Materials: desert dreaming

Designers and innovators are taking inspiration from one of the Middle East’s most abundant natural resources — sand

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“Sand is what surrounds us. There’s something very poetic about it,” says Hamza Omari. He’s talking on the phone from Dubai’s Business Bay, an area that, like so much of the city, is currently under construction but is still no more than a short drive away from the unspoilt beauty of rolling dunes. Dubai’s inhabitants regularly head to those dunes for respite from daily life. “It’s where all your cares slip away,” says Omari.

Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect, used her desert memories to inspire a huge series of design pieces in 2007. Called “Dune Formations”, these abstract forms were derived from the ever-changing configuration of dunes as the sand blows across the desert. They could, individually, be used as shelving, tables or seats. The initial series was finished in iridescent car paint that moved through shades of orange and gold depending on the light.

But if the desert is a place of dreams, the sand it’s made of is less romantic. “We always try to keep it out in this country — it’s dusty, it’s a nuisance,” says Omari, an industrial designer who was born in Canada and raised in Jordan. However, he and his colleagues at Dubai-based Loci Architecture + Design are about to change that. They have been charged with creating the six Abwab pavilions for Dubai Design Week, showcasing work from the UAE, Kuwait, Pakistan, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — and there will be sand.

The pavilions’ walls are made of layered polycarbonate sheets usually used for roofing, inside which sand will move, creating delicate patterns and acting as a contemporary mashrabiya (the window screens traditionally made in wooden latticework). “The sand will filter the light but it also helps with climate control,” says Omari. “If it works well, we’d like to use the same system for a medical centre we’re designing in Motor City [in Dubai], though there are technical issues — like the weight of an entire façade.”

Markus Kayser's SolarSinter

It’s not the first time Loci has worked with sand. In 2013, the studio made a modern majlis — a traditional seating area where visitors are entertained on low cushions. Dispensing with the usual textiles, Loci instead filled neoprene tubes with sand. “When you sit on the sand it takes your shape,” says Omari, “and the neoprene has a lot of stretch. It’s waterproof but not airproof, so it was comfortable and the sand didn’t compact.”

In a place where updating design often means throwing Islamic patterns on to modern shapes, the majlis proved surprisingly popular. “Quite a few people wanted to buy it — until they found out the cost,” says Omari. (Making the majlis turned out to be labour-intensive or, as Omari puts it, “a logistical torture”.)

Sand can, though, be more than a filling component. When the German designer Markus Kayser was a student at London’s Royal College of Art a few years ago, he looked to the desert and its copious natural quantities of sand and sun for inspiration. He created the SolarSinter, a machine that used solar power to melt silica sand into a liquid that solidified as glass, and to run a 3D printing machine to create objects. “There’s a piece that’s often on display at MoMA in New York,” says Kayser. “It’s a glass bowl made by the SolarSinter in the Egyptian desert in 2011. It’s not usable because the bowl’s surface is too rough. But it’s powerful to show an archetype. It shows what can be done, and it’s something for people to embroider their dreams on to.”

Kayser, having made his point, has never wanted to pursue the idea further. “Some people said ‘Go and make lots of bowls and sell them in galleries’, but that’s not my thing at all. My job as a designer is to show potential, to build the prototype. To my knowledge, there’s no one using this technology yet,” he says. “It’s all there, ready to go.” British Aerospace had been interested, since building in outer space would be advantaged by using the materials available on far-off planets rather than transporting them. “And there was some interest from Qatar,” says Keyser, “but they wanted novelty items, like 100 award statues. But really, it’s a job for engineers.”

Glass bowl made by the SolarSinter from silica sand

One engineer interested in the potential of sand is the Italian Enrico Dini. He has plans to make a 3D-printed house in Sardinia from crushed granite gravel — an easily available local material. “Though as I say, we print, we rock! Any sand will do!” he exclaims. When we speak on FaceTime, the exuberant engineer is driving to Rome, then flying to the Italian island to discuss an eco-campsite called “Troglocity”, to be created in the Orgosolo region using 3D printing. Dini is a regular fixture at conferences where what he calls “archinature” — a movement that synthesises the natural world with architecture and design — is involved.

Dini, more than anyone, has made huge advances in the use of sand as a building material. He has worked with the British architects Foster + Partners on a moonbase project to build lunar houses with 3D printing and moon dust. And here on earth, he and his company D-Shape have created replacement coral reefs in Melbourne and Bahrain; these were made with sand bound with magnesium and were put into place in 2012. “After a year, we saw that the fish appreciated the shapes,” laughs Dini.

Enrico Dini's design for a 3D-printed villa shaped from sand

While Dini is delighted that his work is helping fish, his real focus is the desert. “We have several millions of kilometres of it and it needs to be useful,” he says. “Why are we building bigger and bigger cities when we can build cities for just one million [people] in the desert?” His plan is what he calls “the manipulation of sand to reclaim arid soil”. He is currently preparing a proposal for Kuwait and is hoping that the country will take on board his pilot project to turn the desert into liveable land. This will involve two elements: huge 30-metre-high “trees”, six metres in diameter, to create shade and contain all the living and working space; and a waterproof platform that will eventually become a new water table.

It’s a different kind of desert dreaming altogether. If, with the help of Kuwait’s wealthy royal family, it became a reality, sand would never be the same again.

Photographs: ORCH; Amos Field Reid

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