Commentary on Competitions and the Al Jamea Competition in Particular

by Paul Spreiregen, FAIA

Paul Spreiregen flying paper airplanes at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C.

There have been numerous international design competitions in the past. They go back centuries, and for both architecture as well as town planning. This is hardly the first. Yet it demonstrates some characteristics of considerable portent.

It is also a long condition of design in general that design predilections of many strains find their ways from their places of origin to places that are far different. Developing countries have long drawn on the design systems, “styles” if you prefer, of more developed neighbors. Even within the same culture borrowing from a distant past for present needs is hardly new. To borrow the old for use in the new has been a characteristic of architecture. It can be seen as a search for identity and order through architectural form.



Many a university, in Europe and certainly in the US, owes its campus form to some predecessor designs. Oxford and Cambridge are adaptations of Benedictine monasteries. Many east coast American universities are adaptations of the forms of Oxford or Cambridge. Many western American universities are transports of eastern “Ivy League” campuses. Religious architecture particularly has frequently derived forms from its own history.

But paralleling these phenomena has been the development of new forms for new needs. That’s been the story of western architecture for at least the past two centuries, new needs generating new forms, not to mention new industrial processes. It is what architecture has come to expect of itself. And it is what requires contemporary architects to look somewhat beyond their normal expectations.

All the while the most basic generating condition of all architectural design does not change. That is the human body, how it moves, how it sees, the accommodations it requires, including social interaction. That remains a constant, as old as human evolution. We can and do walk paths that may have been set down a thousand years ago. We can occupy houses equally old, or in towns built and rebuilt over centuries past. We may enjoy these even more than the new, because they provide an added dimension of time and memory.

The Al Jamea Competition

The four plans for Al Jamea tus Saifiyah Nairobi are well seen from this perspective. While they draw on ancient precedents in Arab building experience they do so with reason, intelligence and sometimes inventiveness. The forms they draw on are not superficial, but rather the basic stuff of architecture, the organization of space for human purpose. In this regard of course the designs vary.

All four design proposals demonstrate communality in the way they are structured around systems of spatial corridors and special reservoirs – linear streets and passages combined with enclosed gardens and plazas. That system for organizing space is ancient, a product of the evolution of cities since time immemorial.

Further, all four designs made use of decorative motifs from historic Arab architecture, some more directly derived, some more contemporary in sensibility. On that score, the often exquisite artisanship of the Arab world’s golden years cannot be expected to be replicated, but it can be emulated using modern industrialized means of fabrication, as some of the designers have successfully attempted.

And all four designs employed gardening and planting, one of the great traditions of Arab architecture, the garden constituting paradise as described in the Koran. With that, water was well employed as another element of design, both for its visual delights as much as its practical cooling effects.

All of this recalls earlier precedents in Arab architecture. Among them are the accomplishments of the Ottoman architect, and contemporary of Michelangelo, Koca Mimar Sinan (the writer’s favorite architect of all time) or the more contemporary Egyptian architect Hassan Fahti. This same level of architectural excellence is to be seen in the contemporary works recognized by the Aga Kahn Foundation.

Finally, the larger and even obvious portent of this competition for modern architecture deserves to be recognized. This competition managed to balance the best of contemporary western architectural thinking with the best of traditional eastern sensibilities. May this be the larger gift of the Al Jamea tus Saifiyah Nairobi design effort.

Considering the research, presentation requirements, and amount of travel required—one trip to Nairobi, a trip to Mumbai for the final presentations—all to be covered by this stipend, the only individual team to have a slight advantage here was the Benninger / MruttuSalmann team, in that they were already headquartered in Mumbai and did not have to travel for the final session.

This subject was most complex and highly demanding. The graphics required to portray the designs were commensurately extensive, but not excessive for the task at hand. So the problem devolves back to fee. The competition reviewed here is typical of what sponsors have now come to expect as the “new norm.” That is not likely to change. But it does not advance the competition system to underpay participating competitors.

Paul Spreiregen, FAIA, has written extensively on design competitions, and was Professional Advisor for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Intelsat Headquarters in Washington DC, the ATT/Bell Laboratories Solid States Technologies Laboratory in Allentown PA, and the City County Buildings in Mobile Al, among others.