The Case of the Kitchen

One of the most difficult aspects in the provision of good architecture in the Middle East region is the wide range of cultural variation the designer has to face, from general space planning and material selection to culturally varying perceptions of aesthetic and what is considered “beautiful”

No other room in the house illustrates these cultural differences more strongly than the kitchen.

“From local clients to surrounding Middle Eastern countries, India, Sri Lanka, Africa, Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, America all cultures have very different cuisines and methods of cooking, as well as a different emphasis on the role the kitchen plays in the household”.  –  Julia Dickerson, Hacker Kitchens

Developers often want a one size fits all approach to their larger multi-unit developments, which cannot work for opposing cultural norms: Western cultures use the kitchen as a central living space, and generally express it by opening it up and connecting it to other living spaces and to the outside. Eastern cultures on the other hand, whether it be due to privacy issues or smell contamination, prefer to exclude the main cooking areas and hide them to the back of the house. What results is the architect (and the developer) somewhat trying to guess what the market will prefer, therefore requiring the designer to include an element of flexibility, and functionality into the design, so that it can easily adapt to an occupant of either cultural extreme.

The challenge lies in the fundamental arrangement of spaces within the villas. Villas in the UAE are predominantly inward looking – fortified to protect and preserve the privacy of the family whereas their Western counterparts have a substantially larger focus on an outward looking modus operandi – there is a willingness to connect with one’s surroundings and ‘community’. This breaking of boundaries between internal and external spaces also features within the interior, where open living, particularly between kitchen-dining-living spaces is common place.

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The openness of these spaces typically allows for greater flexibility of use and occupation, which means that individually, these spaces can be smaller in area than the enclosed areas of the traditional abode where activities within the space need be completely contained within their walls. It is also common in the Middle East to have both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ kitchens. The wet kitchen primarily serves as the kitchen for cooking and is always located on an exterior wall, or completely separate to the villa to allow for maximum ventilation. The dry kitchen (or show-kitchen) is a space with limited traditional ‘kitchen’ functionality and is solely used for serving. This separation, also common place in other areas of the house not only acts to distinguish functionality but also to demarcate zones for service staff who often have living quarters adjacent to these back of house areas, well away from family living.

The normality of two kitchen spaces for Middle Eastern clients, who separate the activities of these spaces, is in sharp contrast to the needs of Western clients living in the region.

“… it would be very rare for them (Westerners) to require more than one kitchen in a home… It is very common for clients here to remove walls if doing a renovation so that they can create more of an open plan feel and the kitchen can become the centre of the living. Generally in a western house hold, the kitchen is not only cooked in by the entire family but also used to eat meals such as lunch and breakfast and for the family to generally spend time in.”  –  Julia Dickerson, Hacker Kitchens

To satisfy a variety of cultures, the design and layout of the kitchen must be flexible. It must be sympathetic to local, traditional use while also appealing to the UAE’s huge ex-pat community. Flexibility can mean the opening of walls, or partial opening in what almost becomes a serving hatch. This effectively creates a plenum space in which cooking odour can be extracted before spilling into adjoining spaces. While some of the cooking will always be smelt in this typology it satisfies a middle ground in kitchen design.  In circumstances as noted in the preceding paragraph, design flexibility is simply not enough and often results in the entire villa being stripped of its internal walls and redesigned to suit the needs of that particular client.

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One of the similarities in what is otherwise one of the most culturally difficult spaces to design for is in material selection. This is due to the fundamental nature of the kitchen being a space for food preparation. Hard, easy clean materials feature on horizontal surfaces with the opportunity for expression to cupboard fronts and other vertical surfaces.

As designers our focus needs to be on the occupant and the way they use the space, all spaces, allowing for a large degree of flexibility in layout for the spectrum of use. Ultimately the decisions that we put onto paper have the ability to influence the way others live their lives. Our job is done when the result of our design decisions are unnoticeable to the building’s occupants.

At the end of the day, whatever culture you’re from and wherever you are in the world, the kitchen (or what is prepared in the kitchen) is one of the most important parts of the house. It is a room that through its use, brings family and friends together. The architect facilitates this connection through the medium of design.

“Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.”  –  Joe Sparano

Kitchen 2