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Global award-winning alumni, X-Architects: “AUS is part of us”
Ahmed Al Ali and Farid Esmaeil, co-founders of one of the UAE’s leading homegrown architecture firms, X-Architects, and alumni of American University of Sharjah (AUS), were thrown into the spotlight again earlier this month for their impressive achievement of winning the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2019.
The two architects, who were among the first graduates of the College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD) at AUS, were recognized for their transformational work on the Wasit Wetland Center in Sharjah for the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority. They share the US$1million award with six other global recipients for their contribution to the social and environmental fabric of Islamic communities around the world.
Following their graduation from AUS, Al Ali and Esmaeil formed X-Architects in 2003 and have received widespread acclaim for their ambitious contemporary designs of residential, commercial, community and cultural developments throughout the region, with a strong emphasis on contextual sensitivity.
“This is a very important award because it goes beyond looking at architecture and looks at how architecture gives back to society. This is really our culture and philosophy as a firm: to be sensitive and sensible to the social, cultural and environmental context of a project. In doing this, our work makes a contribution to society and inspires improvement and development in the quality of living,” said Esmaeil.
Being among the most successful homegrown architects in the UAE, Al Ali and Esmaeil see their work and the Agha Khan Award as a catalyst for a new movement of architecture in the region.
“We hope that this award will be an inspiration for a new generation of architects in this region —that there will be greater consideration of context, where instead of simply superimposing designs into a landscape as we have seen in the past 20 years or so, that we can move to a more sensible, indigenous approach of enhancing the existing context, what is already there,” Al Ali said.
“During the past 20 years graduates of AUS have contributed significantly to the development of a culture of design that values context-specific approaches. The work of X-Architects, and the recognition that they have earned through awards such as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2019, illustrates the importance of a sustained engagement with locally relevant issues that impact architecture and design.” said AUS Chancellor Professor Kevin Mitchell.
Over the past 16 years, Al Ali and Esmaeil have had the opportunity to work on a diverse portfolio of projects, from bespoke residential villas to a visionary masterplan for Dubailand, and the Revelation Mosque, which is currently under construction in Abu Dhabi. The confidence to start their own firm and their foundational ability to apply their skills for a wide range of projects was first instilled in them at CAAD.
“Being the first ‘batch’ of architecture students at AUS gave us two advantages: First, we had an excellent team of professors, all from very well-known educational institutions, each coming with their own different personal and cultural perspectives and their own very different philosophies about architecture and design. This gave us the opportunity to see and explore the different approaches to architecture and then apply these approaches to form our own perspectives,” said Esmaeil.
“Second, there was no precedent. We had no example of previous students to follow, no extensive range of books available and no Google. If we wanted to learn about a particular style or technique, we had to discover the answer and then do it ourselves. They called us ‘pioneers’ and they were right. This really formed our method of learning, discovering and doing that we still apply to our work today,” he said.
“We did all of this in a collaborative way, where we would all come together in our open design studios and share ideas and give feedback to each other. And because we were all from such diverse international backgrounds, we learned so much from each other. This international exposure—collaborating with our professors and fellow students, and the chance to travel abroad as part of our studies—was unique,” said Al Ali.
The X-Architects studios are strikingly familiar to those at the CAAD studios at AUS. The wide open-plan space provides no barriers between desks, allowing teams of international architects to huddle together over plans and collaborate with ease.
“AUS is part of us. It has naturally formed the foundation of who we are as architects and affected how we approach our work and the culture of our business,” said Esmaeil.
X-Architects have proudly employed a steady stream of CAAD alumni who continue to bring in this AUS culture, with four graduates currently on staff and one recently leaving to pursue graduate studies at one of the top design institutions abroad. They also take on CAAD student interns every year.
“While the techniques, methods and capabilities of CAAD students continue to evolve as the university grows, the quality is consistently very high,” said Esmaeil.
“I think this consistent quality comes from AUS’ commitment to the Founder’s high ambition to be among the best universities in the region, as well as the quality and diversity of the professors, the variety of the programs offered at CAAD, and the facilities which, from what we can see really, are the very best in this region,” said Al Ali.
The success of X-Architects is deeply satisfying for Dr. Varkki Pallathucheril, Dean of CAAD.
“Ahmed and Farid add passion and hard work to the deep sensibilities and skills instilled in them by faculty, who have had an impact right from the inception of the college and continuing to this day. As a result, in this award cycle, we saw three nominations connected to the college (including one by students), two of which were shortlisted, and one a winner. That's a remarkable record for any design school!” said Pallathucheril.
Beyond their connection with CAAD as employers of the college’s alumni, Al Ali and Esmaeil have been regular visitors to CAAD as guest lecturers and advisors, now contributing their own unique perspectives to the next generation of CAAD students.
To the next generation of CAAD architects, Al Ali and Esmaeil have three pieces of advice:
“Know what you want and go for it. There are many forces within the market, so you need to focus on what direction you want to go, produce more and talk less. Protect your work by avoiding free competitions but build your portfolio in other ways. And travel constantly. Whether you work in different locations to get more varied international experience or are based in one place, you need to see and experience things for yourself so that you can continually innovate,” said Esmaeil.
“AUS aspires to educate students who will become leaders in, and make an impact beyond, their respective fields. Degree programs provide depth in areas of specialization and opportunities for engagement with the issues that shape societies and cultures. Ahmed Al Ali and Farid Esmaeil are extraordinary examples of alumni who not only contribute to advancing their chosen profession, but who also play a leading role as advocates for continually improving the quality of the built environment in the region for the benefit of society,” said Professor Mitchell.
The College of Architecture, Art and Design at American University of Sharjah offers undergraduate programs in architecture, interior design, multimedia design, visual communication and design management, as well as a Master of Urban Planning program for graduate students. For more information, visit www.aus.edu/caad.