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.


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