By: Alex Cunningham, Dubai Airports
Could you please brief us about yourself and your journey as an architect?
I am a design led Architect with a focus on people, community and culture, with an expansive portfolio that includes high-profile projects across the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
Having studied my RIBA Pt.I at Newcastle University in the UK, the city where I was born and my family reside, I first began work for a local practice with international presence, FaulknerBrowns, a sports and educational / mixed use design led practice. At this early stage in my career, and perhaps a hint at what was to come, I was fortunate to work on the exciting Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Sports Complex in Dubai, in preparation for the 2010 FINA World Swimming Championships. This was a wonderful project, introducing me to the complex world of multi-disciplinary and international workflows, while allowing me to explore and champion emerging technologies and techniques at the time to improve design and coordination.
Following completion of my RIBA Pt.II at Newcastle, I moved to Nottingham, UK, where I subsequently qualified with my RIBA Pt.III while working with global design practice Benoy. It was with Benoy that I was further exposed to international working, with a focus on leading large scale, commercial and retail led mixed use masterplans. After a few years in the UK, I was requested by the CEO to transfer to Dubai in January 2014. This was to harness my design skills within the corporate development challenge of enhancing the creative and delivery capacity and capability of the Benoy MENA studios, and to facilitate the growth in the region.
In this capacity, I led the creative design and management for a number of key projects across the region, most notably being the Bahrain Marina Masterplan, the new civic heart for Bahrain’s waterfront.
To unlock Bahrain’s full potential as an exciting cultural destination, we looked to enhance an underdeveloped area and transforming it into an authentic urban waterfront district. Attracting visitors and strengthening the area’s heritage, commercial activities and leisure offering, Bahrain Marina will hopefully become a landmark lifestyle destination for Bahrain and its surrounding region, as well as the global community. We designed with inclusivity at the core of the scheme, embracing its setting and the local cultures, while looking to the future. Innovative new concepts for social gatherings and activities are integrated into the public heart of the scheme, along with creative spaces accessible to all of the community to promote entrepreneurism, youth engagement and creativity.
Following my time with Benoy, I took the opportunity to undertake my current role as Head of Design & Experience for Dubai Airports, where, with the support from others in the design thinking and creative teams, I lead the design frameworks and creative direction.
I am responsible for the definition, development, and realisation of our Guest Experience Framework, Masterplanning, and concept development of initiatives across the all-encompassing Airport environment, from a brand and brand connection perspective through to the physical, built environment of space and place within the Airport campus.
• How did you think of becoming an architect? What do you enjoy most about your profession?
As a child, I was fascinated with drawing. My focus was always to become a comic-book artist until the dilemma of reality began to cloud my dreams and I looked to explore a vocation that would allow me to think and draw creatively while contributing towards a tangible change in the world.
With this in mind, I was drawn to Architecture as a profession after understanding it to be a medium in which our lines on paper become the spaces and volumes we inhabit and become the canvas of our lives. That being said, I still love to draw, and use it daily to explore not only design solutions to exciting and challenging briefs, but to develop and understand the narrative behind those solutions, and define the journeys and emotions through the spaces I create.
I am passionate about creative design, focusing my deep-rooted conceptual ideologies on all the projects and initiatives in the Studios I have worked in. I am a keen advocate and champion for channeling emerging and exciting technologies within the industry, and for co-developing projects in a collaborative and nurturing environment. I find it important to mentor and teach, and have taken the opportunity to support various architectural schools in the UK with ongoing design charette reviews, critiques, and tutoring.
• Where is the architectural industry heading (globally or in the country where you work)?
We are moving towards an exciting future, which is not without its challenges.Sustainability continues to be a priority in our collective thinking and approach, and in order to realise this new and evolving future, we need to think more broadly; to celebrate architecture as a collective act, with multiple stakeholders and owners and us, as Architects, as the facilitators and curators of these multiple tomorrows. We shall be seeing the utilisation of more and more AI in our thinking, to support our conceptualisation and design thinking processes and enable swift communication of ideas.
• One piece of advice you would like to give aspiring architects?
Don’t be afraid to fail!
As a younger architect, I was always concerned with making sure I had the “right” answer to a problem. In reality, there are infinite ways to approach a solution, and testing and refining are fundamental parts of that process. Allow yourself to explore, play, stumble, and move on, learning as you go. It will strengthen your knowledge, but more importantly, give you confidence in ideation.
Oh, and draw!