The Sufi Architect

Suleika Mueller on photographing Nevine Nasser, the beauty of Sufi practices, plus the power of art and architecture

When photographer Suleika Mueller met London-based architect and practicing Sufi Muslim Nevine Nasser for the first time, she was utterly inspired by her work. Born and raised a Sufi Muslim herself, Suleika had often struggled to connect her medium with her spiritual practices. Nevine defies the stereotypes of Muslim Women and integrates her spirituality with creativity, most notably in the form of portraits offering a different perspective of Islam to what’s portrayed in Western media.  Suleika looks up to Nevine entirely, so much so that her work has inspired her “most personal” project yet, The Sufi Architect. Below, I talk to Suleika to understand more about the motives behind the series, the beauty of Sufi practices and the power of creativity. 

What excites you about the medium?

My work is extremely intimate and personal, I use photography to explore

subjects linked to my upbringing, identity, emotions and experiences. It’s a great tool to understand myself, the world and the people around me a little bit better and delve into subjects that I’m curious about. I think my spiritual, cross-cultural upbringing has shaped my artistic vision into a unique blend of Eastern and Western cultural values, traditions and references. My hybrid identity, the feeling of being in the in-between, though isolating as it might feel sometimes, actually has allowed me to understand and empathise with different kinds of people and point of views so I feel quite grateful to have been brought up in such an unusual way. I want to champion people, subjects and communities I truly care about, especially because I never saw any relatable representation of the Muslim community growing up.

What inspired you to start working on this project, why tell this story?

This project is one of the most personal ones to date, just because it is so closely linked to my background and highlights things I deeply care about. Growing up Sufi in the West meant that nobody around me knew anything about my practices and community. My aim has always been to spread more knowledge and highlight the practices, traditions and people I grew up with, challenging Western media’s harmful stereotypes by portraying

the Muslim community in a much more authentic and nuanced way. I was extremely inspired and touched by Nevine’s beautiful work and the space she designed and was even more so struck by how empowered and committed she is as a person. During her doctoral studies, she developed a methodology for designing transformative contemporary sacred spaces through creating the School of Sufi Teaching, a Sufi community centre in Bethnal Green where members of the Naqshbandī-Mujaddidī Sufi order regularly meet to pray, meditate and practice together. Nevine reclaimed the transformative power of sacred geometry, calligraphy, symbolism and understandings of light in the Quran to underpin and inspire the design of the space in order to support practitioners to turn towards the inner self, preparing them for meditation. This series is as much a celebration of Nevine as a person, as it emphasises and explores the beauty and transformative power of sacred Islamic art and architecture as well as Sufi practices and traditions. I believe it is truly important to tell this particular story as it gives insight into a widely unknown aspect of Islam, whilst at the same time exploring one woman’s intimate spiritual practice.

Traditionally, the majority of religious and spiritual figures are male, and architecture is still a very male dominated industry, so I really love how Nevine breaks all those stereotypes, setting an example of an empowered yet religious woman.

What was the creative process like, did you spend much time with Nevine? Where did you shoot etc.?

Nevine and I met at the community centre and she showed me around the space as we got to know each other better. We hadn’t met before so we talked about loads of different things whilst shooting. It turned out that Nevine and I share a lot of common interests and I could’ve stayed there forever just talking about our experiences, aims, practices and inspirations. I felt an instant connection to her because both our creative practices have very similar aims and goals, Nevine explores and pursues those through architecture whilst I use photography as a medium. I had prepared a few shot ideas in advance and Nevine had many ideas of her own so we just experimented and tried out different things throughout the day. A lot of the shots just emerged from her telling me where and how she usually practices within the space. Portraying Nevine’s intimate rituals felt a bit

like coming home, it brought me back in touch with the sacred traditions

of my upbringing. I’ve always wanted to show how meaningful and peaceful Sufi practices are and I guess this project is a first step in that direction. It was probably one of the most wholesome and effortless shoots I’ve done to this date. Everything seemed to just fall into place and the serenity of the space really infused the whole experience with peace and calm.

Can you pick out a couple of favourite images and talk me through them?

In Islamic culture, sacred geometry is believed to be the bridge to the spiritual realm, the instrument to purify the mind and the soul. Many spiritual and miraculous concepts are represented in the geometrical patterns, oftentimes acting as windows into the infinite, reminding of the greatness of Allah.

Nevine in meditation. Sufi practitioners regularly observe Murāqabah (arabic, translated ”to observe”). Through Murāqabah a person observes their spiritual heart and gains insight into the its relation with its creator, developing a personal relationship with Allah through self-knowledge and inquiry.

Tasbih is a form of Dhikr (arabic, translated “remembrance”) in which specific phrases or prayers are repeatedly chanted in order to remember God. The phrases are repeated 99 times, using the beads of the Subha (Muslim prayer beads) to keep track of counting.

Nevine praying Zuhr, one of the five daily Islamic prayers, facing the Qibla, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.


How do you hope your audience will respond to this project?

I really hope this project gives insight into a community and practice that is usually quite mystical and secretive. My own Sufi order is a very close-knit community but at the same time, it’s quite isolated. I always thought that it was such a shame to keep the culture, community and practices so hidden from mainstream society. I would really love for the series to open the doors a little bit, allowing a glimpse of the beauty, depth and serenity of Sufi traditions and Islamic art. I also hope Nevine’s sincerity, passion and dedication in creating a space that supports spiritual development comes across in the imagery. She is a truly inspiring and empowered woman who’s story deserves to be told.

What’s next for you?

I feel like this project really opened my eyes and made me realise how passionate I am about the subjects it touches upon. I’ve decided to make this an ongoing personal project of mine, exploring women and non-binary people who use their creative practices as an extension of their spiritual ones. I’ve already shot another series with someone from a completely different background, using a completely different art form to connect to their spirituality and I’m very excited for that one to come out later this year. If anyone reading this is interested in participating I’d love for them to reach out to me!

Limbo Accra

The spatial design studio infuses architecture with art to transform unfinished structures in West Africa

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

“We all need each other” is a phrase that suitably defines both the output and ethos of spatial design studio Limbo Accra. Founded by Dominique Petit-Frère and Emil Grip in 2018, the work of Limbo Accra is cyclical and non-wasteful as it operates amongst unfinished structures in West African cities; it puts the planet and its people first. By doing so, decaying buildings are given new narratives, while public spaces are provided for the local communities. Below, I chat to Dominique and Emil to find out more about their impactful work.

Can you begin by telling me a little about your backgrounds?

Our backgrounds are within urban development and education – so our approach to design and architecture has always been from an intuitive and autodidact perspective. The whole process for us has always been informed by the multicultural essence in our relation to each other, since we are constantly moving between Accra, Copenhagen and New York. We met in Ghana in 2014, but we didn’t form Limbo until 2018. In that sense Limbo is a culmination of all the experiences and ideas we had over those four year. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

When we started Limbo Accra it was out of pure curiosity to transform and investigate the architectural and built conditions of modernising West African cities as we were keen on exploring the intersection between art, architecture and sustainability within this new-age context. The studio’s name is a nod to the many incomplete and since-abandoned buildings in Accra and other West African cities. 2018 was a truly transformative period in Accra and we both felt compelled to take action in that transformation. For us it was very evident that this large scale of uncompleted property developments littered around the city of Accra held a vast amount of opportunities for activations and conversation among the growing creative community and city at large. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

What’s your ethos as a studio, what types of projects do you usually like to work on? 

It’s not like we have a stiff value set at the studio, but more a set of current observations from society in general and the spaces we navigate in, that we choose to act and react to. Our practice exists in this fluid space between juxtapositions, because we never allow ourselves to be stagnant; Limbo is constantly evolving, morphing and growing. Essentially, we are simply here to question and investigate the reality of the world we see, and how we can be more intentional about our role within in it as spatial practitioners. 

We are quite selective about the projects we engage in. At the core of any of our projects is a story. We honestly see Limbo as a way of communicating stories through architecture. The fascinating thing about telling stories using architecture is the opportunity to materialise an idea in a simultaneously expressive and material way. That impact on society is immaculate. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

You operate within unfinished buildings in Ghana and beyond, which is super interesting. Can you tell me more about this? 

So the Limbo sites are interesting for us in an African context because it poses the opportunity to bridge two societal issues within the urban landscape: extensive voided structures and lack of public space. Essentially we are experimenting with the idea of using these sites as soft activations for people to question the neighbourhoods and cities, asking “how are we being intentional in the way we design and create spaces for people?” 

How important is sustainability to your practice, and what does this mean in terms of how you approach a brief and the design process? 

Sustainability is important. We try to think of our approach to a project as regenerative. Our logic from the very beginning has always been to work with what already exists – to maximise the re-usage of what we already have, simply re-adapting what already is into a new meaning. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku 

Can you talk me through a recent project of yours?

We just wrapped up an amazing exhibition titled WET by Ghanaian-American artist Araba Ankuma. As an artist working internationally, Ankuma’s stories focus on the importance of perception and the need to shift it in order to illuminate the invisible narratives that bind us as human beings. Composing narrative through photography and collage, Ankuma acts as a tour guide, transporting viewers from existing perspectives to new perceptual ground. Our studio is always about collaborations and working together. The whole logic is that we all need each other, and that we all need a space. This is what we offer as Limbo. Everyone has something to gain by working together. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

Do you think the design industry is currently doing enough in terms of sustainability and the environment? Are you hopeful about the future? 

I mean, how can we define that? The world is such a big place with so many different spaces each within their own context. It’s obviously a part of the current discourse within the industry, which is positive, but the question of how intentional the movement is remains. The interesting thing about the environment and sustainability within architecture and design is the fact that it’s hard to see how anyone can ignore addressing those issues. People are starting to feel some of the consequences of the world changing, so the simple need for change will only increase. In that sense I’m hopeful. 

What’s next for you, any upcoming plans or projects that you can share?

Right now we are doing a few things with the Brooklyn Museum that will come out this summer. So stay tuned! 

Photography by Anthony Combder Badu

Photography by Anthony Combder Badu

Photography by Anthony Combder Badu


86 Million

The search for carbon neutrality in high-density cities

Hong Kong

The stark messages from Glasgow’s COP 26 are still echoing around the world: our planet’s climate is trending in the wrong direction and collectively we need to do more to decarbonise our lifestyles, our cities and our atmosphere.

The goals of COP 26 are to secure global net zero by 2050 and keep 1.5 degrees within reach; adapt to protect communities and natural habitats; mobilise finance; and work together to deliver these connected strands. In Hong Kong, these goals help clarify what we have been working towards for the past few years – decarbonising the high-rise, high-density (HRHD) urban environment and working towards net zero, while also making cities more climate resilient and nature positive.

Climate scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have modelled five possible global carbon emissions scenarios. Only the most optimistic scenario meets the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. The IPCC cannot predict which scenario is most likely to occur, but what is certain is that our choices today will affect our future.


Reducing carbon is a difficult – but not impossible – task for HRHD cities like Hong Kong. As with other HRHD cities, its building sector is extremely fossil fuel-dependent, responsible for 60% of all our carbon emissions – significantly higher than the global average of 40%. Our tropical heat is also a factor, with air conditioning responsible for 24% of commercial energy use.

Building professionals like myself have an undeniable responsibility to reduce carbon emissions through sustainable design, the use of the right materials, construction, operation, and decommissioning of buildings.

At my architectural firm, we create sustainable, human-centric, climate-ready designs. Over the past few years a substantial number of our projects have been located in the Greater Bay Area (GBA) – a megalopolis stretching between Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. At around 56,000 km2 and with a population of 86 million, the GBA is one of China’s fastest-growing regions. It has also set a number of ambitious sustainable urban development targets.

North Point, Hong Kong

Other sizeable urban areas around Asia are at various stages of a similar sustainable architecture journey – Tokyo, Singapore, and Bangkok for example. Faced with rapid population growth, a changing climate, ageing urban infrastructure, and consumed by social and economic uncertainties, what choice do any of these cities have?

True change can only come if our cities are designed to facilitate less energy-intensive lifestyles. The biggest barrier to such change is convenience: people have become used to living a convenient life. Cars are more convenient than public transportation, the corner shop is more convenient than the wholesale market, air conditioning is more convenient than natural ventilation, and so on.

But what if we could maintain this quality of life for citizens while also encouraging cultural change towards more sustainable behaviours? Several of my firm’s recent designs have been for transit-oriented developments (TODs). These large, comprehensive projects emphasise the concept of the “one-hour living circle”: everywhere people need to go – offices, homes, schools, shopping centres, recreation facilities – is no more than one hour away. This promotes convenience, reduces road traffic and carbon emissions, and encourages a low-carbon lifestyle – creating a cleaner, greener environment for residents.

Shunde Future City, a transit-oriented development project in Foshan by Ronald Lu & Partners

TODs also prioritise “the last mile”, bringing people together by encouraging walkable pedestrian-oriented communities. Of course, care must be taken in tropical HRHD cities like Hong Kong, where weather-friendly designs with a lot of shade and well-ventilated walkways are essential, but my firm has already proven this possible through successful designs for projects like Unipark in Zhuhai, a waterfront TOD considered to be an “urban regenerator of a healthy lifestyle”; and Shunde Future City, a comprehensive TOD city design combining high-end businesses, smart homes, future-forward co-working spaces and shared residences.

Hong Kong is alight with new carbon reduction initiatives. My firm has joined the Business Environmental Council’s Power Up Coalition, pledging to ban the use of diesel generators to reduce construction emissions at all our project sites. There is also the Low Carbon Charter, which mobilises companies along the property and construction value chain to collectively contribute towards long-term decarbonisation through tangible carbon reduction targets.

We also use building information modelling and modular integrated construction – methods which create efficiencies at all stages of a project to reduce waste, ensure the most effective use of resources, simplify logistics and – naturally! – reduce costs. Cost in particular is an important factor in gaining buy-in for low-carbon measures across the industry.

Treehouse, aerial view, by Ronald Lu & Partners

But by far my favourite way to decarbonise HRHD building designs is through nature-based solutions. It may seem unorthodox, but there are so many ways to harness nature in a city. Increasing on-site greenery coverage and natural ventilation are two of the most obvious, but we can also use the built form itself to create self shading, harness daylight while intercepting solar heat, and create building permeability that responds to the urban microclimate – at all building levels, not just near the ground.

Why not integrate “doorstep greening” on every floor and in the communal spaces of skyrises? Or, as in the case of Treehouse, our winning design for the Hong Kong Green Building Council’s Advancing Net Zero Ideas Competition, design wind funnels and solar chimneys that harness wind and sunlight from upper stories to bring light and cool air to lower floors? Or even an algae wall that harnesses energy and provides biomass for the tri-generation of power, heating and cooling?

There is so much being done, and so much more to be done. It is an exciting time in the sustainable architecture field and, now that we have reached critical mass, I feel that the next two decades will bring carbon neutrality within reach. We need to keep our spirits up and maintain momentum.

Unequal Cities

Johnny Miller’s ongoing project captures the inequalities of our cities from an aerial point of view

Mexico City: Extreme wealth inequality in Mexico City’s Santa Fe neighbourhood

Technology has given way to many wondrous possibilities, like the ability to capture the world from above with the simple pressing of a remote control. Drones – the robotic aircraft that operates without any human pilot, crew or passengers – have become increasingly popular among photographers, notably for the ease and efficiency with capturing views that were previously unattainable without a helicopter or plane. Johnny Miller, who’s based between South Africa and the USA, is one of those photographers. After arriving in Cape Town in 2012 to study, Johnny decided to stay put and has been working in his medium for a total of 10 years – shooting documentary projects and lensing topics of inequality, climate change plus sustainable cites and communities. “Inequality became a much more important focus for me,” he tells me, “when I moved to Cape Town and was confronted with the reality of living the world’s most unequal country.”

In 2016, Johnny made his drone debut as he began to photograph Cape Town’s Lake Michelle and Masiphumelele communities. “These are two neighbourhoods that couldn’t be more different – a gated estate next to a township,” he explains. “I was just operating on instinct at the time, I didn’t really know what I would capture, and I certainly didn’t have a ready-made audience. Once I took the photo, I put it on Facebook with the caption, ‘Today, I’m starting a little project on inequality’. The photo blew up overnight and went viral.” This was the moment that his ongoing project Unequal Scenes was borne; a photographic series illustrating the inequalities written into the urban fabric of our cities. He’s now visited nine countries as a result – South Africa, Brazil, America, India and Kenya to name a few – and with every trip, he notices the inequality rooted deep into the area’s housing and architecture. Below, I chat to Johnny to find out more about his impactful project, why he uses a drone to tell these stories, and how he hopes to achieve a global, equal and sustainable future. 


What inspired you to start documenting the environment, or more specifically, the aerial views of our cities?

I’ve always been interested in the aerial view, and I love maps. Drones just made everything really cheap and easy to get a camera into the sky – I consider them a real democratic revolution in terms of how we understand our world. 

I knew that Cape Town was a divided city of course, and that architecture had a big role in that. The reasons are fairly obvious to anyone who has studied South African history. So when I got my first drone, it was a natural project to pursue, especially because at the time I was looking to pursue more meaningful photography projects. 


Dunoon, Cape Town, South Africa

Why tell these stories through photography, and what impact will this medium have on the topic of climate change and environmentalism?

Drones have a huge role to play in understanding the human impact on our world. I see them as a real democratic revolution. Never before has it been possible for the average person to capture information about the earth, and that allows for a reckoning in terms of how it looks from above. Are there fences, roads, or other barriers separating one group from another? Why? What are the reasons behind that and how does it shape that community behaviour?

Eyal Weizman talks about the ‘inscribed humanity’ on the face of the earth that you can see from the air. This is literally policy in concrete and steel. And it’s hard to see from the ground. What I hope with this project is that of course people will begin to talk about inequality, but more than that, people will begin to better appreciate how we all interact as part of an interdependent system. You may think that you have freedom of will, freedom of movement; but look at the architecture and road network of your city from above. You are constrained by all sorts of factors: power cables, bridges and fences. These are all planned out and designed for a reason. In South Africa, they were designed for total control of Black people, which is why the project is really powerful in that context.  

Brazil: Favela houses glow orange in the sun during a break in the clouds over São Paulo 

What aesthetic prominence does the aerial view add to the subject matter?

The ‘nadir view’ of shooting straight down seems to be much more powerful than shooting towards the horizon. I think this speaks to the project ethos, which is highlighting the world’s most egregious divides, and how looking straight down confronts the viewer in a powerful way. So that has become the de facto ‘style’ of Unequal Scenes, and all the most ‘famous’ images are shot in that way. 

How do you hope your audience will respond to this work?

I hope that audiences will respond to Unequal Scenes with a sense of engaged curiosity. I think most people want to understand more about each photograph – what the unique story is for each city, each location. I’m hoping that people will go deeper than that though, and apply the project to their own lives. Even if you live in a very ‘equal’ society, let’s say in Scandinavia or somewhere like that, you still participate in a global economic system, a global environment. Or for example, we’ve seen very clearly in 2020 that the world is very connected in our public health. So I think the project has relevance for everyone, and I hope to leave people with an enhanced feeling of interdependence. 

What’s next for you?

I’m continuing to develop Unequal Scenes with new locations and new imagery. I also have other drone journalism projects that I undertake often with my organisation, africanDRONE, and my partners at Code For Africa. I keep myself engaged and curious by exploring new tech and new art projects that sometimes don’t have any relevance to social justice issues at all, but are just fun to experiment with. You can find more at

Photography by Johnny Miller

Namibia: The “informal” area of DRC (Democratic Resettlement Community) has ballooned from its roots as a temporary housing area to a city in itself, equal in population to the formal areas of Swakopmund
Mexico City: A gated housing estate in the Ixtapalapa neighbourhood sits next to a classic concrete low-income area
Dunoon, Cape Town, South Africa

Omer Arbel

The Vancouver-based artist and designer publishes his first monograph, replete with experiments in lighting, sculpture, design and architecture

86.3. Fahim Kassam

Spherical glass as fierce as molten lava; an angular furniture set cocooned amongst a cave-like canopy; a nest of elongated, spindly arms attached to a series of bronzed bulbs; these are all but a few elements making up the portfolio of Omer Arbel, a Vancouver-based artist and designer known for his experimental approach to processes and materiality. Reaching acclaim for his work across sculpture, industrial design and lighting – and let’s not forget his co-founding of design and manufacturing company Bocci – his lengthy tenure has now been dissected in form of his first monograph, aptly named Omer Arbel, and published by Phaidon.

Omer himself has many titles: an architect, artist, inventor, designer and, perhaps the most unlikely, a competitive fencer. The latter a sport he enjoyed during this younger years, it was a close marriage of strategic play and discipline that enabled him to propel into more creative pursuits later on. “I always knew architecture and making things would be my path, and fencing was a cool side gig. There are lessons I carry with me from that era that come up almost everyday,” he says. “People describe fencing as ‘sprinting and playing chess at the same time’, but I think it is more like backgammon: intuition and willpower play an outsized role, with strategy, perhaps, secondary. Everything happens so fast, there is little time for analysis, so responses are intuitive and must be decisive. Maybe I’ve carried that method of decision making forward into my career, though its relevance is questionable given that projects take years to mature now, not seconds.”

23.2. Fahim Kassam

Even if Omer’s work currently adheres to a much slower pace, his decisive (and thoroughly disruptive) attitude shines through fully. This becomes clear within Omer Arbel, a publication housing his broad and experimental projects spanning lighting, industrial design, sculpture and architecture. Each of which is marked in a characteristic identity system of numbers – something he’s incorporated since the dawn of his practice. A “great tool for introspection”, the numbering also means he can skip over the menial and oftentimes tricky task of naming the projects.

Omer has now reached a “mid-career” point, so not only does he delegate more of the workload to his trusted team, but he’s started to reflect. “The nature of the monograph is to offer a survey that covers the entire output of the practice,” he explains, “to invite the reader into our ecosystem of ideas.” Designed by Derek Barnett, the book is constructed with transparent paper, allowing the viewer to identify texts and imagery through its layers – a kind of visual maze that gives a glimpse as to what’s coming next. “This felt true to our process, in which ideas are always infecting other ideas in the studio,” he notes. Meanwhile Stephanie Rebick edited and worked on the curatorial process, organising the chapters and content as well as a collection of excerpts. “Together these strategies offer a scrapbook quality,” says Omer, “at odds with the formality of the monograph trope, which I like.”

93. Fahim Kassam

Flick through the pages and you’ll notice the studio’s immense attention to detail and investigation, whether that’s in the literal sense of approaching a brief or through the use of materials, mechanics and applications of light. 64 is pinnacle to this, a project conducted over several experiments with hot beeswax and water set at different temperatures. Omer was inspired to work in this manner after reading Rudolf Steiner’s Nine Lectures on Bees – a philosopher who predicted the declining population of the honeybee. “It is a celebration of a long ritual of transformation, beginning with the bees making the wax and ending with lighting the candle,” says Omer. “Even the transportation of the object is part of the ritual.” The result is this metamorphic object, where twiggy formations of wax amount to a delicate candle structure. All previous associations of how a candle should look and behave are tossed away happily with this creation, and there are many of this kind.

75.9 Model. Fahim Kassam (22)

87, for example, is one of the first experiments the studio made with the folding glass technique, presenting the sheer durability of the material. The technique arose from a residency at Pilchuck Glass School in Washington: “Glassblowers there demonstrated what they called ‘a trick’, involving spinning hot glass rapidly on a concrete floor, which caused the glass to fold over itself many times while still malleable, yielding a pearlescent cast. Upon analysis, it became clear that small air pockets in the glass, folded and folded again numerous times, rapidly divided the glass matrix into numerous glass strings with a very small diameter. Each fold stretched and thus reduced the diameter of the air pocket and doubled the number of individual strands in an exponential relationship; thus, the more folds could be achieved, the most interesting the optical properties of the resulting object.”

The method involves a careful “vertical folding motion”, done so with just the right mount of glass for it to be well-handled by the glassblower, before filling it up with air bubbles with soda water, “increasing the intensity of the gossamer effect.” He adds: “The form of each loop is a direct result of the folding motion of the glassblowers. Introducing light on one end of the piece meant that it could travel within the glass filigree, creating a gradient across the length of the piece.”

Throughout the book, these more intricate structures are paired with more large-scale architectural pieces. But no matter the size, each protrude with the creators signature language: one of variety and skill. Omer is a designer who knows no boundaries. In fact, the term inventor might be better suited as his ultimate title. 

Omer Arbel is available to pre-order here and will be published at the end of the month

31.3. Fahim Kassam
Janaki Showroom, 87. Fahim Kassam
75.9 Work in Progress

X is Not a Small Country

What does a post-global world look like? MAAT show curator Aric Chen explains

Photography by Bruno Lopes

What does it mean to live in a “post-global” world? Posing this question – and also answering it – is a new exhibition presented by Lisbon’s MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology), named X is Not a Small Country – Unravelling the Post-Global Era. Curated by Aric Chen alongside designer, curator and educator Martina Muzi, the show compiles nine large-scale installations from international practitioners spanning design, architecture and art. All of which explore a post-global landscape, providing examples of how this new world might look and function. 

It’s a vast, detailed and oftentimes dizzying display of the current state of affairs. Previously, the rapid rise in globalisation had accelerated us into new and bountiful territories. Then after Brexit, trade wars, refugee crises and rising nationalism, we were faced with a new hurdle: a pandemic. Travel was disrupted and many switched to digital communications and exchanges; thus increasing the social and cultural gap between those with or without access to the internet. But, as Aric puts it, a “post-global” world isn’t the result of globalisation “unravelling”, and rather it’s a state of contradiction and fluctuation. With every door that shuts, another one is bound to open, so to speak. 

In this new exhibition, which was surprisingly conceived prior to the pandemic, MAAT opens up the “post-global” conversation with a series of site-specific installations. Beginning with Wolfgang Tillmans, who’s contributed his anti-Brexit campaign of EU posters, the show navigates through a plethora of international pieces, like that of architect and director Liam Young, who’s made a film titled Planet City – a fictional tale that calls for urgent examination of the environment. Others include the recreation of the recognisable Teeter-Totter Wall, a seesaw installed at the border fence between the USA and Mexico in July 2019, as well as the more speculative contributions such as the analysis of gambling in Macau.

Aric is a Shanghai-based curator, writer and professor, who’s been appointed general and artistic director of Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. To paint a more concise picture, and to perhaps give a definition as to what “post-global” really means, I speak to Aric to find out more about the show.

Photography by Bruno Lopes

What inspired you to launch this exhibition, why tell this story now?

The world is clearly changing, and globalisation as we’ve known it since the 1990s is giving way to a new condition that’s developing right before our eyes. This is something I’ve felt acutely as an American living in China, given the transforming relationship between those two countries through trade wars and other signs of a growing “great power” competition. 

But we, of course, see how global networks and relationships are becoming increasingly convoluted everywhere. We see liberal democracies giving us Brexit and rising nationalism, while Saudi Arabia opens itself up in once inconceivable ways – just as Israel establishes diplomatic relations with Bahrain and the UAE, who until now didn’t even formally recognise Israel’s existence as a country. Doors are both opening and shutting in ways that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. And they’re doing so at the same time: right now, as China and the EU slap sanctions on each other over Xinjiang, they’re also trying to push through a new trade deal. There are multiple, overlapping and often contradictory logics operating simultaneously. We need to understand this in order to navigate it, and the implications of – and for – architecture and design as manifestations of these global processes. 

Photography by Bruno Lopes

Talk me through the works involved and how you’ve curated the show.

Designers, architects and artists have been investigating in “the global” for a long time. But our aim was to, as concisely as possible, capture the complexity of the “post-global” that we’re now observing through just nine projects. All of which address the forces of post-globalisation at scales ranging from objects and individuals to societies, species and the planet, from an array of geographical perspectives, and in both concrete and speculative ways. 

So for example, as you enter the show, you’ll see an installation by Wolfgang Tillmans of his pro-EU posters – something very immediate that most visitors will easily relate to – before confronting a re-creation of Rael San Fratello’s Teeter-Totter Wall, for which the American architects, in 2019, inserted see-saws through the US-Mexico border wall in order to allow children on both sides to play with each other.

From these very “real” installations, we get into more research-based and speculative projects ranging from Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen’s examination of the links between gambling in Macau and the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank via a casino that mimics London, to Ibiye Camp’s augmented reality speculations about a post-petrol future in the Niger Delta, to Liam Young’s video about a planet in which the entire human population is concentrated in a single city. 

We also have Tactile Cinema, an installation by Jeddah-based Bricklab that evokes the evolution of cinema spaces in post-World War II Saudi Arabia – from informal to illicit to now being legal again – while hosting a film program of artists from across the Arab world organised by Art Jameel. 

Photography by Bruno Lopes

How exactly has globalisation been impacted by the pandemic, and how has this affected the design and architecture industries?

As many have said, the pandemic has accelerated processes that were already underway, be it the use of digital communication or the widening of social inequality. It has also accelerated “post-globalisation” and its impact on design and architecture. Not just through the reordering of supply chains, but also the flow of people and ideas, and the culture and meanings that are embedded in, and produced by, the designed world. In ways large and small, design and architecture will both be shaped by, and used to help shape, how this new world will look and operate.

Photography by Bruno Lopes

Do you think the pandemic has forced the world to re-think pre-existing structures?

I should emphasise that “post-global” is not the same as “de-globalisation.” It’s not that globalisation is ending or totally unravelling. It’s that the idea that we were inevitably heading towards ever-more openness and intertwinement has to be discarded for a future of more unpredictable fluctuations of both restriction and access. This means we not only have to be more nimble and flexible in order to navigate this, but we also perhaps need to rethink our approaches and world views if we are to constructively, and peacefully, function and coexist. 

To the extent that the pandemic has forced us to re-think pre-existing structures, these are things that we should have already been re-thinking: the social and economic systems that have caused such injustice, to say nothing of ecological disaster. 


The full list of contributors include Bard Studio (Rupali Gupte e Prasad Shetty), Bricklab (Abdulrahman Hisham Gazzaz and Turki Hisham Gazzaz), Ibiye Camp, Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen, He Jing, Liam Young, Paulo Moreira, Rael San Fratello Studio (Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello) and Wolfgang Tillmans.

X is Not a Small Country – Unravelling the Post-Global Era is currently on show at Lisbon’s MAAT until 2 September 2021. Head here for more information, and tickets can be purchased here.

Photography by Bruno Lopes
Photography by Bruno Lopes
Photography by Bruno Lopes
Photography by Bruno Lopes

A Place to Hang Your Hat

Architect and designer John Pawson remembers his friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin

I was studying at the Architectural Association in London when I first met Hester [van Royen], an art dealer who would become my first wife. She lived in the flat next to mine, and one day, when I was locked out, I had to climb across her balcony. I ended up doing her flat, knocking through the walls myself. She was renting the place and so of course the landlord kicked us out, but it was my first proper foray into architecture. Bruce Chatwin – who was friends with Hester – saw it and asked me to do his own tiny flat at the top of an old apartment block in Belgravia.

Bruce was quite specific. He wanted somewhere light and airy that he could lock up and leave, somewhere he could ‘hang his hat’, as he said. It was to be spacious and minimally appointed but the few possessions he brought with him were exquisite: a sofa made for the empress Marie-Louise; a birchwood table and stool, designed by Alvar Aalto; a hanging of parrot feathers from the back wall of a Peruvian sun temple – every object had a story. Whether it was exaggerated or even made up was irrelevant to me. He was a storyteller, and you treasured every moment you had with him.

Looking back, I’ve realised I’ve learned more from my clients than I’ve been able to give, and it’s especially true with Bruce. He was a great writer, of course, but he was also approachable and generous. He gave me a leg up when I was just starting out, and when he came to write about the flat I had designed for him, he articulated what it was I was trying to do. It gave me confidence. When I did the minimum, a lot of my ideas came from Bruce.

I miss him. When he fell ill he told everyone that he had an incredibly rare disease, caught from a dead whale on a beach in China. The reality of that disease, which took away so many people so quickly and suddenly, was too awful. You wanted to go along with his version…

As told to George Upton

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Chasing the Light: Marvin Rand

Port discovers the architectural photographer who immortalised Los Angeles’ iconic Modernist buildings

Killingsworth, Brady & Smith, Killingsworth, Brady & Smith’s own office, Long Beach, 1957. Courtesy of the Estate of Marvin Rand

Marvin Rand was a native Angeleno. In a city where most people have come from somewhere else in search of something better, Rand’s photographs – many lost to time since the mid-century – reveal the perspective of an insider. The images he produced reflect a career that celebrated the city’s most important contributions to architectural history, particularly that of California Modernism.

In the mid-twentieth century, Los Angeles was characterised by stunning urban growth, industrial expansion, and a populace of open-minded design patrons. These factors spurred a period of incredible architectural innovation that established this urban conglomerate as a pacesetter on the international design scene. The city’s lush relationship with the outdoors, graceful steel-frame structures, and apparent ease of living also captured the imagination of a broad populace – and continues to do so. LA has been rightfully regarded as one of the world capitals of the Mid-Century Modern.

Welton Becket & Associates, Capitol Records, Hollywood, 1956. Courtesy of the Estate of Marvin Rand

This LA can’t be fully understood without examining Rand’s seminal role in launching architectural careers and shaping how the city was pictured and marketed. Importantly, his understanding of this period wasn’t based on a reductive idea of what Mid-Century Modern entailed, in terms of a particular way of living or even a specific moment in time. As a sympathetic Angeleno, Rand understood his hometown as a dynamic entity that fostered continuous experimentation. Ever curious, he was a perfect match for the city as a perpetually changing place. He sought out the newest contributions to its built environment while also working to salvage early Modern buildings that had laid the historical groundwork for more recent innovations. Rand entered the scene at an opportune time. An effervescent publishing industry had embraced the creed that design was indeed within reach for the masses and that it represented the zeitgeist of the postwar California citizen. While Rand’s career must be understood as bridging Modernism to the new approaches that followed, his contribution to promoting Mid-Century architecture is a vital one.

Honnold & Rex Office building on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, 1961. Courtesy of the Estate of Marvin Rand

Rand’s signature was both distinct and sought after in mid-century Los Angeles’s burgeoning architectural scene. The proliferating practices spatialising the technological achievements of the military for a postwar society, such as the development of plastics, plywood, and glues for the aircraft industry – and their increasingly progressive client base – found in his pictures a profoundly impactful representation of the city’s visionary designs. These new construction technologies widened dramatically the design vocabulary of architecture, allowing longer spans between structural elements, open plans, large expanses of glazing, and an overall lightness of the building massing.

From the early stages of his career in 1950, Rand contributed authoritatively to a total rethinking of how to depict the urban and suburban architecture. The great accomplice in Rand’s output is the Southern California sun, casting hypnotic shadows on Modernist surfaces all year round. The tropical vegetation topped it off. Palm trees and cars became inseparable companions in the iconography of the modern in southern coordinates captured in 4-by- 5-inch negatives.

Killingsworth, Brady & Smith, Killingsworth, Brady & Smith’s own office, Long Beach, 1957. Courtesy of the Estate of Marvin Rand

A Rand hallmark was shooting in natural light. He saw himself as the first recipient of the architectural experience, and his mission was to broadcast his awe to everybody else. After all, by his own description, his mandate was “the recording of contemporary architectural projects for publication.” Behind this detached description of his professional purpose was a passionate advocate of the modern in all aspects of design, from textiles to industrial design to signage to the city.

Rand believed that “the architectural photographer should never be set up as a critic. Our role is to enhance and state the content of the building in an aesthetic way.” He did, however, buy into the possibility of architecture of its own time, particularly design that was within reach of the working class as well as the elite. His photographs, full of conviction for Modernism, helped build consensus for this new idiom and bridged the gap between the pioneers and the multitude.

California Captured: Mid-Century Modern Architecture, Marvin Rand, published by Phaidon, is out now


Will Wiles discusses Juergen Teller, Milton Keynes and the White Cube with the most exciting architecture practice in London today

“It was funny doing Al Jazeera,” says Stephanie Macdonald, one half of 6a architects. After a couple of decades in practice, latterly designing small but exquisite arts spaces, last year the studio abruptly found itself going global. Tom Emerson, Macdonald’s husband and the other half of 6a, picks up the story.

“One of our very first clients, who we haven’t heard from in years, suddenly got in touch saying ‘Steph just floated above my head [on TV] in Bali!’, or Bangkok, or something: That was thanks to Al Jazeera.”

In architecture – much like literature – the long lead times of projects mean that work often gets attention long after it was designed. And when a practice is working on multiple buildings sometimes their completion coincides, creating what appears to be an explosion of activity from a studio, even when it’s the culmination of half a decade of patient labour. In 12 months, 6a’s new courtyard at Churchill College, Cambridge, opened, as did its back garden for the South London Gallery, a collaboration with the artist Gabriel Orozco. The practice also won planning permission for its most significant project to date, an art gallery in Milton Keynes.

Left: The interior of Jurgen Teller’s studio in west London. Right: The roof of the former Peckham Fire Station, currently being refurbished as part of 6a’s redesign for the South London Gallery extension.

But what really got the foreign press interested was their studio for the photographer Juergen Teller in Holland Park, west London. This austere but serene concrete and blockwork building, on a narrow residential site, is characterised by rhythmic beams, cool light and a pocket-sized courtyard garden. Of course, it helps with press attention if your client is a renowned and mischievous photographer who’s willing to pose naked on a donkey in your new building. But the studio also received critical acclaim, and was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize.

As it turns out, Teller was, in fact, a model contractee. “He doesn’t take art direction in his work,” says Emerson. “If you commission Juergen Teller, you get Juergen Teller. You don’t tell him what to do.” And this was what he expected from his architects. “He’d say, ‘I picked you as my architect, you do it,’” Emerson says. “You would present things to him and ask his opinion, and he’d ask ‘Is it good?’, and you’d say ‘Yeah, it is quite good,’ and he’d say ‘Do it.’”

“He really is an extraordinary artist. He’s very candid. He’s almost childlike in his directness and honesty about things,” Macdonald adds. “He would get really attached to things.” Fundamental to 6a’s concept for the site was to break down the boundaries of the ‘studio’. The brief called for a series of demarcated spaces with various functions: archive, office, kitchen, library, studio.

“We knew that by temperament he would never confine himself to working in the studio; essentially everything was a studio,” Emerson says. This led to what he calls a “richer project”, treating every space as a potential subject for Teller’s camera. “Afterwards, he told us, ‘It’s fantastic. I’ve photographed everything in here.’”

“It was an idea that he totally took in, and almost made happen immediately,” Macdonald says. “He was photographing on site before the foundations went in.” “Before it was a building.”

The face and interior of Raven Row in Spitalfields, east London: a Grade II-listed building, the shop fronts are thought to be some of the oldest in the city.

This happens often when talking with 6a, who met as postgraduate architecture students at the Royal College of Art. As they discuss the ideas behind a project, the enthusiasm in the room builds and they begin to talk over one another, completing each other’s thoughts. Looking back over the record of the conversation, it was striking how even-handed it was, with neither dominating, the couple instinctively sharing the space. Nor does there appear to be a division of responsibilities with – for instance – one providing the ideas and the other the practicalities, as the division of labour often goes in partnerships. Which is not to say they don’t have specialisms: Emerson leans towards the academic side, and Macdonald – whose undergraduate degree was in fine art – brings a visual sensibility and cross-disciplinary approach, with connections made across many fields. The exploration of materials that forms a vital part of the practice’s reputation also hinges on their different strengths, Emerson’s in the construction and Macdonald’s in their narrative connection, although again neither exclusively.

The way the studio space in the Teller project bleeds out beyond its boundaries points to something fundamental in 6a’s whole approach. Their career is dominated by art spaces, beginning with the two projects that made their name: Raven Row in the East End (2009) and the South London Gallery in Camberwell (2010). How does one make room for art – either its making or its display? Many would assume that this was a matter of purging a space of distractions and influences, as a laboratory might be purged of contaminants, creating the pristine ‘white cube’.

“I think it’s one of the big myths of this subject,” says Emerson. “And it’s peddled both in the art world and in the architecture world: that there’s such a thing as a neutral space; that if you put enough white paint on it, it somehow neutralises it. When, of course, the white cube is actually extremely ideologically loaded; it’s a very rhetorical space. The moment you walk into a room with no features, all white, with flat light, it’s almost Kubrickian in its intensity.”

Artists don’t particularly want that, Macdonald says, and it’s certainly not what 6a provides. “Artists want their work to connect, and they also like having a real or authentic ground,” she says. “So it is about reducing a space so that the art can be the centre of attention – that is important. But at the same time, I think generally we look for specificity in a space and to make connections through material narratives. Sometimes they’re just anecdotal and social narratives, things that come back into the building in a quiet way.” 

Portraits Tereza Cervenova 

Port Issue 22

The Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Port – featuring writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and David Hallberg, the greatest male dancer of his generation – is out now

Photography Mamadi Doumbouya

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the United States today. The author of Half of a Yellow SunPurple Hibiscus and Americanah – as well as of one of the most-viewed Ted talks ever, sampled by Beyoncé, no less – Adichie transcends the barriers between literature, art and music. For the cover story of Port issue 22, she met Catherine Lacey in Washington DC to discuss her extraordinary books, the complexity of recent gender movements and to give a hint at a next big project.

Photography Suzie Howell

Elsewhere in the magazine, we speak to 6a – the most exciting architecture practice in London; discuss Netflix and race with the director of Mudbound, Dee Rees; and travel to rural Netherlands to meet the pioneering Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. Also featured: The photographer Christopher Payne visits one of the largest flag factories in the US, and we uncover the secrets and beauty of space with astronaut Nicole Stott.

Photography Tereza Cervenova

In the fashion section, celebrated photographer Kalpesh Lathigra and Port‘s fashion director Dan May travel to Mumbai to shoot a 40-page story around the sprawling, seaside city; Scott Stephenson styles this season’s collections and Pari Dukovic shoots the greatest male dancer in the world, David Hallberg, wearing Saint Laurent.

Photography Kalpesh Lathigra

Commentary pieces come courtesy of Will Self, Lisa Halliday and Jesse Ball, as well as Samuel Beckett‘s seminal Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit. Highlights from the Porter include Tilda Swinton remembering her friend John Berger; an interview with the British artist Gavin Turk; foraging with chef Nicholas Balfe; and ex-director of the Tate Modern, Vicente Todolí, on his passion for citrus fruits.

To buy Port issue 22, click here.