Responding to cultural senstitives while building schools in the world’s richest country
The importance of being sensitive to cultural differences when working abroad cannot be overestimated, whatever one’s field of operation. Most people will recall the HSBC advertising campaign a few years ago which illustrated the way in which simple misunderstandings, for example about eating habits, can easily escalate.
However, for the architect, this issue is critical. It is not just relationships which can be damaged but our work. The product we are selling to our client can easily be rendered useless through either ignorance or omission. This might arise through the failure either to recognise that not everybody does things the way that we do at home or to understand that something which to us might appear trivial (or even inappropriate) could be critical in faraway lands, where things are done differently.
BDP has recently been designing a number of education projects in the Middle East including two academies in Qatar. Having successfully delivered a tranche of such schemes in the UK over the last few years it was assumed (not unreasonably) that with suitable adjustments for factors such as climate, the knowledge gained at home could effectively be transferred. To a large extent that has happened but key differences also emerged.
Our role is not to question the values and cultural predispositions of our clients but rather to interpret their wishes as accurately as we can
In the UK, maximising the use of space in the design of schools has been a key criterion. We have sought to cluster teaching zones around a flexible ‘heart space’ minimising dead corridor areas in order not only to create stimulating multi-use environments but also to wring best value out of every square inch thereby increasing efficiency and with it, economy.
In Qatar, the creation of stimulating learning environments is also a key requirement but this is not driven by a desire for economy. Indeed the reverse is true. The space standards per pupil are very generous and have to be maintained. In the world’s richest country on a per capita basis, the level of facilities being provided would seem incredible almost anywhere else.
For example, each academy is to have a fully equipped theatre and its own 50m swimming pool (in addition, one of them also has a 25m pool just for learners). While gender segregation means that occupancy of the (extensive) sporting facilities will be spread over longer time periods, nevertheless one wonders whether there will be enough usage to generate a suitably vibrant and stimulating atmosphere in what will be some of the most wonderful education establishments imaginable.
Another difference relates to the entrance. While in the west, we would naturally make the main entrance the place where every day the majority of pupils will enter and leave the building, in Qatar the most impressive point of access is very luxurious and reserved for VIPs. It will only be used rarely.
In the world’s richest country on a per capita basis, the level of facilities being provided would seem incredible almost anywhere else
Wherever in the world we are working, our role is not to question the values and cultural predispositions of our clients but rather to interpret their wishes as accurately as we can provided that in so doing, we do not compromise our own principles. It is good that among other things, the Qataris are investing their considerable wealth in the education of the country’s young people. Hopefully in time, access to these fantastic facilities will be available to all, regardless of their wealth, status or ethnic origins.
The sheer ambition and scale of the infrastructure and grand projects currently proposed in Qatar is genuinely awe-inspiring and the speed at which everything is happening there is comparable to a modern industrial revolution. This means that there is little time for reflection or to learn lessons from the recent past. To acknowledge mistakes and learn from them is not easy when the world’s spotlight is shining on you for one reason or another. However, the philosophy which underpins the entire venture is that bespoke and cultural authenticity are key design requirements to deliver a sustainable response which is unique to Qatar. Encouraging news indeed!
David Cash is chairman of BDP