Good Arab Bad City


‘Good Arab Bad City’ looks at the history and future of government-built housing as a national project in Bahrain. It surveys the history of the developing city-state in the 20th century through the narrative of its social housing, and then proposes a solution to the current housing crisis through an intervention in the heart of the historic district of Muharraq.

Government-built housing tells the story of the Arab city-state over the past century; marking the transition from tribal protectorate to a modernizing nation to today’s rentier state. What was once the testament of a new nation’s commitment to progress has become a social contract that the government must uphold to insure its legitimacy. The need to consistently distribute housing has produced a disconnected Gulf city: one of constant reclamation to produce dormitory towns. As the national housing program reaches the end of its financial, ecological, and political viability it is the time to restart the discussion on mass housing as a urban and civic act. This thesis looked at government housing as a tool of state for reinventing the citizen and the city; considering the successes of government built housing and its pitfalls,ultimately asking how housing can recuperate the national as a 21st century project.


Who influences you graphically?

There are two graphic precedents for the project. The first being the more technical precedent for line weights and general drawing technique which was the work of Rifat Chadirji. In particular, he has a series of gorgeous ink drawings done for buildings in Baghdad in the 1980’s. The drawings are absolutely stunning and were a point of departure for me in terms of technique – just experimenting with how to depict everything through lines and hatching. The second and ultimately more important influence is the photography of Rene Burri. In his Brasilia series, Burri finds a way to capture architecture in a nonchalant way, which to me always seemed like a critique of Brasilia rather than a celebration. His black and white photographs of the new capital often showed the architecture blurred and the occupants in the forefront. Either in the form of laborers or the joyous faces of immigrants or the proud stances of politicans, all of these figures when paired with the architecture portrayed Niemeyer’s work as beautifully impotent and ephemeral. For me Rene Burri is the master of photographing architecture without actually showing you architecture. More important for him was the idea of habitation, use, and how people constructed architecture in the public imaginary. The idea of buildings and their promise was more powerful than even the buildings themselves; ultimately Brasilia as a celebratory and joyous vision endures only in Burri’s photos. I found that to be an important conceptual precedent for the thesis images as they tried to be indifferent to the architecture, privileging instead the idea of habitation through the framing of inhabitants and traces of occupation.

What is your take on colour? What dictated the use of a monochromatic palette?

To do a 1000 units of housing that cut through the historic fabric of a city is not a particularly novel proposition – it is somewhere between a critique of the current national housing and a proposal for imaging new ways of dwelling by rebooting older models that were abandoned. In that sense, the thesis felt that the most cogent critique of an existing condition is not arguing for its elimination or an alternative, but to reasserting previous answers in new formations – making us question the successes and failures of the past decades. I enjoy colour, but I enjoy it in the same way I enjoy a broken clock. It gives you an idea of when something happened. By eliminating the colour the project attempts to address that question of reasserting previous answers because the removal of colour removes all temporal context from an image. It is the deletion of an element that gives an indication of when a project was designed – no giveaway ‘Avocado green’ or ‘Pantone whatever’ which immediately dates the project. In that sense, the project is as contemporary or as old-fashioned as we choose to perceive it. That was the aim.

Second floor – plan

What defined the use of the GIF? What are the advantages of this medium compared to the more static drawing?

This was primarily an experiment on my part. I was interested in the work of Uno Moralez, the Russian illustrator, and his exploration of the almost static gif. By adding a small amount of movement to an image, it becomes more quiet than quiet, because you’re aware of the silence. This gives an even stronger impression of habitation because say in one of the images you see the cat sleep, or you see someone pass by, so you know that no one is home. The image becomes a world in which time isn’t stopped, but rather moving at an indiscernible pace. This faint indication of time passing forces you to look to where someone is living; to look for clues that give a sense of scale (temporal rather than spatial) – and to me that was an interesting way to call someone’s attention to the housing and how people live .

Perspective showing public ground floor

What role did the model play in exploring the project?

The project began by making fifty models of existing housing types. That effort of constructing over sixty years of housing in the same material, same color, same detail meant that the only aspect of the unit that dated it was spatial logic and unit size. Stripped of other characteristics, suddenly sixty years of units all seemed like they could have been done within ten years of each other. This surprised me at first, and it became the first critique because it meant that actually very little had changed in the way of inventing or questioning housing as a national project over half a century. It also meant that since there was very little innovation to begin with I could simply start with the existing units and make the changes without the concern that citizens would perceive them as being outdated architecturally – the changes were about being precise and innovative typologically. The models and drawings became a way to ask what is contemporary and what is not – what is architecture doing and where does real invention happen in architecture?

Model at city scale

Model at neighbourhood scale

Model at unit scale

What is your take on the axonometric projection? 

It is an attempt to rethink the problem of elevations in architecture. Perhaps a Roman problem – the problem of the facade – as opposed to the project of plan making, the spatial games of sections, or the rhetorical exercise of diagram making. The axonometric allows us to think about elevations in architecture once again. But to talk elevations is not very fashionable, so by going to axon rather than drawing an elevation we give ourselves the opportunity to assess the success of the architectural object as a whole, rather than to revert to classical notions of proportion or beauty which to me are of no interest anyway. I think the axon allows us to circumvent the classical conversation and make it about the relationship of elevations to each other and the consistency of conflict between the image of a building and its plan or section. The axonometric is a way to make a single drawing the tool to communicate and develop contradictory ideas within a building.


Ali Ismail Karimi is a Bahraini architect and educator interested in social housing, public space, and infrastructural re-imaginings of the GCC countries. Ali received his Master in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (M.Arch I ’16). He has worked in Brussels with OFFICE KGDVS, in New York with SO-IL, and in Santiago-Chile with Elemental. In addition to his time abroad he has also attained regional experience in public projects through his time in Bahrain with Gulf House Engineering. Ali was the curator of the Kuwait Pavilion titled “Between East and West: A Gulf” at the 2016 Venice Biennale with Hamed Bukhamseen. He has conducted research on government-built housing in the GCC with the Affordable Housing Institute in Boston as a Joint Center for Housing Studies Fellow; and in Havana with a grant from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.Ali currently practices in Manama and teaches architecture design studio at the University of Bahrain. His writings have been published in various journals such as San Rocco, CLOG, and he was recently the editor of the third issue of the Harvard GSD student publication, Very Vary Veri (VVV).

Perspective of unit #2