You were asked to design a pavilion for Bahrain at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, despite never having visited the country before. How do you go about summing up the long history and culture of a nation in a single, static form?
I tried to avoid a representational approach, which features so much among Expo pavilions. Instead, I started by making a drawing the size of the plot and filling it with arcs and lines, which became the lens through which I looked at Bahrain. Then I started looking at the country and its history, to find what resembled the drawing. We were specifically asked to reference Bahrain’s agricultural heritage, which makes it distinct from its neighbors, so we ended up creating a series of enclosed spaces and gardens. When the Bahrain minister of culture visited, she said, “I feel at home and, at the same time, I have never experienced it like this,” which to me was spot-on.
You went on to design Bahrain’s pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, and you now live in the country. What are you working on there? And has your approach changed now that you know more about it?
We are working on 14 projects—mostly UNESCO heritage sites—including the former king’s house, houses of pearl merchants, the souk. We are turning them into museum spaces, boutique hotels and shops. This time, I’m not starting with drawings—I’m using the existing buildings as the constraint, although that to me is not bound to Bahrain specifically. What I find beautiful is that they’re all man-made, rectangular spaces, but they’re never perfect. I’ve tried to throw in elements that emphasize that irregularity, for instance, floors that do not fit.
In a previous interview, you described the work of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier as “ideological.” Do you think of your work as ideology-free? Surely, challenging these values is also ideological?
Yes, but with me, there isn’t so much of a social or political agenda. I also don’t like representational or conceptual work. Thinking and theorizing about architecture doesn’t interest me much—I’m more interested in the built thing itself.
But don’t architects have a social responsibility?
Of course, but that’s not usually the architect’s decision. There’s often a mistaken belief when it comes to public housing or public space that the architect invented it. What the architect can do when it comes to public housing, say, is to think about providing the best living conditions within the given budget or location. And if he makes a villa for someone rich, it’s still the same question.
Photography:Studio Anne Holtrop