Poetic Encounters with Predock
Antoine Predock describes architecture as a poetic encounter with the client, the site, the culture and finally the inner self of the architect who understands all the pre-requisites of the building. In his first Qatar-project, Predock indulges in a desert experience before he embarks on the planning and building of the Northwestern University of Qatar.
By Sindhu Nair
The Northwestern University in Qatar was housed until 2017 within one of the most impressive buildings in Education City; the Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar by world-renowned Legoretta+ Legoretta architects. The media school was hence associated within these premises and the inhabitants, the students and the faculty, had already made themselves appropriate into the spaces; comfort zones were created over time. That perhaps was the first challenge for the architect given the responsibility to create a premise that extracts you out of comfort zones. But for Antoine Predock, who had designed buildings around the world, from China, Taiwan, Japan to Chicago and Texas and in his hometown in Mexico, and won many accolades like the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the AIA Gold Medal, this was not a challenge that was impossible to overcome.
The buildings designed by signature-architects within the Education City is one place Predock calls, “an architectural museum of sorts, with each building having an authority, and a personality of its own.” He says, “I respect the other buildings but I wanted this building to have a deep integrity based on the location and in particular I wanted to answer the clients’ needs, in its entirety.”
For Predock the design process was heavily hinged on the place the building is located, “the building being a response to the surroundings in the deepest way and over time. It has to be respectful of the overall infrastructure, while understanding the different approaches to the building.”
Located in the southeast quadrant of Education City and set as a hinge between two campus axes, the Northwestern University quite literally translates and arbitrates the surrounding environment into an interwoven movement of interior and exterior space. Consisting of textured outer stone walls, the building tells a timeless story while inwardly transforming to a realm of digital magic. “In silhouette, the new College of Media and Communications becomes a rugged Qatari landscape in abstraction, while expressing a diagram of journalistic ideals,” says Predock, his voice crystal clear, over thousands of miles of static.
“The collaboration with HH Sheikha Mozah’s Education City and North Western University was a critical one because Northwestern (in the US) is viewed as one of the best journalism schools in the world. Journalism has also advanced and expanded so much in the 21st century and the building has to become the medium where all of these conflicting and sometimes complementing aspects of journalism comes together and keeps the tradition of reportage alive while striding forward technologically.”
To love a building, and to feel in sync with it you have to understand the thought-process behind each of the elements, the materials used and the shape of the structure. Predock explains how the NUQ building has taken the form we see it in. “If you look at the building it has an embracing form, common with the dunes in the desert, the arching form follows the curves of the swords of the Bedouins and the half-moon during the Ramadan season.” Predock continues, “The building has a beautiful calligraphic feel to it, even if you cannot read calligraphy, you are touched by the implied poetry and it is the same feeling that resonates with the building.”
The building gestures in a calligraphic manner, creating a narrative interweaving the courtyards and open atria in addition to allowing a spatial progression out through the courtyard and to the gardens. Cursive flow takes one from the lobby to commons and beyond to upper-level faculty, classrooms and media spaces. “The spatial progression in the building encourages dialogue, visual eaves dropping, and creates forums for debate, collaboration, and mentorship,” he explains.
The project acts as a forum for technological innovation, education and cultural exchange. A matrix of open informal gathering spaces juxtaposes against soft arcing paths tracing through the building. Interactive journeys taking place inside the building telegraph an internal digital skin that will both shade and narrate through embedded digital media and projection.
The other “gigantic” challenge, according to Predock was the location, the desert, an aspect the architect loves to tackle and emerge as the conqueror. “The forces of nature that act on a building in a desert is much more severe and I know how it assaults the buildings. Wind and sand play havoc on the structure and all these factors have to be factored in the planning to bring the forces to act on the building favourably.”
Predock spent a considerable amount of time understanding the desert climate, “the wind, the sandstorms, the changes in temperature, all these Arabic desert characteristics had to be experienced first-hand and I spent a lot of time in the desert to acclimatise myself to these surroundings,” he says. “And this intense climatic condition paved way for a fortress-kind-of exterior against the forces, one that contained a beautiful inner garden.”
Predock has designed numerous buildings in desert conditions and has travelled across each of these locales; the Gobi Desert that covers parts of northern and north-western China, southern Mongolia; the Kazakh desert near Kazakhstan; the deserts of South America and the ones in New Mexico which he describes as “high deserts which are cold yet arid, and very harsh”.
“Deserts around the world are very different, each of them have characteristics of their own.” he says. “And each of them have a very different impact on the building.”
Predock laments how many buildings in Doha portray a lack of sensitivity to the place they are built in and cites the examples of his favourite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the greatest American architect whose “organic architecture” seemed to have influenced Predock’s works.
Every architectural commission is a huge research project for Predock and that’s the process that he loves to embark on and if it were not for the deadline, he would continue to deeply engage with the surroundings he was building for. “The process is critical,” he says. “but all in the context of the deadline.”
While Predock’s love for the exteriors and its relation with buildings are known, this understanding was as a result of an experience that he had early on in his architectural journey. He describes it in his own words in an essay he has penned: “It was when I was a student traveling in Spain on a motorbike in the 1960’s that I first encountered the Alhambra. I had a limited understanding of Moorish architecture, since at that time architectural history courses to which I had been exposed barely touched on non-Western models. This moving, unforgettable encounter revealed a spatial realm that inalterable affected my path in architecture.”
Predock never views architecture as a business proposition, “while there can be wonderful business initiatives, or a great lifestyle,” instead he is more concerned about the integrity of the work, a passion that is true to the inner vision which finally identifies itself in the poetry of the architecture.
So, the mission of an architect is to have their inner content, made visible, says Predock. “Let that be a guide. And be true to that inner content, because what you put out there as a work of architecture remains there for a lot of time, to interact with people. What you build should be a message that lasts long, almost superseding the physical building, as a gift to mankind.”