Green Corner Building in Muharraq, Bahrain

Emma Jones

The Green Corner Building is contemporary architecture that carries the appearance of a weathering ruin. Rude and unadorned, made of vertical and horizontal slabs of structural stone stacked one upon the other. Their rough finish is meant to give the impression they have been hacked directly from the desert rock of Bahrain, but at the same time, they might also have been inspired by a Piranesi engraving of an ancient monolith, a dream of a lost world. The building’s façade is, indeed, undeniably archaic: it employs stacked temple entablatures stretched to the depth of floors, divided by thin slabs that protrude beyond the walls. The single cornice that crowns the building, recedes behind these floors instead of sitting proud of them, in a reversal of its usual prominent role. It doesn’t frame the building against the sky for the onlooker gazing up from the ground level. Instead, it retreats from human view, hidden by the concrete floor awnings. Furthermore, all its ornamentation is gone and its profile is reduced, in a manner that also recalls the restrictions of twentieth century international modernism.

As an assembly of trabeated elements, the building’s structural system possesses a lightness that has little in common with the thick, solid masonry walls found in the traditional architecture of Muharraq. In fact, wall panels, floor slabs and cornice are made not of stone but of prefabricated concrete, with each variegated panel cast directly into the shifting sands on the construction site itself. The practice of making one material (in this case, concrete) look like another (stone) is part of a long tradition of material imitation in western architecture. Within this discourse, it is more than sufficient for a building to perform the cultural idea of a particular material, whether or not that material is actually used. In this case, the concrete elements manage to perform two ideas of stone which are both classical and regional. In the western tradition, the appearance of stone fulfils classical ideals of strength, solidity and repose: like Greek temple architecture. And in the context of Bahrain, it alludes to the traditional coral stone buildings of the area. But in both cases, these allusions are aesthetic, and not dependent upon traditional types. It may be eminently photogenic, but from the perspective of critical regionalism, the building presents an aporia. An alternate reading, however, is more productive: rather than exploiting the desert for the aesthetics of an authentic past, Holtrop here demonstrates the potential of the ‘material gesture’ (a stated preoccupation of his). The façade refers not to an imagined past, but a possible future.