Firash Hnoosh was voted 13th of 50 most influential architects from the Middle East 2019
IGS: Can you tell us a little bit about your architectural experience working in the Middle East?
Firas: I moved to the Middle East about seven years ago from London. It was fascinating to see the significant differences as well as the similarities in the work culture in general and in real estate development and construction industry in particular. In terms of work culture, there are cultural differences in how clients appoint architects and other consultants and how they perceive and deal with them. But there also similarities stemming from the fact that the region has worked with many western architects and engineers over the past decades, borrowed and learned from their experiences and their countries’ regulations which shaped their expectations and approach.
On the project level and for me professionally, the major difference is the nature of the projects we work on in the Middle East. In the west often we are usually asked to design a building or a group of buildings in an existing context with highly developed surroundings, infrastructure, roads, and clear set of planning regulations to fit into not to mention often a historical context, architectural style, rhythm and materiality to be sympathetic to. In this region, in many cases we are asked to design a building, a masterplan district or even a small city from scratch in an area where there is little or no built environment, infrastructure or historic context to fit into. It could be a new part of the city that is not yet developed which requires a holistic masterplanning approach involving – at the outset – more strategy than design; we would work with development economists, transport strategists, infrastructure and sustainability consultants and even cost consultants to put together the vision and plan for this new development. This aspect fascinates me, I learned a lot from it and it sharpened my attention towards what makes a development successful, such as the added value of public realm at the building and city scales, how to design your development so that it can be built in phases, each phases enables the next phase to come to life and how to future-proof your designs for years to come among other things.
IGS: Your architectural firm NOA (Nordic Office Architects) was founded in 2019. Could you tell us about the company’s design philosophy and what legacy you hope to leave in the Middle East?
Firas: NOA is a young yet experienced design firm that I founded in 2019 as a response to the GCC and the wider Middle East region’s demand for new vision to reinvent their image and reinvigorate their cities with cultural life.
We advocate and promote a design approach that creates holistic architecture by designing buildings as response to their context in its multiple facets; urban, social, cultural and environmental. Our approach aims to create spaces and buildings that are inclusive, of-their-place and -time and expressive of their brief and client aspirations. NOA is a design firm that specializes in more than building design; we are about creating experiences and lifestyles at different scales; from the urban scale of a city to the scale of a single piece of furniture.
Our name NOA has a dual meaning in English and Arabic. It stands for Nordic Office Architects; Nordic – which includes Sweden – is where I trained as an architect and developed an affection for Nordic and Scandinavian design ethos. In Arabic, NOA is pronounced as NOWAH “نواه” which translates to core, centre or the origin of something. We see ourselves as originators of unique visions and ideas.
In terms of legacy, I hope we succeed in realizing projects that would stand the test of time and redefine contemporary Middle Eastern architecture. With designs that stem from and respond to their environment, historical and urban context, rather than imported designs that look foreign to the city and its inhabitants.
IGS: After working for some of the world’s biggest architectural firms, what drove/motivated you to open your own practice?
Firas: I believe many architects have an inner desire to establish their own studio, but few act on it. This decision didn’t come easily.
After 20 years working for international high-design firms in Europe, US and Middle East, I felt I have the experience, network and knowledge sufficient to provide high quality services directly to my clients. I contemplated the subject thoroughly after leaving my last position and I saw the opportunity and I had to grab it. I travelled to Saudi Arabia to reconnect with clients and meet new ones and I received positive response, which strengthened my belief that our industry is about people more than brands. The product we sell is our ideas and vision, our brainpower in other words. I tell my clients that as a boutique firm you are getting as-good or better talent as what you find in large firms only we provide you with more dedicated service and therefore higher quality work as we are more agile, flexible and free to create.
Of course starting a firm has its many challenges; from setting up the business, winning the right projects, building a team, all the way through getting the right financial and legal support and running projects efficiently to make a profit and stay in business. Yet these challenges are what makes it fun and motivating at the same time.
Despite the current slowdown in our local construction market I decided to go against the flow, when many are downsizing and even exiting the market altogether, I decided it’s the right time to enter and invest.
IGS: As we all know, we’re in the era of the ‘iconic building’ and the ‘starchitect’. However facile this might be, the designs of public institutions are often offered to the biggest names, and the most ‘iconic’ architects. How do you feel about this trend, and how do you work in a system like this and continue to create thoughtful, meaningful architecture, when so many developers are looking for ‘the next Bilbao’?
Firas: Indeed the threshold or entry barrier to be invited to design a public or iconic building is very high nowadays resulting in most architects being excluded from such projects. I do believe however that there is great reward and satisfaction in creating extraordinary designs for ordinary buildings. I don’t believe that every architect needs to design an iconic building; rather we should try to make something special out of every ordinary building we get to design. Whether it is in the novel forms we invent, or the experience of space we create, or the materials we use innovatively among other aspects.
And if we are good at what we do, people and clients will recognize this and eventually we would be invited to work on iconic projects and public buildings. There are bright examples around the world that worked their way up in this manner and I personally followed their careers from early years. One must also note that local economy where you operate, local and public support for the profession and the arts in general does plays a major role in expediting and facilitating your success.
IGS: AI, robotics, the IoT and digital transformation are all disruptive technologies. There is a danger that if we all use the same design engines, the same drivers, we will all make the same mistakes and buildings will become same old, same old, thereby stifling the talent of the individual. What are your thoughts on this? How do you maintain your differential?
Firas: Throughout ancient and more recent history, great architects from Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn, all the way to Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster, successfully built their design repertoire before computer technology dominated architectural design.
However, today any architect for example at Zaha’s or Norman Foster’s studio would be very hard-pressed to go through the building design process without using a computer, next to impossible! Computational design tools offer tremendous benefits to architects and their clients. They have transformed the way in which we design and deliver buildings, from the first sketch to the final construction detail.
Having said that, the creativity and problem solving skills required by an architect cannot be replaced by machines, at least not unless programmers develop fully emotional Artificial Intelligence, or AI, which is highly improbable.
My view is that the advent of these technologies will standardize how we document and deliver buildings rather than create a prescribed way to design and conceptualize them. Tools like AI, Robotics and parametric software can generate and build complex forms and patterns we could not have even imagined 20 years ago, but control remains with the user; the designer who dictates the software, not the other way around. These tools can also help us predict and solve problems which would ensure a higher level of service provided to more customers.
Architecture is the manifesto of a designer’s thinking. This design thinking is far greater than the drawings required to build a building. As Renzo Piano put it once “Architecture is like an iceberg, the invisible part, below water, represents the narrative, the thinking and the knowledge which is nine times larger than the visible part. But without it there’s no iceberg!”.
Furthermore, while computers are very effective design and presentation tools, they cannot impose a personality on the design. This should always remain the prerogative of the architect. To maintain this, we should preserve the art of hand sketching as every hand sketch bears the marks of its author. This character will invariably propagate through the design of the building, even when it moves into the computer.
IGS: Taking into account the local environment, climate and context into which projects are built in the Middle East – what challenges do these factors pose when designing and constructing a project?
Firas: Buildings are obviously large objects that often accommodate a relatively large number of inhabitants and usually require a substantial investment. For these reasons, architects are faced with many pressures from clients and other stakeholders to influence the way a building is designed. From my point of view, the climatic challenge is a key one to tackle. For decades the region has imported designs from the west that project a certain image without taking into consideration whether these design are sensitive to their environment and climate, not to mention to their historical and urban context. The result is that we see many glass towers shine through the skylines of Middle Eastern cities, but are they really the right response to their environment? This is where the real challenge lies I believe.
IGS: How do you overcome these challenges?
Firas: I believe architects and building design professional have an obligation to educate their clients. We need to demonstrate to them how tackling this challenge can help them make more money in the medium to long run with the added – yet essential – advantage of reducing our impact on the environment and helping the local economy in reducing pressure on its infrastructure. At the building level, as part of our design process, we adopt two environmental design strategies; passive and active, to reduce a building’s carbon footprint and energy needs.
Passive strategies are adopted in the initial concept stage in order to have an enduring impact on reducing the building’s carbon footprint and its energy loads. Its impact is not perceived directly, hence it’s called passive. Passive strategies include optimizing the building’s massing, orientation, façade design, materials, shading devices and solid to glazed ratios among other things. It’s a one-off capital investment that has an enduring positive impact in reducing solar heat gain, associated cooling and energy loads, increasing thermal comfort in and around the building and providing shading in public spaces.
Active strategies are technologies that are included in the building services and incur an additional capital investment as well as some operational maintenance costs, which are offset over the medium and long term of the building’s life. These include grey water recycling, water flow reducing taps and fixtures, sensors that manage lighting consumption based on occupancy, temperature and humidity sensors that manage air conditioning supply and ventilation. Systems that manage the use of elevators in the most efficient way to minimize the number of elevator rides and escalator sensors that control operation only when required. Furthermore, we now have access to power generation onsite using photovoltaic panels and wind turbines installed within the building to generate part of the building’s energy requirements.
IGS: Considering current issues such as climate change and sustainability, how do you see the traditional role of the architect changing?
Firas: Sustainability has become a fundamental part of building design and construction in many countries and a question of timing and available funding for some other countries. In the majority of European Union and some developed countries, energy efficiency and sustainability regulations have been mandatory for many years making the practice of sustainable design second nature to how architects and engineers work.
In our region, over the past decade and a half, several GCC countries have made impressive strides towards adopting and implementing green building design principles. There is still room for improvement and sustainability can certainly be pushed farther, though declining oil prices since 2014 and relative cheapness of energy have slowed down this push. More recently, with some exceptions, I think adopting sustainability measures has been more of a PR or marketing exercise to raise the profile of a specific project or client.
I am positive however that regional governments will resume pushing the sustainable agenda forward in the coming few years, especially if we spread sustainable knowledge and awareness of the financial and environmental benefits it can bring.
Architects should continue to invest in integrating sustainable and environmentally conscious design into their practices, not as an add-on or afterthought, but as an integral part of the conceptual design process. One way to do this is by working closely with external sustainability consultants. A more effective way is to recruit architects or engineers – who have experience and training in sustainable design – as an in-house resource across all projects where they set guidelines and provide regular reviews. Over time, designers in the practice will adopt these strategies as their own on every project with little guidance.
IGS: In previous interviews and articles, you discuss densification as a solution to population growth. Bearing this in mind, what does your vision of future cities and buildings look like?
Firas: As I mentioned in the aforementioned article, with a current global population of 7.5 billion, set to increase to about 10 billion in the next 30 years, as architects we are increasingly responsible for designing spaces which work harder and cater to more people.
In light of the current rate of expansion of cities, we must tackle the problem of population growth and its impact on all our lives and those of the next generation. Population growth, urban sprawl and pollution are all inextricably linked – think of it as ‘cause and effect’. Globally and locally we are seeing the emergence of some interesting migration patterns with people relocating to larger cities. This has an impact on agriculture, air quality, the natural landscape, journey times and our general quality of life and, as cities continue to expand to accommodate these people, it’s entirely possible that within the next 100 years the whole world will be one continuous city.
To slow down slow down the sprawl of architectural dominance and conserve the natural landmass effectively, I believe we need to densify, that is to build up, not out – to have existing infrastructure work harder and for more hours for more of us. If we are to redevelop our cities and increase floor space density around existing – yet upgraded – transport links and infrastructure, we limit our need to expand horizontally and encroach on agricultural land and natural areas. This is already being adopted by many cities in developed countries such as Dublin and London to mention a couple, where certain areas of the city are earmarked for densification and high-rise redevelopment.
Now this vision may sound dystopian to some, but we shouldn’t see high-rises as the gloomy banal structures that are designed as industrial containers of human beings. We can design our dense areas with a high standard of life to contain all the amenities we require, chief amongst them is public realm and green spaces. We can create green spaces both at ground level and in the sky at multiple levels with easy access to residents and workers. Sky gardens have been built successfully in many places around the world, including a building I designed several years ago that was built in east London, Manhattan Loft Gardens, which boasts three sky gardens that offer residents much needed outdoor space.
These new dense developments would also be economically, commercially and energy sustainable. The buildings will be mixed-use and provide all sorts of services and amenities, including shopping, gyms, restaurants, etc. reducing our need to travel far very often. They should also aim to generate power locally from renewable sources thus reducing their carbon footprint and utility costs on residents and tenants.
This way we can leave the natural environment protected to remain the place to escape to in our weekends and holidays, and in the long term it could just help save the planet all of us call home.
IGS: Can you introduce us to some of the projects that you are currently working on, and perhaps give us a heads up on some projects in the pipeline that look set to gain traction and change the game in 2020 and beyond?
Firas: We are currently active in Saudi Arabia and the projects we have been working on reflect the new vision for the country and the changing mood of its people; with focus on entertainment, leisure, hospitality and tourism.
One of the projects we have designed is a mountain outpost that offers visitors to the mountains of Ha’il in Saudi Arabia the opportunity to enjoy the views of the surrounding mountains and experience its beauty while relaxing and enjoying a selection of fine dining options. It is also a spring point for hiking and exploring the surrounding nature. In the evening it becomes a beacon on the mountain that offers a dramatic setting for musical events and celebrations.
We also designed a pavilion for the Saudi Design Week where we created an informal social space that celebrates the culture and art of Saudi Arabia with its checkered walls that serve as canvas for artists.
Currently we are working on two projects; a very exciting beach club and water park north of Jeddah. Our proposal offers a unique beach experience with its expansive infinity pool, outdoor lounging and cabanas alongside a variety of food and beverage outlets. There is also a VIP area, which offers it’s own lounge areas, private beach and chalets. To the other side of the development we designed a water park for children to offer both adults and children a place to enjoy.
The other project is to redevelop and repurpose an existing Villa into a contemporary social hub to work, meet, dine and socialize. We also added a new rooftop level, which we designed as a sharp glass box, which becomes a beacon at night. The project combines two elements; a public area that would offer several hand-picked restaurant concepts where live music could be performed, bazars and events area that could be used as a community space, and a private membership club with a business center, co-working spaces, members’ lounge, gym, and other amenities.
IGS: How integral is glass to your designs?
Firas: Alongside concrete and steel, Glass is one of the most essential materials to design with. Glass’ ethereal properties; its transparency, reflectively, lightness and adaptability offer us a wide range of applications in building design.
Often in our designs we like to play with opposites; such as transparent vs. opaque, clear vs. translucent, heavy vs. light. And glass is a constant element in these experiments.
IGS: And Finally, what are your thoughts on glass as a structural material? Does glass perform enough functions to satisfy your creative designs? Or is there something you would like glass to do that it currently does not do…to your knowledge?
Firas: One of the most impressive uses of glass is as a structural material. Most people know the Apple Stores that emerged over a decade and a half ago. With the New York Apple store, one of Apple’s flagship stores, with its beautifully designed structural glass cube. That design changed the perception of glass for many architects. Glass is no longer perceived as an enveloping material that provides through-vision only. This opened the door to new designs not seen before; we started to see stairs completely made using glass elements and glass roofs completely held up by structural glass walls.
I would really like to see how glass could deal with more complex forms. So far most of structural glass designs have been simple forms and I wonder if we will see more curvilinear forms being designed and built completely in glass. The cost of curved glass has often been forbidding in the past, but I believe in time with the advent of 3d printing and digital fabrication technologies that cost can be brought down to more affordable levels.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Spring 2020 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
RIBA, LEED AP
Firas Hnoosh has over 20 years of professional design experience. Most recently, Firas was the Principal and Design Director of Perkins+Will’s Dubai studio. Moving to the UAE in 2013, Firas held the position of design director at the Abu Dhabi practice of the international architecture firm Gensler. Before joining Gensler, Firas led a design studio at the London office of the renowned architectural design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) where he developed a focus on high rise buildings and high density developments.
Firas advocates and promotes a design approach to create holistic architecture by designing buildings as response to their context in its multiple facets; urban, social, cultural and environmental. His approach aims to create spaces and buildings that are inclusive, of-their-place and -time and expressive of their brief and client aspirations. Firas’ built works include The Lexicon Tower in Central London, Manhattan Loft Gardens in London’s Olympic Village, the Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal in Mina Zayed Abu Dhabi, The Basaksehir Hospital Complex in Istanbul and several residential buildings and hotels in the Middle East Region both on the boards or under construction.
Firas holds a Master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia, USA. He is a chartered licensed member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), he is registered with the ARB in the UK and also a LEED Accredited Professional.