As part of a new series that introduces our finalists, Eric Broug, a UK-based author, researcher and artist shortlisted for the Mohamed Makiya Prize for Architecture 2019, speaks about his work and future plans.
Q&A with Eric Broug
What drew you to Islamic geometric design?
I have been dedicated to Islamic geometric design for over 25 years. My passion started in Amsterdam. I wanted to find something that would allow me to contribute, to give and to create. So, I dropped out of university (I was studying Middle Eastern politics), and soon thereafter found a book on Islamic geometric design (‘Arabic Geometrical Pattern and Design’ by Jules Bourgoin). I was immediately captivated. However, this book only showed completed patterns – it showed the result but not the process. So, for the next 10 years, I tried to deconstruct the patterns in the book, using just a pair of compasses and a ruler, in order to reconstruct them. I wanted to understand them. What appealed to me then and still appeals to me now is that these patterns are timeless. Even though they might feature on buildings from more than 600 years ago, they can be presented in such a way that they are also at home in the 21st century.
Why did you feel that a reference for its techniques and principles (such as your manual) was necessary? What were you trying to achieve through its publication?
When we observe the entire history of geometric patterns in Islamic art and architecture, we can see that these patterns were applied in a very specific way. It is amazing to consider that the same rules were applied in Timurid Samarkand, Mamluk Cairo, Safavid Isfahan, Marinid Fez and so on. We don’t know how this was possible, but we can see the evidence everywhere, without exception. I thought it was important to codify these rules in a publication so that architects and designers in the 21st century can benefit.
Islamic geometric design is a very sophisticated and profound visual design tradition. It has always been much more than a pattern on the side of a building. One of its central purposes is to engage with the observer, to invite contemplation. Islamic geometric design is a visual language; it seeks to communicate. Understanding the traditional design rules makes it possible for contemporary architects and designers to apply geometric patterns in a way that is not superficial. Consistent design excellence is only possible if there are new creative challenges to be found. Innovation is essential. With my manual, I want to give architects and designers the parameters with which they can be creative and innovative. But you need to know the rules before you can break them.
In essence, there has been 1400 years of excellence in Islamic geometric design in architecture, with the exception of the past 100 years. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but generally speaking, this is the case. It pains me to see poor quality Islamic geometric design. And because I can identify what is wrong, I feel that it is my responsibility to positively contribute to its improvement.
How did your critical perception of modern application of Islamic geometric design come about? Was there a specific moment or observation that sparked it, or did it grow over time?
Every time I am in a hotel in the Middle East (or arrivals hall or shopping mall), I observe Islamic geometric designs. They are more popular now than they have ever been, but the way they are applied shows that designers and architects rely on the copy-and-paste method and always use the same patterns. There have been some pivotal moments that prompted me to get much more serious about addressing this issue of poor quality. Without naming names or locations, these pivotal moments have occurred when I observed badly designed geometric patterns in some very prestigious architectural projects in the Gulf region. It made me realise that neither the designers, the contractor nor the client had the discernment to realise that the patterns they were using would not have passed quality control, say, 500 years ago
Also, there are hundreds of patterns to choose from, but nowadays, less than 10 are used. There is so much opportunity for sophisticated and creative use of these patterns. I am not a purist or a traditionalist and I certainly do not take any delight in finding fault with these designs in architecture. My contribution is to educate, through my manual, but also through Instagram, where I analyse designs under the hashtag cpigd.
What do you think the impact of your research and publications has been so far?
I am blessed and humbled that my books are popular and impactful. I try to make Islamic geometric design accessible and understandable. As mentioned, it is a visual language and, like any language, you can learn to read and write it. My greatest joy is to give a presentation in which, in 45 minutes, I give people the insight they need to start reading these patterns. If you live in the Middle East, you see these patterns every day. It adds quality to your daily life if you can see similarities and differences between these patterns, rather than just recognise them.
In addition to your books, you also create your own designs. But it seems this has mostly been done outside of the MENA region. Can you discuss these projects, and do you have plans to work on anything in the Middle East? Or maybe take on an advisory role?
I would much rather help architects avoid problems with Islamic geometric design, rather than point them out when it is too late. Typically, when I have an opportunity to talk to architects about Best Practice in Islamic geometric design, they are not aware there was a problem. After my presentation, they know that there is a need to reconnect with the standards of excellence that characterised this design heritage for over 1000 years.
At the moment, I feel that I am still fighting to point out that all is not OK, and that there are issues to address. I hope to be instrumental in creating awareness amongst decision makers in the Middle East that there is a need for Islamic geometric design to be on the curriculum of architecture and design schools. I hope that a municipality or construction company in the Middle East will have the vision to start leading by example by honouring the sophistication and profundity of this design heritage in the built environment.
My initial passion for Islamic geometric design was artistic, and it was only later that I started to write books, give workshops, training and so on. As an artist, it is exciting to try and find the intersection between traditional and contemporary. This is what I love to do in my work.
In a project that I’ve recently completed in Dewsbury in the north of England, I combined the principles of Best Practice with modern methods of manufacturing to create a very large piece of public art, using a composition from a 15th century madrasa in Morocco. Made in waterjet ceramics, the piece measures 4m by 9m. By choosing specific colour combinations and texture finishes, it looks traditional and contemporary at the same time. In this way, it pleases both the older generation and is considered cool by the younger generation. I am currently working on a public art project in Hamburg and of course would love to do similar large public art projects in the Middle East. The bigger, the better! By using waterjet cutting technology (and other technologies), it is possible to work to a much larger scale than previously was possible.
You’ve published a number of books on Islamic geometric design – do you plan to produce anymore, or expand on the topic in some way? Or are you looking into other fields?
We’ve just republished an anniversary edition of my most popular book, ‘Islamic Geometric Patterns’. This new edition will also be published in Turkish this year and in Arabic in 2020.
My current book project is with American University of Cairo Press. Called ‘The Cairo Sketchbook of James Wild’, it explores Wild’s drawings of the city’s architecture and ornamentation. He was an architect who lived in Cairo in the 1840s, and his draughtsmanship is fantastic. The book will be a useful resource for architects and designers.
I’m also contemplating making a physical book of my eBook, ‘Best Practice in Islamic Geometric Design: A Manual for Architects and Designers’. I initially chose to publish it as an eBook because it gives the widest global distribution. I want the manual to be available to, for example, an architecture student in Bangladesh. However, I would also like to be able to offer the manual as a physical book to architecture and design schools.
I also hope to write a practical and historical book on muqarnas design.
What are you working on now?
I’m curating the first international conference on innovation in contemporary Islamic art and design to be held from 9 to 11 January, 2020 at the Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Cultural Centre in Kuwait. Innovation has played such an important part in the sustained excellence in art and architecture, but it is often overlooked. Through this (hopefully annual) conference, we want to create a forum for dialogue and the exchange of ideas.
I’m involved in a halal tourism resort in South East Asia. I’m working out some ideas on how to use the visual heritage of Islamic architecture in a way that is both traditional and contemporary.
I also try to find time for experimental projects. I want to do more public art projects in the Middle East. At the moment, I’m designing a scaled prototype of an illuminated Mamluk minbar from Cairo. It is immensely detailed in waterjet cut steel and lit from the inside – I hope it will find a commission!
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Eric Broug 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.