By Nour Al Ali
During his term abroad at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Fall 2014, not only did AUS architecture student Ali J. Al-Sammarraie enjoy a term full of new experiences, but he also won the Grand Prize in the Tam Bao Temple Studio and Design Competition, in which LSU students worked with the Vietnamese Buddhist community in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to create a plan for the redevelopment of areas adjacent to their temple.
The competition was held by Parker Le of Le Architect, LLC, and Al-Sammarraie was awarded a job contract with the company on the last day of classes.
“Mr. Al-Sammarraie’s architectural abilities are exceptional, and his passion for architecture is evident in both his verbal and visual presentation styles. His project demonstrated a high degree of development both in terms of detail and of overall concept,” said Al-Sammarraie’s prize certificate.
Al-Sammarraie, who is an Iraqi national, has exhibited his work both locally and internationally in previous years, and has been a participant in many competitions as well.
The AUS Blog spoke to Al-Sammarraie about his experience abroad thanks to the AUS International Exchange Office. Below are his answers.
Where did you go and was it one of your top choices?
Based on my professors' recommendations, LSU in Baton Rouge was my only choice for the study abroad program.
What were you expecting to see, feel and experience? Was it what you expected or was it different?
I was expecting to see great architecture and academics, and to experience great food and cultural traditions. I was also expecting a great football season on the university’s campus.
Academically, to be completely transparent, it was no match to AUS’s highly equipped College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD). I had to maintain my AUS values to push beyond the boundaries in my studio.
The culture and life found in Baton Rouge and New Orleans were among my greatest life experiences so far. I got to meet great people, make good friends and experience a different yet similar culture. I was also introduced to the football realm and now understand why my AUS professors make a big deal about Saturday game days.
What cultural differences did you notice?
Being from the Middle East, people tend to be introverts. Since I have spent my childhood and adulthood here, I have been set to act as such by default. When I was in Baton Rouge, I was shocked at how seemingly easy it is for someone to start conversations with others. I also learned to smile, a lot.
What activities did you do and what did you get to see and what events did you attend?
I was in constant contact with some of my AUS professors. Brian Dougan (CAAD) suggested I go to Lafayette and experience the city’s music and culture. I arranged a trip to Lafayette and New Orleans and visited as many places in these cities as possible. The most memorable places I went to were NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art), Sculptures Park, Magazine Street, and of course the famous French Quarter and Bourbon Street.
Why do you think it's important to study abroad?
It is the best chance to discover one’s capacity at achieving things, and discover some personal qualities that would otherwise remain hidden. It is a chance to improve your personal and social skills as studying abroad makes you adapt more easily with different people that come from diverse backgrounds.
How (and why) did you decide to study abroad?
It started as a farfetched idea, as I was comfortable where I was at AUS. After talk with people about it, and mentioning it to my professors, I was encouraged to get into that route and start a journey by myself. I was eager to really know the meaning of how to "be comfortable being uncomfortable," a phrase constantly said by my professors throughout the five-year architecture program at AUS. I never really fully understood the phrase, so I took this journey as a step forward to understand what living outside my comfort zone is like.
What is the concept behind the winning project?
Through research of the Vietnamese culture and the American-Vietnamese community and our interaction with the Tam Bao community in Baton Rouge, it was apparent that it was a collaborative society with the will to enhance each others’ lives. People cooperate to prepare meals, wash dishes, clean the temple and help each other. This desire to improve does not contain itself within the walls of Tam Bao; after Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese in Louisiana were ready rebuild and solidify. The project provides opportunities where such activities continue, such as providing vegetable plants zones. After several encounters with Abbot Thay, who is the community’s spiritual teacher, we learned that Buddhism is a way of living; it accepts and adapts to all faiths. The project proposes a program where not only can Abbot Thay preach to a larger variety of people, but engage with people of diverse backgrounds.
The site, where the Cortana Mall resides, has been unused and the 102 hectares land is deserted leaving a large empty mall. The design responds to the site and addresses issues of sustainability and focuses on the Vietnamese community. After the site visit, explorations of verticals in energy poles aroused a field of vertical elements arranged on diagonal grid. This has been done through drawing the initial reflections of the site as vertical lines, which translate to planes and in the atavistic drawing a complex of spaces, planes and grid. The vertical elements (linear elements/planes/volumes) were used to create different spaces/experiences. One vertical grew to attract attention from the street and Cortana and create shelter behind for the community.
The design attempts to address issues of sustainability through different approaches; it utilizes the existing structure in the Monterrey Plaza and Cortana Mall. The residential units contain natural ventilation and light-well to reduce energy consumption. On a large scale, the Cortana Mall site's expansive empty asphalt parking lot is to be replaced with softscape.
What was the best thing about working on this project?
The fact that this is a real scenario with real people, a site community and a client made it all more exciting and real. It pushed us, the studio as a whole, to create something worth turning into a reality.
How did your AUS education helped you in developing the concept? Was there a course that inspired you, or a theme you worked on before?
I have been trying to minimize the “too much happening” since my second year. I believe I have simplified my design approach since then. In developing this concept, I relied on a single drawing generated from situations on the site. That single drawing became the datum to the decisions made later, creating a more subtle design. The courses that inspired me are every studio I took since I enrolled at AUS.
Nour Al-Ali is an English literature and mass communication double major senior at the American University of Sharjah.