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Gulf cities are known internationally for their instantly recognizable skylines, featuring buildings by the world’s most renowned architects, like Foster & Partners, Santiago Calatrava, and Zaha Hadid. But what do these new cityscapes mean to the local residents? Today a range of initiatives – from book projects like “Urban Modernity in the Contemporary Gulf” and “Building Sharjah” to curated walking tours, landmark illustrations, and digital archives – attest to the interest of young Gulf architects and intellectuals to reflect on the histories of their cities and encourage an active awareness of the Gulf’s urban fabric among its residents and promote belonging.
Mishari AlNajjar, an architect from Kuwait City, and Sara Abdulla, a designer from Manama and the Royal Institute of British Architects country representative in Bahrain, are the founders of IN NARRATIVE. Since 2017, through workshops, exhibitions, and public engagement on Instagram, Mishari and Sara have promoted storytelling as a way to connect with the city as well as with each other, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. AGSIW spoke to Mishari and Sara to learn more about their work throughout Kuwait and Bahrain and their views on architectural pedagogy in the Gulf.
AGSIW: Tell us more about your own backgrounds and what inspired you to start IN NARRATIVE.
Mishari: I studied architecture at the American University of Sharjah almost 10 years ago and have been working as an architect at Babnimnim Design Studio and as a multimedia artist since then. When I had the idea to start a platform where the general public and design enthusiasts could come together to learn about architectural and urban histories of the Gulf, I knew that Sara would be the perfect person to work with because of her expertise in Bahraini architecture. As for the emphasis on storytelling in architecture, I was inspired by a professor who taught us to try to explain our work as if we were explaining it to our grandmothers. This was an eye-opening moment for me because it pushed me to be more creative and intentional about the narratives that went into spaces I was designing.
Sara: After graduating from the University of Manchester, where I studied architecture and project management, I got involved in quite a few projects working on experience design. I later ventured out into creating my own experience and user design studio, called By Dust, which helped me realize the importance of user-centered experiences in architecture. When Mishari and I started discussing IN NARRATIVE, we wanted to explore the human-centered elements of architecture that aren’t always captured by the design of a building on its own or by a design proposal to a client. Again, that’s where storytelling came in.
AGSIW: During your earlier discussions of IN NARRATIVE, did you sense that there were any parallels between the architectural landscapes and urban spaces of your respective hometowns?
Sara: Well actually, when we held our first workshop for IN NARRATIVE, we realized that, while there are many similarities between the architectural landscapes of Kuwait City and Manama, the time frame in which both cities and countries developed was actually very different. Whereas Bahrain kept a lot of its old, pre-oil buildings and style, Kuwait sought to clearly distinguish between pre-oil and post-oil architecture. So, in putting together the walking tours and workshops that we held in our first year, we wanted to find ways to incorporate these histories and to bring awareness to them while allowing participants to write their own stories using the built environment as their backdrops.
AGSIW: How did your interests in space and narrative translate into activities for the public?
Mishari: One of our first projects for IN NARRATIVE was an exhibition at AlMakan, a space in Kuwait City combining a gallery, artist studio, and restaurants, where I served as an artist-in-residence. At the exhibition, “Spaces in Narrative,” we encouraged visitors to explore the realistic and surrealist architectural scenes of forgotten buildings in Kuwait City depicted across the AlMakan Cube and to record snippets of fictional narratives relating to these scenes. I compiled these recordings and played the audio throughout the exhibition to emphasize the role of individuals in bringing life and individuality into architectural spaces.
AGSIW: Can you tell us more about the workshops that IN NARRATIVE has hosted across the Gulf?
Mishari: We’ve held a few kinds of workshops over the years, including some that lasted several days and featured walking tours and writing sessions. One of my favorite workshops, however, was for interior architecture students at Zayed University in Dubai. We worked with the students to write stories accompanying the spaces they were designing. The students who really stuck with the narratives that they had crafted around these spaces ended up creating such strong and vivid projects.
I remember one student in particular whose story featured a fictional doctor who needed to get to work for an emergency surgery. In thinking about the logistics of entering and leaving the building in a hurry, the student designed the space so that users – residents, owners, visitors, etc. – are always near an exit. Incorporating these narratives into the design process highlighted the centrality of the user to the building’s architecture.
AGSIW: What were some of the challenges that you faced in getting IN NARRATIVE off the ground?
Mishari: We started IN NARRATIVE before the pandemic so we had to adjust our work quite a bit when we could no longer host in-person workshops. We shifted to using Instagram and our website as our main platforms of engagement.
In our first Collaborative Storytelling project, “Plentiful Sentences,” we asked followers to send their responses to a prompt so that we could combine them into a crowd-sourced story. We received several responses, but we still wanted to find another, quicker way for people to interact with our posts. For our second installment of Collaborative Storytelling in 2018, “Collaborative Imagination,” we decided to use the poll function on Instagram Stories to put together pieces of narratives in a “Mad Libs” format. We then visualized the sets designed through these polls and published them with the stories that followers had crafted through the polls.
Sara: During the pandemic specifically, to include even more of our followers in the discussion, we created “Home Menagerie,” another Instagram-based initiative. We asked our followers for their pandemic and quarantine essentials and gathered the most common items. We did this to encourage everyone to more proactively take note of the spaces and objects around them that define their everyday lives. This also helped to build solidarity among our community in a time that has been difficult for many of us.
AGSIW: How do you envision IN NARRATIVE contributing to the growing creative ecosystems of Kuwait and Bahrain?
Sara: Part of our desire to create this platform was that we really wanted to put our interests in storytelling, experience design, and architecture into conversation. We also sensed, however, that there were a few gaps, both in architectural training and the general public, that our interests could fill quite well. The first was that we, as inhabitants of urban spaces, don’t tend to look up or around us to get to know the cities that we live in. The perception is often that architects and urban planners are the only ones who really need to be concerned with the buildings around us, but that’s not the case! The other gap that we came across was the lack of human voice in architecture. It’s easy to enter and exit buildings without realizing that these interactions are central to the story of that building and that city.
Mishari: There are similar initiatives developing in Kuwait and Bahrain, and elsewhere in the Gulf, that curate really interesting walking tours across the city, diving into architectural histories and highlighting key buildings and urban spaces. In contrast, our goal with IN NARRATIVE is to focus on the lives of building users, their stories, and what the narrative approach can tell us about the development of urban landscapes. Approaching architecture and the built environment through storytelling also felt like a more accessible way to then explore the histories of these spaces. At the end of the day, everyone is a storyteller, whether they’re recounting the events of their day or explaining their work, and this was something that we want to tie into the fields of architecture and urban design.
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