Interview: Omani architect Ali Jaffar Al-Lawati discusses launching the Middle East’s most successful architecture radio show

Omani architect and radio host Ali Jaffar Al-Lawati is known for his Arabic radio show that discusses important issues related to the built environment, and recently, he launched the show in English. Here, he speaks with Round City about the development of his work.

Shortlisted for Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Mohamed Makiya Prize 2020, Ali Al-Lawati is an Omani architect and radio show host currently based in the UK. His radio shows, which air on Oman Radio Channel, include the ‘Architecture of Oman’, ‘Religious Architecture of Oman’ (which aired during the month of Ramadan in 2016), ‘Sustainable Architecture of Oman’, ‘Islamic Architecture’, ‘Building Stories’, and more. And while his radio shows are predominantly in Arabic, in 2019, he launched an English-language show called ‘Voice of Architecture’.

Al-Lawati often invites architects and other specialists related to the built environment to speak about pressing issues with the hope of spreading awareness to the public and informing his listeners. His radio shows have audiences all over the Middle East, from Oman to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, making it the first regional, Arabic and English-language radio show about architecture. One of his main achievements thus far has been creating a hub for architects to communicate with the public directly, reducing the gap between architects, planners, decision-makers and the general public.

Here, he shares a little more about himself and his work.

Tell us about your background.
I was raised in Muscat, in a historical neighborhood that has a unique traditional Omani architectural style, which was the reason for my interest in history and one of the drivers of my choosing to study architectural engineering after I completed high school. Along with my study duration, I worked part-time as an assistant technician in an architectural firm owned by my uncle engineer Murtadha Al-Issa, one of the earliest Omani architects, as this profession is quite new in the GCC. He encouraged me to study architecture.

After obtaining my degree, I was employed by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth as an architectural engineer to supervise many sports infrastructure projects in Oman, like sports complexes, centres and clubs. In addition to this responsibility, I deliver the History of Architecture module for architecture students at the Higher College of Technology HCT as a part-time lecturer. I also work in the media sector, preparing and broadcasting cultural radio shows that promote architecture. I presented ‘Architecture of Oman’ (2016), ‘Islamic Architecture’ (2017), ‘Sustainable Architecture’ since (2016-2019), ‘Architecture Synthesizers’ (2018), ‘Building Stories’ (2019), and ‘Voice of Architecture’ (2019-2020).

Al-Lawati recording an episode of his radio show

Your radio programmes in Oman are very popular – how has it grown in the past year?
The radio show began in 2016 and its first season was a hit, as it was the first cultural show specialised in architecture and the built environment. Several podcasts and programmes have launched in the region after my show, but they did not continue and one of them lasted for only two seasons. I believe my show is the only one which continued for five years. The reason behind its growth is the solid preparation that it requires – I spend hours searching for architects who have presented good work, as well as continuing to stay up to date in the latest news in architecture on a daily basis by following up on various architectural platforms and magazines.

The difficulty lies in reaching guests, as some of them are in other countries and I need to travel and meet them in their cities to record the episodes. I take advantage of the opportunity of attending various architectural events, exhibitions and conferences in countries like the UAE, Saudia Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and Egypt to record episodes and then broadcast them over Oman FM. The same is applied, of course, to Tamayouz’s events, are some of the best gatherings to meet architects. This has exposed the show to a new audience in different countries and enabled it to become popular in the past year.

Al-Lawati with a guest

Why did you decide to launch it in English?
I think that European countries have longer experience in the field of architecture compared to the MENA area. For example, some societies are more than 100 years old and a large number of experienced architects are working in Oman and the GCC countries and they do not speak Arabic. I found that launching an English show will contribute to highlighting issues to non-Arabic speakers and help me reach a wider range of audiences as well. After four years of experience in preparing and presenting radio shows in Arabic, I presented the idea of the new version to the director of Oman FM English Channel to launch ‘Voice of Architecture’. He accepted and agreed to sponsor, and it was a chance for me to avoid problems faced previously for the Arabic show. It was also an opportunity to re-brand and re-structure the show in a completely new version.

You’re currently based in the UK. Tell us about what you’re doing there?
Currently, I am based in the UK where I and working towards my PhD at the University of Liverpool and I am also continuing to record episodes. I strive to meet with European architects and communicate with various architectural firms in London and other UK cities, as well as move between universities, academic institutes, and architectural societies to host new guests. I also traveled to the Netherlands earlier this year and visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht where I recorded with Dutch architects. I plan to travel to other European cities during the remaining three years of my study to attend architectural events, talks and exhibitions to contact architects and practices for my show. I aim to create a communication link to exchange knowledge between architects based in Europe and the Middle East through radio.

What do you hope your radio channel contributes to the architectural community and general public?
One of the major achievements so far is creating a space for architects to communicate with the public directly, which helps reduce the gap between architects, planners, decision-makers and the general public.

The other main contribution is spreading awareness about architecture among the public. I still meet people who do not differentiate between architects and building contractors. There is a common misconception that architecture is only a sketch on a piece of paper, but the truth is that it affects all ways of life. Unfortunately, some actions and practices of the architects themselves strengthen this concept. I believe that media could strongly lead the public sphere and through the guests of the show, we introduce architecture to the public in simple ways and address how architects could change our buildings to become better places to live.

Al-Lawati with a guest

Do you have any upcoming projects you can discuss?
I will continue the radio show and improve it, but I can share that I started to convert the broadcasted episodes from audio files into a written script this year with a team. The best episodes will be available in a book that contains interviews with well-known architects and ideas worth reading. I am looking for a sponsor to publish this book and distribute it to international book fairs.

What is your impression of your nomination for the final shortlist for this year’s Mohamed Makiya Prize?
I am honoured to be the first Omani shortlisted for this award associated with the name of the great Iraqi architect, Dr Mohamed Saleh Makiya, whose last architectural work was his design of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, which is considered one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. Dr Makiya had a close relationship with the Sultanate of Oman since the beginning of the renaissance, as he used to visit Muscat and other Omani cities for the purpose of work and he was in constant contact with Omani architects such as the architect and poet Saeed Al-Saqlawi. He also presented an urban proposal to develop the city of old Muscat, which was published in an Oman newspaper in the mid-80s.