Learning from European Building Traditions – Students experience Innovations in Austria and Germany

HALBAN The Department of Urban Planning and Architectural Design (UPAD) of GUtech has recently conducted a two week excursion to Austria and Germany. The excursion was partially sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). “The main goal of the excursion was to inspire the students about previous building traditions, created by our ancestors and to create awareness about how those traditions are kept alive through innovation abroad and here in Oman. Our main question was how very isolated regions like Vorarlberg in Austria, with limited means developed a contemporary, highly admired architecture. Building traditions are not fixed, they are constantly changing. It is a spirit and innovated continuously,” said Wayne Switzer, Lecturer at the UPAD department, who was organizing and heading the excursion. These regions have steadily innovated the materials they had, for example wood. “Every year the builders went to Italy as hired carpenters, and then returned with new techniques which they adapted for their villages. Similarly, nowadays many architecture students go abroad for training and internships,” said Wayne.

During their excursion, students also saw parallels in materials which retain their cultural and practical value- such as the so-called shingle houses in Austria, e.g. in Vorarlberg old shingles made of wood are used as a primary material. “The students were fascinated that this traditional technique is still being applied in sophisticated buildings of today. They are not constrained by the past,” said Wayne. On a visit to the Kunsthaus Bregenz,  prominent art museum in the Austrian city of Bregenz, students witnessed a luminous façade of glass panels – arranged in a similar “shingle” technique as traditional buildings in the surrounding region. The idea is to promote this innovative spirit here in Oman and to create new ideas for integrating the traditional building materials and techniques into today’s architecture. During the second week of the excursion the group attended an architecture and urban planning workshop at the Department of Architecture at RWTH Aachen University.  In collaboration with RWTH students, GUtech students analysed areas of the city of Aachen and made proposals for how these might be sensibly developed.

As a result of that excursion the UPAD department started a series of discussions and lectures focussing on tradition and innovation. “The main themes were building culture, building construction, building with regards to the harsh weather condition in Oman,” said Wayne Switzer. For example the use of Arabic mushrabiya patterns (geometric patterns used in houses) representing Arab design and identity was discussed. “In my view, we have to recognize their practical usages rather than viewing them only as decoration. Ultimately, mushrabiyas provide privacy, shade and ventilation so we should consider appropriate materials and placement so they can be more effective in our contemporary buildings. During the discussions forums the group also spoke about topics such as teaching architecture at university in Oman. “The way we are educating architects here in Oman and at GUtech, from developing a concept to realising a construction, is much more comprehensive than what is expected of them within the current building industry,” explained Wayne Switzer.  “Through this dialogue we concluded that the role of architects in Oman must be expanded for their skills to be best put to use.”

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