Marwan’s Modern Life


He’s designed award-winning projects in East and West and would love to work in a rainforest with U2’s front man, Bono. Enigma’s Gabriela Asquith talks art, architecture and the ancient world with world-renowned Iraqi architect, Marwan Al-Sayed.

No one blends modernity with the beauty of nature and the spirituality of the ancient world quite like Marwan Al-Sayed. Whether he’s working at his desk, going out for a meal or travelling the globe, this award-winning architect “is constantly observing, editing and experiencing, to bring in life experiences into the formulation of the work itself.”  It’s no wonder Al-Sayed is an accomplished architect – he’s been there, seen it and done it all.

Currently based in Phoenix, Arizona, the Iraqi-born architect’s projects include everything from customised New York penthouses to the stunning Amangiri Resort in the wilds of the Utah Desert. As well as designing, he’s also a prolific writer, teacher and lecturer. Unsurprisingly, he is constantly in demand. While his team is currently working on a resort project in British Columbia, Al-Sayed is also hard at work planning a new private University campus in Dubai, to accommodate 14,000 students. The campus will  include academic facilities, sports and recreation and libraries as well as student and faculty housing. In effect, over a phased 25 year build, a small village will be created.

Of course, with years of award-winning designs under his belt, Al-Sayed is hardly intimidated by the scale of the project. Instead, he’s excited by the possibilities. He aims to create a peaceful integrated community, full of revelations and quiet surprises. The emphasis is less on the individual buildings and more on the overall urban fabric. “It’s being designed as a pedestrian campus and conceived in a very episodic and experiential manner; not unlike many Islamic historic centres,” he says. “It’s exciting to be involved in a project of such a scale and complexity. It should affect, in a powerfully affirmative way, the experiences of students and faculty alike.”

The ability to seamlessly blend Eastern and Western influences and work successfully in both spheres comes from Al-Sayed’s wildly diverse – and remarkably well-travelled – childhood. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, touching down briefly in Saudi Arabia and swiftly moving on to Tangier, Morocco, it wasn’t long before Al-Sayed’s family packed up and headed for the US… the land of opportunity. As a child, he was constantly jetting off to the US, Europe and the Middle East.  “I was always struck by how different places, cities and neighbourhoods have a unique quality and rhythm of life,” he explains.

As a teenager living in Morocco, the young Al-Sayed was fascinated by the variety of urban, climatic and geographical features that influenced the city’s vibe. So it was no surprise that he adored architecture and art history at college. “It wasn’t until these classroom ‘travels’ around the world, where I’d look at slides of ancient cities, modern buildings, etc. that I decided I wanted to study architecture more formally,” he says.  Also interested in filmmaking from a young age, he would have gone down that path had he not chosen architecture.  “Like the best and most poetic architects, film also has the capacity to instil awe, wonder and a sense of magic in our bodies and minds,” he says.

The young graduate went on to pursue a master’s degree in architecture at Columbia University in NYC.  For 10 years he practised with the Tod Williams and Billie Tsien firm, culminating with his work as Co-Designer and Project Architect for the Phoenix Art Museum. It wasn’t until 1997 that he opened up his own firm, Marwan Al-Sayed Architects in Phoenix, Arizona, (though they’re now planning to relocate to Los Angeles).
Al-Sayed’s architectural goals reflect his deep spirituality: to achieve the grace, mystery and serenity found in works of the ancient world, then recreate them in modern fashion. From a Japanese temple to an Islamic mosque, a Mayan temple to a 1,000-year-old village in the Sahara desert, everything from the past inspires him. Back in 1988 he ventured on a four-month research trip to visit the ancient oasis towns of the Sahara desert in Algeria; the M’zab valley, El Oued, Timmimoun and then into the Berber villages of Southern Morocco. “The work in these places was sublime in its beauty and frugality. It’s more important than ever to reinterpret these universal conditions for modern life”, he explains.

Keen to see a return to fundamentals, Al-Sayed always uses natural materials such as stone and concrete in his work. “If handled in an abstract and modern manner, they can work beautifully with light, create thick mass and evoke ancient places,” he says. And he is adamant that, in a world of diminishing resources, architecture needs to become more frugal, without sacrificing experience and pleasure. As he states passionately: “Ancient societies were able to do that, so there’s no reason why we can’t do the same with current technologies and materials.”

While he initially specialised in custom residential projects, over the years Al-Sayed has become more involved with resort design. “It’s my favourite – probably because of my travels and love of hotels,” he says.  But he remains passionate about art. “Art museums and galleries would be my other top choices, encouraged by my interest and background in art.” So his projects have included the Phoenix Art Museum Sculpture Garden – his first public museum project – as well as the ‘New York City Penthouse on Fifth Avenue’ (his first solo project) and his first freestanding building, ‘The House of Earth + Light’. Designing the Amangiri Resort in the Utah desert was a particular honour: “It was in an ancient landscape of such incredible beauty. We were involved in all aspects, from master planning to building design, to the creation of every piece of furniture.”

Each of his projects is an individual response to the client, site, climate and setting. “It’s all bound by a love of light, a sense of invention, the flow of space that feels natural and free, and a desire to be modern without losing vital connections to the past,” he says. While there are common threads in Al-Sayed’s work, each project is also a new beginning. Over the years he’s adopted a style that’s simple yet rich, nuanced yet memorable.

Key influences include light, the sun and moon, wind, art, laughter, beauty, mystery and magic, materiality, colour and silence. Those who have inspired him include Carlo Scarpa, Luis Barragan and Louis Kahn but Al-Sayed’s appreciation goes further back, to the thousands of unnamed architects, designers and builders of the ancient world who created places of exquisite beauty and simplicity. This humility is reflected in his own home: “My wife, Mies, really designed it, but we discussed the rules together. We wanted to effortlessly create a peaceful retreat….an everyday resort for our family. She did a better job than I ever could have, I absolutely love living in it!”

So what next for this inspiring architect? He dreams of designing in a city, truly rich in ancient history; like Istanbul, Beirut, Marrakech or Kyoto, “where the tension between the modern and the ancient can be most felt. I’m intrigued by areas with rich architectural history that strive for modern work that is nonetheless deeply evocative of the place.”  Alternatively, he yearns to engage in landscapes of extreme isolated beauty such as the Greek islands, Mayan jungles and Brazilian rainforests. “I have a secret dream that Bono from U2 or The King and Queen of Jordan would commission a project from me,’ he confesses. And he’s also keenly aware of the different demands of each landscape. “In Europe there is stronger emphasis on construction and technical details. In Japan there’s much more openness to innovation due to the limitations of space. Americans want and need space, especially on the West coast.”

His advice to anyone wanting to become an architect?  “Find someone whose work you admire and work for them for no less than five years, in order to learn the craft and the discipline. Have patience. Travel (a lot). Admire art. Explore nature in all its manifestations!”  As he says – and his work proves – there are no shortcuts when it comes to producing outstanding work.