Shortlisted for the Women in Architecture and Construction Award’s Rising Star category, Saudi architect and co-founder of Watad Studio, Dana AlAmri, hopes to improve the quality of architecture in her home country.
Q&A with Dana AlAmri
The Saudi architect and Rising Star nominee discusses launching her Jeddah-based practice Watad Studio and the need for Saudi’s design and construction sectors to move forward together as the kingdom faces a new chapter in its history.
Tell us about starting Watad Studio. How do you think the studio contributes to the field of architecture in Saudi Arabia?
You could say that Watad sort of grew into existence because it started organically. We wanted to start a local studio that worked with the latest software and was hands on with each and every detail, and in January 2016, while we were working on a residential project with a developer, the name came up.
I had previously moved around a few offices, but I didn’t experience architecture being valued and discussed. People are more concerned with imagery – which is of course important – but there are so many stages of work that factor into creating a successful building. At Watad, we discuss space, function, light, user experience and then model that in real time for testing.
We are an architectural company in growth. We would like to be known for having an innovative spirit, team-work and creating new ways of approaching conventional projects. And I think the local community has been receiving that pretty well. We’ve had a lot of encouragement and we get a lot of internship applications, which makes me very happy.
Tell us about some of your projects. How do these examples reflect your approach to architecture and the built environment?
I’ve worked on many projects, from a chair to a shop to a mall. There’s a lot of variation in my work; however, there are consistent principles that link the projects together.
For example, Dar Al Rabie’ is a boutique residential project that consists of 12 flats and two penthouse units. The idea was to design the building inside-out and think of the user experience, and through that came the idea of the custom-designed façade and the community-focused gardens.
Another example is an office building we designed, which faces Tahlia walkway in Jeddah. The site was previously used as a pathway to the neighbourhood mosque. The building’s design also started inside-out with an atrium in the centre, which allows the offices to have double façades and enhances the social experience that’s typically dull in office buildings. However, we also integrated a garden pathway that leads to the mosque, which helps extend the spiritual experience.
You have one project currently under construction – tell us about it.
The Travertine House is a special project. We did not take on any other projects that year and we paid a great deal of attention to the house during all of its stages, from conceptual schematic to construction.
The house blends a completely functional floor plan with the warmth and depth of its materiality, which we hoped would turn out exactly the way it did. Unfortunately, I cannot discuss the project further or submit imagery as a privacy request from the client.
You’ve participated in a number of social responsibility initiatives. Can you discuss them briefly?
We are always happy to participate in community initiatives. We participated in a scaffolding installation once just to present ourselves and our ideas to the community, which is also why we later participated in a design fair. We try to communicate our thoughts on the kingdom’s new vision, and how we think the design and construction industries should play into that. Both industries need to move forward more consciously – environmentally and socially.
At the design fair, we communicated this through a handmade installation. The installation used 10,000 strings as a symbol of lightness, as well as the power of the group. The installation could have been interpreted in many ways and we generated a lot interest. We knew it had to be interactive in order to draw public attention.
Beyond that, we try to work with the municipality whenever we can. For example, we worked on traffic solutions for Malik Road by re-routing some of the U-turns on that highway. Also, we have been working on a building on that same road for almost three years now to get the special approval that’s required for buildings in that area – we don’t give up.
Tell us about your research on social housing in Jeddah. Why do you think this topic is important to spread awareness about?
I think the power of great architecture lies in empowering individuals and building strong, successful communities. The greatness and success of a city can only be as great as its people, and I think social housing is an issue that has not been given the regard it deserves. It’s not only about building four walls and a roof.
My idea was not just about housing design; it was also about work/life balance and uplifting an entire community that is traditionally neglected.
There are not many female architects emerging from Saudi, but we suspect this is changing. What are your thoughts on this?
I have never wanted my gender to be an issue, and I still believe it isn’t; however, a lot of people can still be a little conservative whenever women are on site or involved in a project. I was raised in a household that never brought gender up as an issue, so because it hasn’t been an obstacle for me, I feel that I have been lucky.
I think when discussing gender, all over the world, it’s always framed as the ‘female professional’ – in any field. And I believe that whenever that stops, we can start working and competing within the same parameters as men.
What are you working on now?
We are currently working on two residential projects in Riyadh: one is in its final design stage and the other just kicked off the schematic stage. Both projects are very exciting and very different. We’re also working on an interesting new restaurant in Jeddah, and a few other confidential projects.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Dana AlAmri is a finalist for Tamayouz’s award for women in architecture and construction, which awards female architects from the Middle East and North Africa.