of the imported aggregate made a strong material, but it did not have the qualities that limestone has like being absorbent to water. That’s part of the reason why traditional houses are cooler than modern houses.
Another important thing to mention about the materials is that in tradition materials were used for what it is. The limited availability of construction materials and methods of construction made it only possible to construct with the material’s own capability. In other words, if you only have stone for construction, then the only way to make an opening through that wall is by using an arch. If you only have stone for construction then you can only build a stone wall. Today the market is so overwhelmed with different materials ,and a wider range of techniques for construction is developed. That gives builders the ability to combine in one building a large variety of different materials. This is how we can see today building with wood structure while it looks like a brick building. I personally do not mind using the variety of materials that the market is offering if they are used correctly. By correct I mean that materials have to be used for what they are and not for what they look like. You can build a building with wood structure and then have a masonry veneer glued to it, but that does not give you a stone wall. A stone wall is usually very thick, and it makes deep opening through itself. It is also very hard to touch and it is very reverberant to sound. Those features in the stone wall is the stone wall. It is not only the looks of stones that makes the stone wall a stone wall.
When constructing with a material one has to limit himself with the materials own abilities to achieve its character in the building.
Recently in Bahrain a new architectural style is arising. This new style is caused by a call for a traditional revival in the architecture of Bahrain. Bahraini architects sow the contemporary styles of building overtaking their land, and the traditional building disappearing. Therefore, they decide to go back to building traditional buildings. Their idea of a traditional building is a building that looks traditional. No one uses limestone for construction. Everyone uses concrete blocks and then plaster it with cement and then apply paint on the surface. The architects did not change the method of construction, but they changed the paint instead. Instead of using white paint, they used an orange color that looks like aging limestone plaster. The problem is that paint does not stick to the building all its life, but it eventually falls off. When the paint falls off the building, the cement plaster will be revealed to tell everyone that it is not really a limestone wall, but it is a concrete block wall. They also glued wood to the building at ceiling heights to give the impression that the ceiling is held up by wood like the traditional buildings. What the architects basically did is that they dressed a modern European building with traditional middle eastern cloths.
The placement of rooms in the house is very significant to the Bahraini culture. For example, the guestroom has to have an access to it from outside the house. The reason for that is to allow the guests to enter without disturbing the people in the house, and also for the privacy factor. The guestroom is usually the largest room in a traditional house. It is the room that gives the greatest impression on people about yourself and your house. Apart from that, living in Bahrain will require from you to invite a lot of guests into your house because of the large families and the rural environment. The kitchen in a traditional house is not always a room. A lot of the times the kitchen will be part of the courtyard that has water and fire or a stove fro cooking. Having the kitchen outside the house takes care of preventing the smell of the food going into the house. A lot of the other rooms are only called rooms. Sometimes they call them by the name of the person sleeping in them, or they will call them based on their orientation whether its east, west, north, or south. I think that part of the reason is that people did not always use the room for the same purpose. A lot of the people will sleep on the roof in the summer time for example. At winter they will each sleep in a separate room, or the would sleep together in one room depending on the fire available for heating. The sleeping rooms will often be small guests rooms as well for close friends and family members.
Almost all the rooms today are labeled with a certain function. They are not only labeled with a function they are also designed for that certain function. A bedroom for example can never be a guest room in a contemporary house. The new house also contains rooms that traditional houses did not have. Bathrooms and the mechanical rooms are examples of that. These rooms have functions that are very specific to them, so it is not possible to make it share the function with another room. These are rooms that have a very specific functions, and because of that Louis Kahn calls them service rooms. My take on this kind of rooms is that the architects standardized the architecture of them more than they have to.
The guestroom in contemporary Bahraini houses changed from the traditional guestroom. Most guestrooms today do not have a private access, which means that you have to take your guests into the house before going into the guestroom. And for some strange reason the guestroom started to loose space to the living room. I remember that I often go to new houses with guestrooms that does not accommodate their guests, although I do not recall going to a traditional house that has that problem, even if the rooms are smaller. My own grandfather’s house is a lot smaller than most new houses, but I would gather with my whole family there and there would be more than enough space for all of us. I think that the main reason for the changes that happened to the guestrooms are the labels that we give to rooms. For example, we have to have a living room in the house, and sometimes this living room will not be used but it just have to be there. Living rooms cannot be used for guests because a lot of the times it will be in the center of the house, and the women of the house will not be comfortable with guests sitting there. Guestrooms however can be used as living rooms when guest are not there.
Contemporary kitchens also changed a lot. The kitchens built in houses today are built with western standards. Compared to European food, Middle Eastern food has a lot of spices, and since Bahrain is an island, people eat big amounts of seafood. If you build kitchens inside the houses, you will have a big problem with the smell of cooking. For that reason people started to build kitchens that are outside the house. Most people still kept an indoor kitchen which is sually useless.
Another thing about rooms is that the designer of the traditional house is usually the builder, and for that reason each room will have its own architectural qualities. The builder will usually be much more aware of the surrounding when he builds compared to an architect who designs in an office. This makes him much more aware of the details and qualities of what he builds.
I remember once sitting with some old men from Bahrain while they were talking about their past. One of them was criticizing the fact that people are not as helpful to each other as the old days. Then he said that part of the reason for that is that the house of the rich were next door to the house of the poor. He even said that the only thing that differentiated between the two houses is the decoration on the house and the nice fountain that the rich person might have in his courtyard. He said that the fact that the rich and the poor were neighbors made life easier on both, because whenever someone needed anything from the other he would be easier to find. The old man’s word made me think about two things: decoration in architecture and the urban planning of neighborhoods.
Decoration in architecture is a debatable issue in modern architecture. Since decoration is originally a sign for a hierarchy system, modern architects in democratic countries were not in favor of using it in their designs. I mentioned above how the rich used decoration to show that they are superior to the poor in money matters at least. In democracy it is supposed that no one is superior to the other. That is why a lot of the modern architects did not decorate their buildings. They still say the ornamenting the building is fine. Ornaments are not signs of hierarchy, they are harmonic details that are found in nature.


A House in Bahrain 
Design Process
The Process
Addition in Architecture
Subtraction in Architecture
Tradition in Architecture
Rethinking Tradition in Architecture
The Courtyard
The Dome
The Entrance

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