Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Working with the architects and designers

The first day's workshop in London last week was a round table with architects HLT with Buro Happold (structural engineers) and landscape designers Martha Schwartz at which we gave them a formal briefing – overview of the project from me; project management process by CI, urban context, engineering and planning issues by Tim Breadin, and content development by CI. The response from both design teams was that they had never had such a high-quality briefing from any client before, which I think reflects well on the preparatory work we and Cultural Innovatons have done between us. They were clear also that in starting to tackle some of the urban planning issues, and sourcing site information from the governorate and university, we have shortened significantly the initial period of research and fact-finding they would normally have to do, so they can move through initial phases much faster.

I made clear at the meeting that while we were not expecting people to sign up to completion dates they knew to be unrealistic, I was not willing to discuss moving from our date in 2009 without very clear evidence in the form of detailed work schedules. There was some discussion about whether and how the project implementation might be done in modules, delivering the discovery centre in 2009 and the landscaped park and underground car parking in 2010. At this stage the MS team had not yet visited Damascus so they were still discussing largely in the abstract. However, they fully took on board the point of creating a public space that was not over-precious and unwelcoming. We discussed sourcing plants locally and in the region and how these would best be acclimatised in the years running up to final implementation.We confirmed that we were appointing initially on a short-term basis to take us through the masterplan and into concept deign stages. This was a very good introductory meeting, at which everyone felt energised and enthused.

This week the design teams plus Buro Happold are in Damascus and we have this morning given an introductory presentation on their work to the Governor. This visit has already given them huge insights in a number of valuable areas. We met with two construction companies to get information on how projects are managed, local supplier strengths and weaknesses, planning processes, sourcing quality materials and so on. The architects have seen some building work being carried out using traditional techniques and materials, and have realised that local resources do exist and high quality work can be done here, which they thought might be impossible. They have also noted that various decorative techniques which would cost a fortune to commission in the Gulf are available very cheaply here. They have walked the site three times to get the feel of it at different times of day, and spent much time walking the Old City, looking not just at architecture and visual cues but at the way people use public spaces and connections. Last night we went up Qassioun to see the city from there.

What has come back from them strongly, as it so often does, is how different (positively) it is here from anything they expected or have met elsewhere. As a result, they are exceptionally enthusiastic about the project. Lorraine Landels of Martha Schwartz has asked if Massar might be a reference project for an influential pan-Arab project management group which she advises. This group is looking across the region at ways to manage projects better. Lorraine believes Massar, even at this stage, represents exactly the sort of best practice the group should aim to emulate. I have not committed, but if we want the impact of Massar to reach regionally this might be a very good idea. I have also discussed at length with her not only the need for this to be a place where people from all walks of life can feel at ease, but the counterbalancing need for it to be a place which people feel they should look after. It also turns out she and I must have been at art college in Edinburgh together. Meetings are also happening with soil engineers, landscape constructors before everyone flies out this evening.

Yesterday’s discussions raised the subject of the various interested parties who would rather the OIF site were available for commercial development, so are anti our scheme. Our conversation with the Governor this morning raised the subject of the various interested parties who feel this project represents an “English invasion”, whereas only Damascenes can really understand Damascus. [It also underlined how committed he is to something modern rather than a retreat to a traditional language.] We will have demonstrably to set and meet international standards of planning, management and execution, so leaving no-one with a valid reason to criticise the way the project has been handled.

This visit has laid to rest many if not all of the potential worries amongst the design teams, and has acted as a very useful bonding exercise between us all. I have been very impressed by the approach and attitudes of HLT and MS and I am feeling very confident that they “get” the project, are much more attuned to life and expectations here, and will do an exceptional job for us. They see Massar as a “real” project, with a clarity of vision that gives them the opportunity to do work that really matters, for a people they already feel a bond with. They are good-humoured, informal, good company and intelligent.


Saturday, January 27, 2007


Garden delights

The garden behind the apartment is not big, and most of it is taken up with a car-port. But it has shrubs and trees which provide a little greenery, and shelter me from the eyes of the houses opposite. One of the shrubs, a pyrocanthus, also attracts birds, which eat its berries through the winter. There are blackbirds, which sing at dusk, pigeons (a very attactive burnt terracotta colour here) and lots of sparrows, which seem to thrive here despite the appalling pollution. I've started putting out breadcrumbs for them, and have just brought back some fat balls from the UK as well. These are plainly either not popular or not recognised, as the sparrows so far just sit and look at them.

This year I plan to put some pots of plants into the garden - lavender if I can find it, something citron-scented to deter the mosquitos, and a local plant called dufla which grows easily at the sides of the road, has white or pink flowers, and must be almost indestructible. I also have some nasturtium seeds to plant.

The downside of the garden is that it gets dropped into it lots of stuff cast away by my upstairs neighbours from their balcony - tissues, cigarette butts, broken clothes pegs. Not nice but just the way things are. It also has a magnetic appeal to the neighbourhood cats who like to use it as a litter tray. Again, not nice, and for them I have started sprinkling some pepper around to see if that keeps them away.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Using metaphors

I heard someone on television this morning, talking portentously about global warming, use the phrase: "lighting the fuse on a ticking time-bomb". Now, does one have to light a fuse on a time-bomb? Don't they just get set? I would have thought if it were ticking then lighting a fuse would be unnecessary; the thing was already getting ready to explode. All a bit of a muddle, metaphor-wise, and it rather masked whether what she was saying was right or not.

On a similar note, I can't watch Lord of the Rings without wincing every time archers are told to "fire". You don't "fire" an arrow (unless I suppose it is a fire-arrow); the term applies to gunpowder-based weapons, logically enough. For archers, the term is "loose" or "shoot". That's the trouble with being a pedant, you get niggled by everything.

I remember being invited to the premiere of a period film based on a Henry James novel - Michelle Pfeiffer was in it I think - with a lot of then-colleagues from the V&A. It was a good enough film in many ways, but all the way through, the art curators were whispering things like: "oh no, they never wore the collar buttoned like that," or "look at that chair, completely the wrong period, ten years later at least". So generally I keep quiet about my hair-splitting when in company.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007


View of the site

This view of the site for our discovery centre and public park is taken from near the top of the Four Seasons Hotel nearby looking towards the west on a very wet day last year. To the left (south) of the site is the university campus. Beyond it is the opera house. The Barada River runs along its northern edge, and on the right of the picture is the Meridien Hotel. About 125,000 metres square in all.


Friday, January 12, 2007


Blog barring?

I find recently that I'm unable to view my own blog - apparently due to the blogspot site being barred from here, which is something unwelcome. I'll make discreet enquiries.

For anyone in the same position Torpark provides a workaround, and inblog allows you to visit blogspot sites if you know their address.


Saturday, January 06, 2007


Happy New Year


Garden space

There's a new Environmental Garden, not big or exotic but a nice interesting open public space, just beside the Citadel in the Old City. The Barada river runs alongside. This shot is taken from the very enjoyable cafe in the garden, where they serve fresh mulberry juice.



Background politics

Given the extreme care we have taken with the architectural competition - to select a practice, not a design concept - it was disappointing that one of the people we had involved in the process, and was one of our Technical panel (and paid for his trouble!), chose to complain about it afterwards. It was clear that the fact we had not selected Zaha Hadid had caused some political ripples, and here was someone taking care that no possible blame could attach to him. This is a man who prides himself on speaking his mind, and doing the right thing however unpopular it may be, so it was strange that he chose to complain not to me first (in fact at all) but direct to Mrs Assad's office.

He had a number of opportunities to raise any concerns with me during the process of the competition. As chair of the selection panel, I would have been duty bound to register his concerns at the very least. However, he didn't. At one point the Technical panel presented en bloc the summary of their findings to the Selection panel; he could at that point have offered a minority opinion or stated that he felt the process had not been clear, adequate or objective. He did not do so. He could even, had he felt so strongly about it, have refused a place on the Technical panel or left early. However, he did none of these things.

He complained about the composition of the selection panel. Two of the Panel members were, he suggested, anti-Hadid. What was he suggesting? That we should not have a balance of views on the panel? That we should not shortlist entries on the basis of the selection panellists? That we should exclude panelists who dislike a particular practice? On one basis or another we would either have no entries or no selection panel, or a very boring rubber-stamp job. I think the two members he mentioned would be very angry to hear that they were suspected of not giving all submissions proper consideration. At the very least he could work out that arithmetically there were still five members who might well have an alternative view.

He complained that one of the judges should have been encouraged to enter as a practice. We were all in agreement with this view, and had hoped that this architect would enter. He had been sent the papers, and we know he was interested in submitting an entry. However, he was then told by a Syrian architect, Mr S H, that as his name was down for the judging panel he should not submit, so he did not. Needless to say the judging panel list had not been published and if the architect in question had submitted an entry we would have cheerfully looked for an alternative panellist.

Thankfully, we have had complete support from Mrs Assad, and indeed a lot of praise for the process from the competing architects themselves, all of whom loved Damascus. It was a well-run and highly professional competition.


Thursday, January 04, 2007



I'm not cut out for blogging - it' always last on my list of thing to do. So I realise I haven't added a post since last September, and the excuse is it's been a hectic and exhausting three months. But we have made a great deal of progress. Our touring programme attendance reached 37,229 by the end of 2006, we have around $10 million in donations to the project, and we have got past some major hurdles on the road to creating the discovery centre.

Most of these have been to do with the site, where we have created the structure of our strategic planning framework, and possibly - finally - settled the vexed question about terms of occupancy and assigned rights from the Ministry that is the site's owner. We have also appointed the architects to work with us - a draining process but with a great eventual outcome. The competition was extremely strong and making a final selection was immensely difficult. However, we have finally decided on Henning Larsen Architects, a practice based in Copenhagen. their website is at They are great people, with a track record of imaginative and distinctive buildings, and we are looking forward to getting them on board.

The challenges for 2007 are going to be to avoid being stretched too thin between Massar and Trust work, to expand the team without losing the very close-knit feel we have at present, and to keep focussed on the big goals rather than the stuff that clutters up my desk every day. We also have to confirm our funding from government - just a small detail. On top of this the immediate tasks are to finalise our specification for space in the Lattakia cultural centre, where we have been allocated c300m2 as long as we can fit it out and occupy it by June. And to talk with the Ministry of Communications about their plans for a technology museum, which looks now as if its on-off-on existence is going to end as off, so there may be some money going begging there too.

The other major challenge looks like being keeping our project partner, the Governorate of Damascus, up to speed. So far, they have done next to nothing, and are late on delivering several things before the project has really got started. A diplomatic challenge to look forward to.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]