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Amid the turbo-development and futuristic cities of the Arabian Gulf, two architects have found a slower pace—and each other—in Bahrain.

If the tiny island nation of Bahrain has an architectural power couple, it’s Noura Al Sayeh Holtrop and Anne Holtrop—originally from Palestine and the Netherlands, respectively. After living in the country briefly as a child, trained architect Noura, 35, moved back to Bahrain in 2009 and took up the post of head of architectural affairs within the government’s ministry of culture. It’s a position she’s made her own over the last 10 years, working on the country’s heritage preservation projects and its award-winning first participation at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010.

She met Anne, 41, an architect who’d initially set out to be an artist, in 2014. The two now live in Bahrain, and Anne’s practice is split between Europe and this unique pocket of the Arabian Gulf, which is free of most of the controversy that attaches itself to its domineering next-door neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

“We have our cultural differences, but we share a lot in the work,” Anne says of the relationship. He is currently working on a reimagining of the old town market building, while Noura is engaged in a long-term project to create the Pearling Path, a cultural trail between a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Muharraq—the oldest city in Bahrain, and where Anne has his studio.

How did you first meet?
Noura Al Sayeh Holtrop: We met because I organized a competition to design the Bahrain Pavilion for the Milan Expo in 2015. I didn’t know Anne; I had only seen his work, which was not very extensive at the time, but in the few things I had seen there was something that made me curious. So we invited him to enter. It was a short competition because I’m a really big procrastinator and leave things to the last minute. After the jury selected Anne’s submission, we met to present his design to the Expo organization in Milan and…

Anne Holtrop: I knew I had a problem, because I fell in love instantly.

Noura: We ended up getting married a month after the pavilion opened.

Anne: I’m the opposite of a procrastinator. When I know something, I do it. But I didn’t want to scare off Noura so I didn’t ask her [to marry me] in the first month.

  • Words:
    Rima Sabina Aouf
  • Photography:
    Alexander Wolfe

Was it an easy decision for you to move to Bahrain then, Anne?
Anne: Amsterdam had become a bit boring to me. I had lived there for more than 18 years and I was ready to move on, but I didn’t know where to. And then Noura came along and Bahrain was in the package, so I thought, “Why not?” I didn’t really think about what opportunities there were—I just moved! It was not all easy. There’s less infrastructure than I was used to in the Netherlands, but in the end, I’m happy to be a bit secluded. It gives me focus on my work. It’s also good to have some constraints.

Noura: It’s an island—and a small one.

Anne: We are not like Dubai, where you could get a lot more things. But that is nice because the constraints are something that you can use as a setting-off point.

I remember flying over Bahrain and being struck by how different it looked from other Gulf cities: a white city rising from white sand—it’s mesmerizing. What do you like the most about it?
Noura: There’s a lot that’s special here. It has a really layered history that you feel in many ways. There’s been life here [since roughly] 2000 B.C. up to today, and you feel it somehow.

Anne: I love to work with the light here. The Netherlands, where I’m from, is also famous for its light, but the light is that of clouds with the sun shining through. Here the light is of an incredible brightness, with very stark shadows. And I use that a lot in the architecture I make here—how I depict it, how I photograph it and how I show it. And also the color of it, because everything has dust over it. There’s always sand in the air. People here don’t like it, but I like that it gives everything a sort of beige hue and softens the color. I’ve completely adopted it in my work and the materials I work with.

It sounds like Bahrain has influenced your work a lot. Is there still something distinctly Dutch that you bring to the work you do here?
Anne: Yes. I think one of the habits of Dutch artists, architects and designers is the will to completely rethink and redo something, without being bound to history. To not feel restricted by tradition, I think that’s a Dutch trait.

Noura, you trained as an architect but now you work in more of a planning role with the government. What drives you to do this work?
Noura: I think the desire to push certain boundaries of what you’re able to say and talk about in this part of the world, although that changes all the time. One of the first projects I worked on was the Bahrain Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2010, for which we did this exhibition called Reclaim, looking at land reclamation. [In Bahrain as in other areas of the Gulf, privatization of the coastline for redevelopment projects has restricted public access.] You never used to hear about the way people living here were reacting to that or protesting or how it was affecting their lives. This was one of the first times that there was a critical analysis of the extensive change that was happening to the coastlines—at the government level. We did interviews with fishermen, a lot of fieldwork. It emboldened people. That kind of risk-taking and excitement is probably primarily what motivates me, and I always try to look for topics that are necessary or relevant to talk about.

Do you have similar preoccupations, Anne?
Anne: I’m much more concerned with individual artistic factors. That practice is led by something that I now call “material gesture.” The materiality of an architectural project is quite often understood as its construction and expression. I try in my practice not to produce meaning, but to look freely at material that is devoid of meaning or representation.

Noura: It may seem like our interests diametrically oppose one another.

“It may seem like our interests diametrically oppose one another.”

I was just thinking that, yes.
Noura: Actually, not so much! Often when you say you’re interested in public debate, people think that you believe that architecture also needs to be embedded in its ambition. Whereas I think that a lot of the decisions that we take prior to a project happening— where to put the project, what kind of public character it’s going to have—are where these things manifest themselves. When these decisions are well taken, it liberates the architecture from having to express that itself. And then the architecture can just be about the architecture. It took me a while to understand that these preoccupations that I had were not best solved through architecture but through something else that had to do more with policy-making.

So what is the responsibility of architects once building commences? You hear about unsafe or exploitative conditions for workers employed on the World Cup construction for Qatar 2022, for instance.
Anne: As an architect, I am responsible for the participation I have, from the design to the supervision of the construction. I can talk to the contractor and commissioner if I see flaws in safety. In Bahrain, in general, this is most often well looked after actually. But when it comes to the political decision-making—why [a building] is going to be built in this location, et cetera—this is not the choice of an architect. A politician or commissioner decided to build the school, and then they got connected to an architect that has intelligent ideas about how to do that. It happens in that order.

In the Gulf states, there are new cities being built entirely from scratch, sometimes with quite utopian mission statements. Do you find these projects exciting?
Anne: I think definitely there are possibilities to rethink cities [that there aren’t in Europe]. However, I believe in developing new buildings that are rooted in their place. For instance, the Bahrain Pavilion I made is based on the idea of enclosed gardens that are historically typical for the Middle East and also in Bahrain. I did not reproduce it exactly but reinvented it while maintaining certain qualities. The enclosing helps to provide a climate condition in which the trees can grow well.

When we talk about livable, healthy or people-oriented city design, the cities of the Gulf don’t usually rate highly. How do you think these values might be realized in the urban design of cities in the region?
Noura: I think we need to look at it with a larger historical lens as a lot has been lost in this regard, with the very fast pace of urbanization and modernization that has happened from the 1950s onwards in the Gulf region. Technological innovations like the introduction of air conditioning rendered some traditional architectural cooling methods such as the bagdirs [traditional wind towers for ventilation] irrelevant. But other aspects related to urban planning, such as the organic growth of cities, the scale of the streetscape and the density of the buildings, could have been used as the basis for the expansion of the city. Unfortunately, the more common approach across the region has been to start anew with the infrastructure suited to the wide use of the car. What we are attempting to do with a project such as the Pearling Path is to rehabilitate the historic urban center of Muharraq while introducing adequate infrastructure to make it more in tune with the current needs and lifestyle.

I encounter stereotypes of the Middle East all the time and I’m sure you do as well. What do you wish more foreigners knew about the place?
Noura: There are a lot of stereotypes about this part of the world, and I have to admit, many of them are true! But that doesn’t mean that within these stereotypes there aren’t different realities and specificities that also exist. You hear a lot about women’s rights and things like that, but I’m a woman in this position, I work for a woman [Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture & Antiquities] and most of the people I work with are women. It doesn’t mean there isn’t gender discrimination in general, but within a condition like that, there are so many different realities. And what’s nice about Bahrain in terms of work is that it’s extremely non-hierarchical. That kind of informal way of working creates possibilities because anything that you want to try to achieve is a few phone calls away.

“Constraints are something that you can use as a setting-off point.”

  • Words:
    Rima Sabina Aouf
  • Photography:
    Alexander Wolfe

“Constraints are something that you can use as a setting-off point.”

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