Words and walls: Taha Al-Hiti’s fresh take on Islamic architecture

Updated 15 June 2018
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Words and walls: Taha Al-Hiti’s fresh take on Islamic architecture

JEDDAH: “The power of words turns music into songs. I’ve always been attracted to the power of conveying a message in a beautiful way, be it in a song, in calligraphy, in poetry… that’s how I chased my career in calligraphy.”

The renowned Iraqi master calligrapher and architect Taha Al-Hiti is explaining to Arab News his passion for the visual art that has dominated so much of his life. As one of the oldest Islamic art forms, and one of the most widely revered, calligraphy has a special place in the culture of the Arab world.

Al-Hiti studied under the patronage of Iraqi master calligrapher Abbas Al-Baghdadi and has showcased his command of thultuh script in multiple international exhibitions over the years.

For many, becoming a master calligrapher would be enough of an accomplishment for one lifetime. But Al-Hiti is also an accomplished and innovative architect. His company, Squadra Architects, specializes in modern designs infused with traditional elements: arabesque ornamentation, and — of course — calligraphy.

“I had feared I would become a trade calligrapher,” Al-Hiti says. “Competing over who writes the best letter. But these are technicalities of the art — they reflect practice and technique, recycling what you’ve learned rather than bringing in something new. So I chose architectural engineering, because of its relation to design and creativity.”

Combining his two great passions was a way for Al-Hiti to begin to answer a question that had long interested him: What qualifies a particular structure as ‘Islamic’ architecture? He mentions the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Andalusia — a building that, because of its Qur’anic calligraphy and the fact it was built by Muslims, is often regarded as Islamic, but, as Al-Hiti points out, is so much a product of its environment that it would look out of place in the vast majority of Islamic countries.

While it’s true that architectural designs have often, historically, been linked to civilizations, it’s also true that similar designs are found in disparate regions, and, Al-Hiti explains, the very notion that architecture can be deemed to belong to a particular culture is increasingly being questioned.

It’s a thorny, much-debated topic, and one that, he suggests, is open to countless interpretations, depending on researchers’ individual opinions.

 “Islamic architects belong to different schools,” he says. “They follow varied architectural elements. But the common denominator in all Islamic structures is calligraphy. It’s right in front of our eyes.  It’s hard to call a dome or pillar ‘Islamic’ — it’s only called that because of a verse, or a mention of Allah’s name on a wall.”

Certainly, Islamic architecture and calligraphy are inexorably intertwined. And yet, historically, they remain separate; architecture is the conceptual form and organization of a building, while the latter is artistic ornamentation — traditionally presented without any real consideration for the structure on which it appears.  

Al-Hiti , though, wanted to find a way to introduce calligraphy into buildings in a more innovative and organic way.

“People are moved by beauty,” he says. “And in calligraphy, it’s the beauty of the flow that defines it. Not the phrase, nor the meaning. The composition makes it what it is and that paved the way to an answer: To modernize my take on architectural design, and have my passion for calligraphy incorporated, I needed to go back to basics.”

He was led to this conclusion, he admits, in part because the strict rules that have traditionally governed Islamic calligraphy have, in recent decades, become looser, making the art form more open to personal interpretation.

“Calligraphy is not so confined anymore,” Al-Hiti explains. “It has been developed by Muslims in the most successful manner and has since spread around the world. You can find non-Arab speakers who excel in it. You’ll find non-Muslim Arabs who turn poetry, names, or just a letter into beautiful works of art.”

Al-Hiti’s point about non-Arab speakers adopting the art leads back to his belief that it is the form — rather than the meaning of the words — that makes it so appealing to people. He once told me that, as an Arab, the first thing I would do when I see a piece of calligraphy is to decipher the words, whereas a non-Arab would contemplate the lines and curves. Arabs, he said, are more used to analysing works of art first, rather than appreciating them aesthetically.

That is something he hopes to change with his contemporary take on Islamic architecture, using calligraphy less for what it says — though that is still important — than for how it looks; creating work that mirrors the flow and curves of the building it adorns.

His innovative post-modern design proposal for the yet-to-be-built Saadiyat Beach Mosque in Abu Dhabi, for example, defies convention with its upturned circular dome and the bold sweep of enlarged Qur’anic verse on its exterior walls. His concept for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Jordan, meanwhile (which was not ultimately selected for the project) cleverly shaped verses from the Qur’an in the entryway to resemble the traditional ‘mashrabiya’ latticework that is such a popular feature of traditional Arabic architecture.

The ultra-modern Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies — the exterior and interior façades of which were designed by Al-Hiti — utilizes calligraphy not only as a readable, aesthetic element, but one that matches the concept of the project. Al-Hiti stresses that the verses were carefully selected to complement the design, rather than just plastering writing onto a building. The building’s library, for example, has five pillars, each representing a pillar of Islam, and each bears a verse representing that pillar. “It’s an example of the integration of calligraphy in ultra-modern design,” he says. “The calligraphy literally had to be designed to complement the fluidity of the design. Traditionally, all the calligraphy would have to be presented horizontally, so the verses could be easily read, but most of them here are vertical lines and the letters are constructed vertically, (breaking) the norms of calligraphy whilst adding to the uniqueness of (the building).”

Al-Hiti is well aware that his willingness to defy convention goes against many purists’ views of how calligraphy should be presented. It’s an art form that, for centuries, was bound by strict criteria — some would even say that taking calligraphy off paper and onto a concrete wall was unacceptable. So he knows that not everyone will be a fan of his new take on Islamic architecture. Still, he is unapologetic about his approach.

“Art evolves, and its basic concepts are no longer basic,” he says. “An artist’s take is what breaks the norms; beauty in conveying the message is what counts.”


Mass tourism threatens Croatia’s ‘Game of Thrones’ town

Updated 21 September 2018
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Mass tourism threatens Croatia’s ‘Game of Thrones’ town

DUBROVNIK, Croatia: Marc van Bloemen has lived in the old town of Dubrovnik, a Croatian citadel widely praised as the jewel of the Adriatic, for decades, since he was a child. He says it used to be a privilege. Now it’s a nightmare.
Crowds of tourists clog the entrances to the ancient walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as huge cruise ships unload thousands more daily. People bump into each other on the famous limestone-paved Stradun, the pedestrian street lined with medieval churches and palaces, as fans of the popular TV series “Game of Thrones” search for the locations where it was filmed.
Dubrovnik is a prime example of the effects of mass tourism, a global phenomenon in which the increase in people traveling means standout sites — particularly small ones — get overwhelmed by crowds. As the numbers of visitors keeps rising, local authorities are looking for ways to keep the throngs from killing off the town’s charm.
“It’s beyond belief, it’s like living in the middle of Disneyland,” says van Bloemen from his house overlooking the bustling Old Harbor in the shadows of the stone city walls.
On a typical day there are about eight cruise ships visiting this town of 2,500 people, each dumping some 2,000 tourists into the streets. He recalls one day when 13 ships anchored here.
“We feel sorry for ourselves, but also for them (the tourists) because they can’t feel the town anymore because they are knocking into other tourists,” he said. “It’s chaos, the whole thing is chaos.”
The problem is hurting Dubrovnik’s reputation. UNESCO warned last year that the city’s world heritage title was at risk because of the surge in tourist numbers.
The popular Discoverer travel blog recently wrote that a visit to the historic town “is a highlight of any Croatian vacation, but the crowds that pack its narrow streets and passageways don’t make for a quality visitor experience.”
It said that the extra attention the city gets from being a filming location for “Game of Thrones” combines with the cruise ship arrivals to create “a problem of epic proportions.”
It advises travelers to visit other quaint old towns nearby: “Instead of trying to be one of the lucky ones who gets a ticket to Dubrovnik’s sites, try the delightful town of Ohrid in nearby Macedonia.”
In 2017, local authorities announced a “Respect the City” plan that limits the number of tourists from cruise ships to a maximum of 4,000 at any one time during the day. The plan still has to be implemented, however.
“We are aware of the crowds,” said Romana Vlasic, the head of the town’s tourist board.
But while on the one hand she pledged to curb the number of visitors, Vlasic noted with some satisfaction that this season in Dubrovnik “is really good with a slight increase in numbers.” The success of the Croatian national soccer team at this summer’s World Cup, where it reached the final, helped bring new tourists new tourists.
Vlasic said that over 800,000 tourists visited Dubrovnik since the start of the year, a 6 percent increase from the same period last year. Overnight stays were up 4 percent to 3 million.
The cruise ships pay the city harbor docking fees, but the local businesses get very little money from the visitors, who have all-inclusive packages on board the ship and spend very little on local restaurants or shops.
Krunoslav Djuricic, who plays his electric guitar at Pile, one of the two main entrances of Dubrovnik’s walled city, sees the crowds pass by him all day and believes that “mass tourism might not be what we really need.”
The tourists disembarking from the cruise ships have only a few hours to visit the city, meaning they often rush around to see the sites and take selfies to post to social media.
“We have crowds of people who are simply running,” Djuricic says. “Where are these people running to?“