Sunday, April 27, 2014

"The Sunken Oasis"

Architecture is a field with a great potential for cultivating creativity, but it's also a lab for experimenting with random ideas. And sometimes there's just a thin line separating these two categories.

Thomas Heatherwick, a British architect, has come up with a new concept for a public park in Abu Dhabi: "A Sunken Oasis".

The premise of the design is that the weather is too hot year round in the region that people need constant protection from the sun. Also, the cavernous space between the plates of concrete roof resembles the cracks on an Arabian desert surface. 

A bold idea, for sure. And it's pretty. But, will it work as a park?

ِِA park is supposed to provide you with an environment that stimulates, excites and relaxes at equal measures. The concept of "nature", as perceived by human beings everywhere, does not just change due to the fauna and flora of the region where they are living. When we think of a park, we imagine grassy lawns and thick leafy trees that provide plenty of shade. 

We imagine a treeline. We imagine an open sky, an exposure to the element, with only vegetation standing between you and the sun. 

An oasis in our tradition and culture is not a cavernous space. On the contrary, oases were conspicuous enough they could be seen from miles away. The motif of cracked earth is beautiful, but it doesn't say much. It speaks of arid climes, not of oases. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Arguing About History

I’ve always found arguing about history an amusing exercise. History by definition is that past period of time that had elapsed long before you were born (unless you were really really old), that you can only learn about from sources and mediums such as books, memoir, ruins, artifacts left in an underground tomb…etc.

When you argue with someone about history, you’re both basically implying that your source is better and more credible than the other's. You have not witnessed the events yourself; you are relying solely on a source. As a result, the conversation almost always careens into discussing the sources and trying to discredit the other guy’s reference material. You’ve moved from discussing an event to discussing two different accounts reported by two different people, at a much later date. From where you are both standing in time and place, you’re almost as distant from the events as you are from the person or the medium that reported them. Examining the credibility of this source or record is almost as tedious (and sometimes futile) as examining the event itself.

A true historian would not argue. He or she would tell you there are two or three accounts to what could have happened, and in his or her opinion this account is more likely than the others given circumstances and concurrent events and possible consequences. He, or she, would not say:

“Here’s what happened…”

He or she would say:

“Here’s what may have happened…”

So, why do people argue about history?

-          ReligionYour Holy Book is true as is. And hence, anybody contradicting its events or disagreeing with them should be subject to your malice and vitriol.
-          Politics: Some key historical events still have an influence over our lives today. People just can’t accept that their founding fathers had slaves, for instance. Or that the best playwright in history was an overbearing “misogynist”.
-          Irrational Pride: Some people have this idea that theirs is a neat, loving, smart and self-contained community that survived the millennia despite living side by side with other savage and plundering civilizations. In fact, there is arguably no civilization or an ethnic group in history that had not done horrible and dishonorable things. People on pedestals are amusing. Their histories are purged, spotless... sterile. At worst, it’s self-justified. Everyone else’s belongs to the cesspool of humanity.
-          Racism: You will hear plenty of historical allegations that are more mired in the racism and fanaticism of the person making them than in evidence. Think about it: it’s very easy to point at Africa and claim nothing good came out of that continent. Even if it’s harder to prove that a certain group you despise did nothing special, you can still discredit them. One guy once told me that Arabs achieved nothing scientifically significant and contributed nothing to humanity. He believed that all scientists, philosophers, authors, artists and men of knowledge that became prominent in the Golden Islamic era were non-Arabs: Persians (mostly), and then some Turks, Moguls, …

“All of them?” I asked.
“All of them!” he replied heatedly.

An argument ensued...

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Business Bay Canal: Water Under The Bridge?

7 Days reported what you have been dreading (but knew was gonna happen anyway): Sheikh Zayed Road traffic near Safa Park will witness a massive diversion while the bridge over the business bay canal gets built.

This project is not merely about building a bridge over a water body. It's digging the water body, building a bridge over it, and then fill it up with water (when it's water proofed and other bridges are complete etc..).

Of course, educating the public about the project and what kind of traffic delays to expect .... is RTA's job. (And it's certainly not easy).

It's certainly not my job. (Ehm, disclaimer)

But there's no reason why I shouldn't as an engineer sit down and visualize how I expect the project to run. Using common (engineering) sense and comparing it with other infra-structure projects I've seen.

Here are some sketches to help you, and me, imagine the stages:


Don't you just love the status quo? 
Just sayin'....

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature

No one in my social circle read books.

None of my colleagues or the friends that I meet on regular basis read books.

Heck, not a single one of the people I meet on a weekly basis read books.

Basically, to them, I’m the crazy person who reads.

A grown man who still runs around with a childish mysterious smile (“is he insane?”) on his face, because the plot of the book he’s reading has just got so FREAKING INTRIGUING and he can’t wait till he finishes work for the day and HE WANTS TO GO AND READ THAT STORY because you all (work colleagues) are boring and ….

….You get the idea.

Reading, even obsessive reading, shouldn't be looked at as an eccentric behavior. But sadly, in my cultural background, it is.

It is for this reason that the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature is an amazing and surreal experience.

What better way to celebrate your ORM (obsessive reading mania) than to meet other people who are even crazier than you and then you all sit together and listen to the very person who produces the source material of your obsession?

Of course, it is nice to meet the authors of best selling novels. Because:

-          They are famous.
-          They are your best friends. (They talk to you all day)
-          They are smart.
-          They probably saved more lives than a practicing MD or a retired fireman.

But above all, and the main reason why the #listfest is awesome (at least for me) is the sense of validation and vindication I get whenever I see throngs of people queuing to hear a man talk about a fictional book that began as a ridiculous idea on a piece of paper years ago.

We are all crazy, and we know it. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Before I Sleep

That feeling of sudden night stillness, it stuns me as I lay down to sleep. This quiet, contrary to the hustle and everyday noise, is unnerving.

 My eyes move behind shuttered lids, looking for something to rest their gaze on. Something other than this darkness. They are not yet attuned to it; this darkness, it is loose and slippery. Like a waste or insignificant organisms. The darkness is not as dark as it used to be: the darkness used to be darker, it held a meaning. 

My ears are still strained to hear that faint telephone ring tone or catch the words of a soft spoken client. My ears are too big for this pillow. I want to keep them exposed to the ether, to keep them peeled. But I can’t, I have to sleep on my side or else I’d cough volcanoes unto the tranquility of slumberland.

I roll over and keep tumbling around, like I’m trapped in a moving barrel. But not a metal or a solid barrel, this one feels like it’s made of air guns or magnetic fields, soundlessly rolling. Like violent action scenes on a mute TV.

And right there, right before I lose consciousness, there’s that microsecond-long electric jolt. It’s over before it begins, and I briefly wonder what it means and that I should probably research it tomorrow….. (I never do).

Then I wake up.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

UAE Tobacco Law

As reported by The National.

It's interesting that the law is concerned with "the sales and use of Tobacco". If you want to be pedantic, the fruity tobacco mix that is used in shishas is not strictly tobacco.

At any rate, the new law doesn't make any forays into the dodgy world of shisha smoking (as has been attempted before). So I should be glad.

Yes, smoking kills. But it is my opinion that only your free will can get you to quit, or not to smoke to begin with.

Yet, there is no denying the effectiveness of state laws and enforcement of bans. When I came here in 2004, people used to smoke everywhere. Even in the airport, they had a glass enclosure with open ceiling where they gathered and smoked. It looked funny and a little demeaning, but it reflected a more relaxed attitude to smoking. Many of you are too young to remember, but when Mall of the Emirates first opened, you were allowed to smoke inside (not in food courts, though). People used to gather around garbage bins with the customary big sand ashtray on top, and smoke. Now they have to step outside to the parking lot.

Now the law is following them out to the parking lot, as it bans smoking inside private cars with kids under 12 years of age. This is significant: it's basically enforcing a protective health measure inside your own home. Because what is really the difference between the inside of your car and the inside of your living room? Given the size of living rooms in Dubai, I'd say your car has better chances of ventilation than your home.

Don't get me wrong though, the ban is good. I'd go further and suggest banning smoking in cars altogether (after all, shisha smokers rarely have the pleasure of driving and smoking at same time*, so why should cigarette smokers?)

One thing I'm not sure about is the limit of smoking ban in universities: will it apply to the indoors of buildings only or to the campus as a whole?


* Look at the men in the background picture at the top of this blog, you think they're fit to drive?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Rasem Badran (and my response: in defense of Dubai)

Below are a few ideas I’ve written down after attending a thought provoking lecture by world-renowned Jordanian architect Rasem Badran. The lecture was held in Dubai Municipality HQ and I thank them for organizing it.

Apart from his outstanding career in architecture, Rasem Badran is also an engaging thinker who is not afraid to speak his mind. And for a good reason: he's arguably the best and most authoritative Arab architect alive. 

He is critical of the modern city with its cruel tall buildings and out-of-context architecture. He is critical of highways and of rigid road grids. He is critical of sea reclamations molded after plants or maps or anything else. He is critical of an urban space that is not organic, that does not allow people to interact with each other.

In short, you could say he is critical of a lot in Dubai’s architecture. 

This, in its academic and critical sense, is not new to me. As every student of architecture will tell you, we had been exposed to a lot of theory during our studies. The basic idea is that architecture has to sprout from the earth and evolve like culture: learning, inheriting, influencing and being influenced. A building has to grow from the grounds. From its soil, materials, environment, heritage, and even its fauna and flora. Glass doesn't belong in the desert. Steel doesn't not belong in the desert. A glass and steel tower is not architecture.

It’s manufacturing.

It’s like importing a car.

It’s here today. It may move away any time.

It’s mobile and rootless, it's as if had landed from space.

Rasem Badran is proud of his heritage and his identity. He laments the fact that so many urban development projects in the Middle East (specifically the Gulf) had been commissioned to foreign architectural offices. The result is a dire state of cities and neighborhoods, disconnected from themselves and foreign to their inhabitants. 

This picture above fairly represents the kind of architecture Rasem Badran does (you can check out his website for more, which I seriously recommend). He calls it "intimate chaos". And he claims that it should always revolve around the human being: His failings, his whims and his randomness. It should pique your curiosity and provide intellectual stimuli. A building is a spiritual extension of you. 

Where do I stand on this issue? For what it's worth...

To begin with, I’m in favor of central control of urban planning and bare minimum zoning regulation. And that requires a central authority, and a philosophy upon which this authority bases its developments.

But where does control begin and where does it end?
Is it possible or practical to ban glass and steel?
And if glass and steel architecture is bad, and if it does not belong, then why are people doing it?
Why are they demanding it?

There is nothing wrong with adhering to your identity and your traditional values. But you have to be open minded about identifying your identity. An identify is not a constant. It’s dynamic, ever-shifting, fleeting, evasive… As long as you accept this, that culture and identity do not belong to you alone, that their definition is not locked in vaults or buried in toms, then you can’t ban steel and glass.

Of course, you can be critical of them. You can challenge them by presenting an alternative that has a competitive edge in the market.

Yes, I'm in favor of a more laissez faire approach to regulating architecture. Let people live in glass and steel buildings if they choose to. After all, what will survive is what will best stand the test of time. 

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

It is understandable that people don't like to dabble in politics. It is also understandable that people are more inclined to idolize saints than politicians. After all, saints are neutral, all-loving and harmless. Politicians are the opposite.

 But please, if you want to understand Nelson Mandela's legacy beyond the cheesy quotes and one-liners, you also need to understand his political genius.

 Couple of years ago I had a long and an interesting discussion with a white South African guy (an Afrikaner). He told me that things are not as rosy in SA as people tend to think. Racial divide in has not healed over completely. And politicians who came after Mandela were short-sighted and lacked his vision. Looking back, he said, it is truly a miracle that transition happened at the time it did with minimal violence and bloodshed. He said if and when Mandela dies, half South African whites will migrate.

 Probably an exaggeration, but you can tell that my friend here is anxious. And you can argue that his anxiety is not entirely baseless.

 So how did Mandela manage to win over millions of anxious white South Africans?

 I guess the core lesson is: being right is not enough. You can have all the moral high ground and sympathy of the world and still fuck things up. You can have an opportunity to bridge gaps, get over your fears, avoid a future disaster and be inclusive, yet again choose to fuck things up (as evident in so many places with political turmoil.) Being right is not enough. Being morally outraged is not enough. There are people who are scared of you becoming an equal to them. You can choose to call them usurpers, colonizers, occupation, junta or tyrannical regimes. Or you can choose to understand their fears and reach out to them. And that's exactly what Nelson Mandela did.

 But hey, if it was so easy, he --and figures like him-- wouldn't have been exceptional global leaders and inspirers.

 RIP Madiba.

Friday, October 18, 2013


(Spoilers Alert)

Who has not heard of Isaac Newton's apple falling off a tree? It is one of the most talked about and repeated stories of science told to kids. And that's because gravity is itself the most ubiquitous and overwhelming scientific aspect of our lives. You absolutely can not escape it (weightlessness has only been experienced by a limited and thus negligible number of human beings). Everything on earth is governed by the G force. To give an example: if the G force were to double overnight (or even become one and a half times its usual strength), you're most likely not be able to get up in the morning. Or: you actually weigh less in the equator than you do in the northern or southern poles (because the centrifugal power of earth rotation is much greater at the equator).

Many astronauts have been tweeting and youtubing their life in space off late. If you had watched Suni Williams tour, then you know how the lack of gravity affects the tiniest aspect of your daily life. For example: human waste doesn't really fall down into toilet, so you have to aim and/or seal your behind so you'd not have shit flying around the station... Or the fact that you have to be strapped down while asleep because otherwise you'd be all over the place.

Or the fact that only a few selected, gifted and incredibly educated and trained human beings get to fly to space... For now at least.

The public at large has been granted a far wider access to the works of Nasa and other space agencies, and it's been an infallible PR campaign (if that's what it is).

In short, it's a very good timing for the movie Gravity to come out.

It's a magnificent production. No doubt one of the best this year. Both Sandra Bullock's and George Clooney's performances are excellent. But what's more gripping is that the movie is completely scientifically plausible. And no matter how prepared you are for a space mission, your life out of your natural habitat is very very vulnerable.

And that's what every astronaut, despite the education and the training, shares with every other human being: vulnerability.

There's only one thing that bothers me about the movie (from probability point of view):

The earth has approximately 70% water surface, and 30% land.

So when Sandra Bullock (aka Dr. Ryan Stone) crashed unto earth in her Chinese escape pod, she's more than twice more likely to hit water than earth - all other factors being equal.

But to hit shallow waters at a swim-able distance from the shore?

That's really really slim from probability point of view.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Qatar World Cup Stadiums: no air-conditioning?

Hello there!

I have not blogged in a year (For various reasons that I'm not going to go through now.) Today, as I sat reading about a new proposal for stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 world cup, I had that old urge, you know, to rant.

Following FIFA announcement that Qatar is to host the world cup of 2022, there was a general murmur of uncertainty about hosting crowd-intensive championship in such a hot and humid climate. And then, when it became apparent that Qatar has no problem air-conditioning the entire-peninsula if need be, there began an outcry among environmentalists about the feasibility of air-conditioning entire stadia and the costs and carbon emission involved.

In answer to these dilemmas, Tangram Architects came up with a concept that they claim doesn't require refrigeration.

(For those of you who don't know, refrigeration is the act by which air or liquid is cooled mechanically. Like in refrigerators. A process in which significant amount of power is consumed).

The design also purports to achieve temperature of 27-30 degrees inside the stadium. And since Fifa requires 26-29 degrees, the design will generally pass.

How is it done? See the illustration above. The wind is funneled to a storage space beneath the stands, in that storage space there is a huge water tank: an artificial "lake" underneath the whole thing. The water is extracted from a hill reservoir nearby, therefore it is "cool". When hot wind blows over the cool water, its heat gets reduced through a process known as "passive cooling". And then the wind is extracted from this water hold to the stadium above through air-shafts at a "correct velocity".

It's a very interesting idea. And there is an energy model to prove it will work.

An energy model for those who don't know is a simulation of how the building will perform in different heating and ventilation scenarios. You input building composition, outdoor temperature, preferable indoor temperature, sun direction, and the energy model will tell you how much heat loss you will be incurring. In this case, you input the temperature of the water, the structure of the stadium, the temperature and velocity of incoming wind, and, voila, you get approximate temperature of the inside of the stadium.

So the energy model says it will work.

But! the output of the model depends on the input and assumption of the model builder. If, for example, the water extracted from the hill reservoir is not as cool as it's believed, the inside temperature may be way higher than comfortable.

Someone independent (or a third party) should be commissioned to build a different model and see what happens.

Second, storing huge amount of water like that underneath a building is no small undertaking. That lake must be protected against inspects, fungus, contamination, and the other ailments that befall stagnant water. It's like the filtration and chemical treatment of your swimming pool, but on a much, much larger scale. This process requires maintenance and it consumes power. And then there is the question of the smell of the air as it passes through the lake and then push into the space of the stadium. This is the world cup after all, no? So will the spectators be smelling chlorine and other chemicals while sipping on their Whisky and waving the flags of Sweden and South Africa?

Wait, I forgot alcohol is not going to be served.

But seriously, the comfort of the spectator IS a factor. I paused at the "correct velocity" as it is mentioned in the article. What is considered "correct" velocity? will the velocity of the wind be enough to allow the cooling but not disturb the watching experience? football fans can live with a little bit of hair ruffling, but more wind will just spoil the experience.

I have other questions I'd like to ask the designers of this concept. (Like, how do they plan to deal with dust storms?) But it is an interesting idea nonetheless and I'm sure the coming months and years will carry some answers.