Omani architect and founder of the Arabic-language radio show ‘Sustainable Architecture’, Ali Al-Lawati shares the driving principles behind his programme.
Q&A with Ali Al-Lawati
Muscat-based architect and radio host, Ali Al-Lawati, uses his Omani radio programme to bridge the gap between architectural professionals and those outside of the field. In doing so, he spreads awareness of topics such as sustainability and Islamic architecture. Here, he speaks about his programme and its driving principles.
Tell us about starting your radio show.
The radio show is called ‘Sustainable Architecture’, and I started it in January 2016. It relies on voluntary effort, which I am happy to do for the architectural community in order to spread information and raise awareness about issues related to the built environment. It airs weekly, and each show introduces an architect or engineer as we explore a new topic.
In addition to the weekly show, there have been four other special series, which have aired during the holy month of Ramadan since 2016. Each series has 30 episodes – one for each day. In 2016, we focused on religious architecture in Oman; in 2017, we explored Islamic architecture; in 2018, the series was ‘Architecture Synthesizers’; and in 2019, the series looked at the stories of buildings.
In addition to being aired three times a week on the national Omani radio channel, the show can be found on SoundCloud through Radio Oman’s account.
Your programme addresses religious architecture, sustainability and Islamic architecture – can you discuss the importance of understanding these topics?
Across the Arab and Islamic world, there exists an extensive architectural heritage, despite little to no research or documentation that honours these sites. I’m not only referring to one or two buildings – there are whole villages and districts across the region that maintain, in good condition, all the necessary urban components.
In Oman, such examples include the ancient settlements of early human history. These places deserve to be known by architects and the public in general. And although many exploratory and research missions from European universities to Arab countries have resulted in published scientific papers on regional architecture, this has all remained in journals. The idea of the radio show is to present the region’s rich architectural heritage in an accessible, simplified way to the public.
Regarding the importance of sustainability – as oil and gas are main energy sources, the construction industry is directly affected by the fluctuation of energy prices, and this poses great challenges to architects and engineers alike. Thus, from a moral point of view, it is our responsibility towards society and the coming generations to preserve the natural resources of our land, and find eco-friendly solutions. To do so, we can learn from our history and our forefathers, who were already practicing sustainable architecture and construction.
For examples, our ancestors were recycling greywater with the Afalaj water system. They would use freshwater for drinking, followed by washing. By the time it was slightly polluted, they would recycle the greywater for farming and agricultural use. Modern architecture should draw inspiration from old oases to design energy-efficient houses and buildings rooted in nature that foster a sense of community.
Why is it important to close the knowledge gap between architects, decision-makers and end-users?
At the end of the day, architects work to create our living spaces, so they are unfortunately the first to be blamed for any issues related to the built environment, urban planning or flood management by the community.
Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” And I believe that this message applies here, but the voice of the architect has been lost between clients and decision-makers, particularly in Arab countries.
I have touched on this gap during discussions at architectural conferences and forums, as I wanted to bring these conversations forward to the public to help it understand who architects are and what they do. I hope that this raises the voice of architects.
You also introduce architects whose work you find important – who’s been on your show so far?
We live in an accelerated world, and social media presents the big and shiny names, but there are so many architects who work in silence and don’t get the opportunity to be highlighted by an international prize or competition – especially academics or those engaged in research.
I have hosted more than 100 architects and engineers who specialise in design, the history of architecture, philosophy, archaeology, ecology, smart technology, mechanical systems, corrosion, building materials, energy and many other fields. Some of them are not architects, but they work in interdisciplinary fields that overlap with architecture.
My guests are from all over the Middle East, and I welcome them into my studio, or I meet with them when I am traveling.
You’ve just launched your programme in English. How is it similar to or different from the original Arabic show?
The English programme airs on Oman FM English Radio, and it follows the success of the Arabic version. The title is different – it’s called ‘Voice of Architecture’, and it was started this year. I expect that it will provide a better reach to audiences around the world, particularly from non-Arabic speaking countries.
What are you working on now?
I wish to start a docu-series for television about the architecture of the Arab world, with a particular focus on Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Oman and Bahrain. There is a plan in motion, but I think it’s too early to reveal it. In the meantime, I have started the process of converting the radio interviews into readable content, and the written articles will be published in a book.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Ali Al-Lawati is a finalist for Tamayouz’s Middle Eastern Architectural Personality of the Year, also known as the Mohamed Makiya Prize. This architecture award recognizes individuals and organisations that work to advance the field of architecture in the Middle East and North Africa.