ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz, co-founders of Bricklab, as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Bricklab is an award-winning, Jeddah-based architecture studio co-founded by brothers Abdulrahman & Turki Gazzaz. Their practice probes the boundaries between art, material research, and built environments, merging technical mastery with conceptual rigor and interdisciplinary design. Inviting reflection upon dynamic elements that often go unnoticed, they explore the “gaps between graphics, product design, interiors, and architecture” through innovative investigations of site, object, and user— the component parts of our social and physical worlds. Bricklab creates architecture for cultural uses, visionary master plans, public space interventions, exhibition scenography, and artistic installations in response to the sociopolitical and economic contexts of their commissions.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about the founding of Bricklab and the main themes you return to across your architecture, research, and artmaking practice?
Bricklab: We started the studio with the ambition to provide design solutions that tackle the wider socio-political, economic, and environmental pretexts that implicitly form our built environment. Bricklab was founded in 2015 as an alternative architecture practice to manage a multidisciplinary approach focused on critical inquiry.
Place, identity, history, community, and material economies are central themes we explore with each project. This has yielded a variety of endeavors ranging from buildings, interiors, and furniture to curating exhibitions and building installations.
AE: Can you elaborate on the role of archiving in your overall practice?
B: We started archiving elements of both our built and natural environments in 2018. This has culminated in a wide collection ranging from sand specimens to building fragments to photographs in an attempt to capture the genius loci of a specific place.
In Jeddah’s old (now mostly demolished) downtown, we conducted photographic surveys of each neighborhood to preserve the memory of this significant portion of the city’s urban history. On the other hand, we collected sand samples from different locales across the nation. For example, we surveyed Al Ula, the constellation of ancient cities including the Nabatean capital of Hegra. The variety of patinas uncovered reveal the nuanced diversity of a seemingly homogeneous desert landscape so characteristic of the region.
Regardless of material, form, or medium, the archival process provides an exciting set of data for us to explore ideas, concepts, and when we’re lucky enough, a site-specific intervention.
AE: How did your site-specific installation Tactile Cinema come about? In what ways does this work explore the somatic experience of cinema goers in Saudi Arabia between the mid 1980s and 2018?
B: We were invited to an international competition to design an independent art house cinema at the new Art Jameel center in Jeddah. The commission was launched in tandem with the lifting of the decades-long ban on cinemas in Saudi, providing a highly critical context for the design approach.
Prior to 2018, the Saudi public was mostly exposed to the international film industry in the confines of their private residences. Through internet and satellite television, residents of the country had access to a fair share of uncensored content. This prompted the critical question: Why are cinemas still banned if the same content is being legally streamed at home?
Our conclusion was that the ban was focused more on the act of gathering than the content itself. By arriving at this realization, our design approach was largely based on the rearrangement of spaces to accommodate more communal amenities including an archive and an informal community cinema. The aesthetics proposed were directly influenced by cinema interiors focusing mostly on the sound absorbent and tactile qualities of carpet.
As the cinema went ahead into construction, writer/curator Aric Chen contacted us to reinterpret the cinema concept into a smaller temporary installation at the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology in Lisbon. This small-scale commission allowed us to further explore notions of materiality and posture to narrate the history of cinema in Saudi from its early beginnings as self-run community spaces from the 1940s till the 1970s, to the eventual ban and the subsequent boom. The installation comprised 3 screens relating to these shifting phases of cinema spaces. The largest one is accessible to the public in the main exhibition space. A partial enclosure invites the visitor to crawl in and recline to view the screen, while another closed screen fits 2 people to recall the privacy of the home screen. The different experiences were supplemented by a film program curated by Art Jameel’s Rahul Gudipudi and Roisin Tapponi from the institution’s archive.
AE: Tell us about the first iteration of the Saudi Modern exhibition curated by Bricklab, exploring urban development in Jeddah from 1938 -1963. What were some of the specifics about development and architecture that pertain to Jeddah, and what will other editions explore in turn? How did you navigate incorporating works and interventions by contemporary artists alongside archives and works of architecture?
B: Saudi Modern started as an inquiry into the untold narratives of Jeddah’s urban history. Although the city is well documented in terms of its local vernacular, the history of its modern development has remained neglected and alarmingly undervalued. Given the scarcity of reference materials we started methodically documenting the city’s different districts to construct a more concise narrative around these early transitional periods. In the process, we encountered an abundance of abandoned spaces with great potential for activation as cultural community hubs.
Our first edition, Jeddah from 1938 to 1963, covers a critical junction in the city’s development characterized by the earliest oil boom and the influx of modern technologies associated with it. Immediately following the establishment of the Saudi state just five years earlier, the new oil economy enforced modern development across the board, from government bureaucracies to urban expansion, to foreign relations. In terms of the built environment, this transitional moment is readily manifested in the architecture of the city as it moved from traditional construction materials and technologies to more modern substitutes. This was captured concisely in Abdulrahman Makhlouf’s survey of the city commissioned by the United Nations’ Development Program between 1959 and 1962. Interestingly, this period has yielded the city’s initial urban expansion beyond the traditional walled center commonly referred to as Al Balad. Following this expansion, we renovated an abandoned house in one of Jeddah’s earliest residential suburbs and held the exhibition in it.
Upon the conclusion of the initial research on Jeddah, we realized that there are common narratives of modern development across the nation’s different urban centers. Under the new oil economy, a more homogeneous pattern of change may be traced in each major city. This provides an opportunity to raise awareness about this critical period preceding the contemporary polarization between tradition and modernity so common in local cultural discourses. Furthermore, it allows us to build a network of architects, urban planners, and researchers in each major city to establish a critical discourse around modernity in a society wary of compromising their respective traditional values. Each city will be appointed a curator to explore these narratives in an exhibition incorporating architectural and urban research with contemporary art.
Our curatorial approach is intended to be highly experiential. To achieve this, the exhibition design started with selecting a specific structure and district related to the research compiled. Hence, the renovation effort played a critical role in setting the tone for this experiential approach. The exhibition was designed in two parts; it starts with a brief overview of the urban context to allow the visitor to orient themselves before they begin encountering the eight artist installations inspired by the preceding content. Throughout the journey, the house really acts as a time capsule to further highlight this emotional response to the otherwise didactic historic content. Furthermore, the renovation effort allowed the potential of the site to be realized. Its planned demolition has been scrapped, and the family is moving ahead with preserving it as a foundation promoting arts and culture. This prompted us to really highlight the renovation effort as a critical component of the initiative.
AE: Discuss your RAW:Print series project consisting of talks centered around a theme from the fields of art, design and architecture. What was the impetus to launch this project and what do you hope to achieve through this work?
B: In 2015, critical debate and exchange was highly restricted given the modest renaissance in contemporary arts with initiatives like the Saudi Arts Council and Edge of Arabia. In this pretext, we initiated a series of cross disciplinary discussions open to public participation. For each talk, we invited practitioners from different disciplines to tackle a wide range of topics around cultural production. We intended to provide a safe space for the critical exchange of ideas between creatives and the general public.
These talks mostly took place either at our office, or at Ahmed Mater’s Pharan studio, both in Jeddah’s Al Rawdah District – the inspiration for the name ‘RAW’. At the time, the middle-class residential neighborhood was experiencing an influx of local creatives and small businesses. It was interesting for us to observe these nuanced changes that started to reshape the perception of the place while maintaining its original socio-economic structure developed since the mid 1980’s.
Six years later, the cultural scene has dramatically opened up. Public institutions started holding talks and discussions across all disciplines in the field of cultural production, pushing our modest efforts to the margins. As we aimed to conclude the talks, we realized that many of these early gatherings were never recorded or haphazardly documented. Hence, in an effort to materialize what was otherwise ephemeral, we worked with Athr Gallery and Khabar Keslan to reinitiate the project with a specific focus on printed matter. Following the same structure of the talks, we planned a series of biannual publications. Each issue would revisit one of the topics previously discussed in the talks, but this time lead by an independent curator/editor and their selection of contributors. Our first edition focused on the notion of genius loci through the architecture of Public Saudi Girls’ schools. It was curated by Melbourne-based Maryam Bilal and included contributions from a number of local artists and researchers combining text, photography, and illustration. The limited 35 edition issue was designed and produced by Zainab and Basmah Mashat of Misht Studio, a local screen-printing collective, and launched in early 2022. Later editions are in the works and planned to be released by the last quarter of the year.
The project is aimed to empower networks of collaboration and exchange across different disciplines from around the MENA region and beyond. Although the initiative was initially established to promote print culture, it quickly branched out into multiple mediums when we had the chance to set up a pop-up at 2022 Saudi Design Week. RAW: Store went well beyond the original scope of the project and included physical objects (chairs, tables, books, and tableware) by Local Industries, Sultan Al Qassimi, Turrrbo Studio, Hatch, and Zahra Bundakji.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
B: Given the multidisciplinary nature of our work, I believe we have a diverse set of creative influences. When it comes to architecture, we are always drawn to the work of Alvaro Siza’s formal language, Peter Zumthor’s material economies, Sahel Al Hiyari’s navigation of local contexts, and Archigram’s experimental spirit. The research projects of Mohammed El Shahid, Civil Architects, Todd Reisz, AMO, and DOGMA have provided valuable lessons for our curatorial endeavors. In contemporary art, the work of Rachel Whiteread inspires us to play with form and materiality while exploring the different ways to showcase these experiments. Ali Cherri’s works provide excellent examples of materializing critical research into a malleable set of mediums. Formafantasma’s work aligns with the disciplinary nature of our work, and so they provide interesting approaches to a wide range of projects from artistic installations, scenography, and interiors.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
B: For 2023, we are working with Riyadh based Syn architects on Saudi Modern focusing on the capital city. In addition, we will be participating with an installation at the upcoming Islamic Biennale in Jeddah curated by Sumayya Valley. On paper, we are pursuing a number of competitions for different cultural, hospitality, and masterplan projects.