We're tired of the Bedouin tents, sand dunes, and oasis motifs.

The Middle East in recent years has been transformed by what might be the largest collection of top-of-the-line contemporary architecture in the world—particularly those nations lucky enough to have found oil beneath their sands. Starchitects and young practices alike have benefited from the flow of black gold and its accompanying license to design freely. Sleepy towns have been transformed into skyscraper cities in the space of a couple decades, while major new cultural institutions set up shop.

Though many of these new buildings are exciting, innovative, sustainable, and awe-inspiring, for whatever reason, whether because of the lack of existing context or a pesky contextuality clause in a competition brief, their architects feel the need to resort to cliched references in order to assure clients and future inhabitants that the buildings relate to their sites.

Many of these references are to natural phenomena: the wind-blown sand dunes of the desert or the sanctuary of an oasis; others refer to a way of life seemingly passing beyond recall: the dhows used for trade and pearl diving, or the tents of the nomadic Bedouins. These are, in fact, inspirational images, but they are also two-dimensional, as if the entire essence of a place and culture can be boiled down to a single formal metaphor, and they also become tired when repeated by a firm, much less five of them.

The thing is, so much of the fabric of these gulf cities is new that it forms its own context. When so many prestigious and formally adventurous buildings are placed side by side, they start to become a new vernacular, a coherent gestalt. These amazing contemporary buildings are strong enough on their own—and when read together as a group—that these one-line paeans to regionalism and contextuality are perhaps not even necessary.

Here are a few of these contextual metaphors, gathered and synched.


Foster + Partners, Lusail Iconic Stadium: "The concave profile of the stadium's outer enclosure evokes the sails of a traditional dhow boat."

Foster + Partners, Kuwait International Airport: "The canopy extends to shade a generous entrance plaza and is supported by tapering concrete columns—their fluid, organic forms draw inspiration from the contrast between the solidity of the stone and the shape and movement of Kuwait's traditional dhow sailing boats."


Gerber Architekten, Olaya Dune Park: "The undulating shape of the roof inspired by the beauty of the sand dunes in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, is planted and accessible—the Olaya dune park will become a new address in the center of the capital."

Magma Architecture, Al Qasba Theater: "The design proposal is to wrap the walls and ceiling of the space in an undulating surface resembling sand dunes."

Nabito Architects, The Dunes: "At the roof, a cactus garden re-establishes the desert context."

Foster + Partners, UAE Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo: "The form of the UAE Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo naturally drew inspiration from the vast rolling sand dunes that are a common feature of all seven emirates."

Zaha Hadid Architects, Dubai Opera House: "The gentle winding form evokes images of mountains or sand dunes."


Influx Studio, Urban Oasis.

LAVA, Masdar City Center: "The 'Oasis of the Future,' a mediated outdoor space, is an open spatial experience, with solar-powered sunflower umbrellas."

Morphosis, King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center: "The new KAPSARC master plan is rooted in the historical model of the oasis village: pools of recycled water naturally cool the air and create a habitable climate; gardens of endangered desert plants surround and weave between the architecture; and the iconic research center building rises at the core of the site, with walls radiating out to offer both symbolic and literal protection."

OMA, Jeddah International Airport: "Both the main terminal and Royal pavilion with their crescent-like shape enclose an internal oasis that can accommodate different forms of use."

Snohetta, Downtown Metro Riyadh: "Above all we propose a downtown urban oasis for all the citizens of Riyadh."
X Architects, Al Nassem: "The development is envisioned to bring this oasis condition to the fore while also taking its cue from traditional Islamic cities and forts that are densely packed to provide self shading and improve wind circulation."

Islamic Pattern

ACDF, Dubai International Financial Center: "The triangulated pattern, which is inspired by Islamic geometry, is comprised of three glass panels that have different properties."

Erlich Architects, UAE Parliament Complex: "The design is anchored by a striking 100-meter-diameter dome structure, a soaring "'flower-of-the-desert' which will create a shaded micro-environment while casting Islamic patterns of dappled light onto the white marble Assembly Hall."

Foster + Partners, Masdar Institute: "Windows in the residential buildings are protected by a contemporary reinterpretation of mashrabiya, a type of latticed projecting oriel window, constructed with sustainably developed, glass-reinforced concrete, coloured with local sand to integrate with its desert context and to minimise maintenance. The perforations for light and shade are based on the patterns found in the traditional architecture of Islam."

Foster + Partners, BMCE: "The screens are made from a low-iron stainless steel, which is designed to remain cool to the touch, and follow a geometric design based on Islamic patterns."

FREE, PH Museum: "The facade is composed of a splayed steel structure, clad in thin panels of local stone that interpret traditional Islamic motifs in an intricate hexagonal pattern."

Bedouin Tent

Metropolitan Workshop, Libyan Museum of Conflict: "The design is inspired by tented structures used by the Bedouin and will house permanent and special exhibitions providing a unique platform to showcase Libya’s national story to local and international audiences and educate future generations on the price of conflict."

Populous, Sports City Stadium: "Drawing on the rich tradition of the nomadic Bedouin tribes, the structure’s inspiration comes from a Bedouin tent. Like the nomadic culture, the tents had an architectural design enabling them to adapt to their environment."

Studio Schiattarella, Celebration Hall: "The Bedouin tent was chosen as an icon and representation of the culture of Riyadh not only for its aesthetic characteristics but for the significance and values it represents in Saudi society."

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

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