Urban Dreams

Zena Malek is already being hailed as one of the world’s most influential female Arabs. The innovative Lebanese architect, and outspoken critic of the way the region's cities are being built, speaks exclusively to Anil Bhoyrul

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  August 3, 2006

|~|_NIK3632-200.jpg|~|Viewpoint: Zena Malek says the Arab world lacks identity - but with a little help from her designs, it's not too late to change.|~|Zena Malek is already being hailed as one of the world’s most influential female Arabs. The innovative Lebanese architect, and outspoken critic of the way the region's cities are being built, speaks exclusively to Anil Bhoyrul Zena Malek is fidgeting around her office. She stares at a newspaper article announcing another major development in Dubai, and then fidgets again. Coffee, water, cigarettes. Anything to distract her from the burning issue in her life. But it doesn’t work. “They are doing it again. Look at this. Is this architecture?" she asks. “No! No it’s not! I have been shouting about this for two years, because if nobody listens to me then we will carry on building cities in the Arab world with no identity. It’s crazy, and something has to be done about it.” Luckily for her, developers, bankers, city planners and engineers have started listening to the 36-year-old Lebanese-born architect. In fact, Arab Concept Development, the company she started two years ago from scratch, is now attracting the attention of some of the world’s biggest property developers, all eager for her services. I n the past month alone, contracts have been signed to design two major – and unique – projects, called Lua and Hydra. Her own brand, “conceptbyzenamalek”, is fast becoming a stamp of class on buildings, and many observers are already citing her as one of the world’s most influential female Arabs. Last year, she was voted No.45 in the Arabian Business list of the world’s most powerful Arabs, a placing only likely to head north in the next twelve months. And most importantly, her loudly-expressed conviction that developers need to think about “concepts” in cities is starting to pay dividends. “People all around the Arab world just assume that it is very expensive to do a concept. But then many people just have lazy minds. Some of them try to pretend they are leaders when they are not. When I go and sit in a building in Dubai Marina it feels exactly the same as sitting in a building in Diera. There is no new experience for me. Let us not pretend these are new concepts. All of our Arabic cities just have no identity,” she sighs. So just specifically what is Malek talking about? She rattles off a list of “unimpressive” buildings and projects around the Middle East, complaining that they are all pretty much the same both inside. Considering this region has some of the world’s fastest growing economies, now is the time to make the most of new opportunities. But nobody, absolutely nobody, is doing that, she argues. Step forward Arab Concept Development. It is already working on a list of innovative concepts, and last month two of them came to fruition, thanks in part to the backing of Dr. Sulaiman Al Fahim, CEO of Hyrda Properties. Lua - an office towers project in Jumeirah Village backed by Faissal Ali Moussa, will feature, amongst other things, a unique URCHEF restaurant in its offices. “This will be a personal chef for all the staff, who will have their dedicated restaurant. You can eat what you want when you want, and it will be done professionally. We might start a chain of these URCHEFs around the Arab world, but they will only be in offices,” Malek says. Her other project ‘Hydra’ is more unique from the outside, as each side of it looks completely different. Whereas Lua is an office project, Hydra is a hotel development in Business Bay with dedicated “executive secretaries” for each guest, and rooms specially adapted to suit the guest before they arrive. “I’m really glad these projects are happening because normally when you invite people to think differently they don’t like to. They don’t want to even give you the chance. Most developers in the Arab world are only interested in how quickly you can finish a project. If you can do it in one week, then that’s great, that’s much more important than any kind of individuality,” she says. Another of Malek’s project's is the creation of a piece of software, which looks set to revolutionise the mass-production and design of buildings as well as the way architects interact with their clients. The programme, known as Sakani software, enables different configurations of houses, buildings, restaurants and facilities to be built through mass production methods. This means an entire housing development can be designed with each unit receiving an individual configuration. “Sakani software puts customisation into mass production — in terms of time and money,” she explains. “This gives the individual one type of house, which doesn’t get repeated once you insert all the information into the programme. There is a classical mathematical thinking behind the software, which comes from geometry but it’s not quantum mechanics— it’s geometrics. You put it together and it gives you a tool to be able to say to the client ‘yes I can customise your house’,” she adds. In this age of mass-produced, one-size-fits-all property development, Malek feels it is important that people be offered the opportunity to retain their individuality, even with budgetary constraints. “For the customer, a project isn’t just any house — it is the house,” she explains. “People are individual creatures and you cannot tell them to live in a house, which is just like one owned by other people, especially since every one of us has different habits,” she adds. The software, which has been four years in the making, started off as a tool Malek used to show designs to clients at her former private practice in Kuwait. The Lebanese conceptualist hopes her software will forever change the way architects and their clients interact. “When it comes to doing residential projects the architect’s dream is not to see the client — the client can call you at midnight and say ‘I want that sort of flooring I just saw on a movie.’ They don’t mean it but it is their house, their dream and they want their house to be great,” says Malek. “My dream is to make an e-office, which makes the user feel like he or she has a designer or an architect friend who is always available to configure their house online,” she continues. It is not that Malek doesn’t like people. Far from it. Malek says that she simply wants to make the design process as painless as possible for everyone concerned. What can be a stressful time for both the architect and the client could be simplified enormously as a result of using Sakani software, she explains. “I’ve had clients who divorced during the process of designing a home but it should be a fun time. I’ve heard women say ‘I didn’t know my husband was stingy’,” Malek recalls. “I’m not a psychologist and I don’t want to go through it all again because it’s a very emotional, draining time. I don’t want to see clients anymore and that’s why I stopped and closed my consultant office,” she adds. She explains that if the client wants to do a house in an individual way, going to a consultant and sitting with them can be a very costly “never-ending story”. Malek believes the trials, tribulations and pressures that many architects experience during certain projects can cause them a great deal of stress. As such, she hopes to reduce the amount of emotion involved in the design process and remove the sometimes awkward budget-related conversations and decisions. “Part of the beauty of the software is that you don’t have to go through this emotion any more — it puts the client in front of a non-emotional machine,” Malek explains. “We needed to do it with artificial intelligence because if we want to implement the customisation into mass production we need to cut the costs and when we cut the costs we don’t really want to see the client,” she adds. During the process of conceptualising a new project Malek tries to put herself in the shoes of those who will use the building she is designing. This technique has come in especially useful with the conceptualisation of a new cinema-type facility she is currently working on. The concept involves a building containing numerous themed rooms of changeable sizes, which can be hired out by individuals or groups. In the rooms people can watch a movie at their leisure and create their own atmosphere — free of the constraints and rules of a conventional cinema, which clearly annoy Malek. “The process of my thinking and concept is always ‘I am an end user’ but I am a difficult end user. As an end user of a cinema I smoke, I drink, I talk during the movie but it’s like a PhD exam in the cinema now so that’s why I don’t go anymore — the last one I saw was Pretty Woman 13 years ago,” explains Malek. “I’ve designed a building where you can modulate your own atmosphere. You reserve a room and the movie you want, download it, order the food and you don’t see anybody. You can also choose your atmosphere — from the smell to the air and you watch the movie. In this environment you can have a conversation or interact with people and see the movie that you like,” she says. Malek is clearly a very firm believer in giving the end user the freedom to tailor his or her own atmosphere and experience — “if you do not give this freedom to an end user you are not doing anything new — it will be just like everything else out there,” she states. Doing something new doesn’t necessarily mean adding more luxury and spending more on a project, however. “The most expensive marble isn’t really going to make people happy but what will make people happy is the correct house,” Malek explains. “It’s about ‘why should I think to start with?’ — having a consumer market makes people lazy in terms of thinking. The next step is getting a lazy mind and a lazy process and then you become a dead mind. I refuse to be a dead mind,” she emphatically states. A ‘dead mind’ she is anything but. Malek graduated in Paris in 1993, and headed straight for Lebanon, where her company Z de Z became involved in some of the country’s most prestigious projects. A long stint in Kuwait, in private practice, followed. “I ended up there for 12 years. I made all the mistakes and losses that arrogant architects make,” she says. Now those mistakes are in the past, and Malek is on a roll. But while success and cash arrived, her issues with compromising have remained. “I don’t pretend that poverty is great, it isn’t. I like having money," she shrugs. "But the motivation is being able to change the way people think. I am very fussy about which type of client I will work with. If I don’t like a client, I will turn him down. At the end of the day, I have turned down more projects than I have accepted. If I just wanted the money I would have said yes to all of them.” The irony is that, increasingly, clients are queuing up to say yes to Malek. ||**||

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