Al Falaj: the ancient Middle Eastern design that is transforming the local landscape

Could a 3,000-year-old irrigation system be the key to a sustainable future in the Middle East? The team at the Cultural Engineering research centre, brain-child of Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, has redesigned Al Falaj for contemporary use. Vision explores the immense potential of this traditional design 

3,000 years ago, the Falaj was essential to the inhabitants of the Arabian Gulf. Originally developed in the harsh desert climate of Oman, the ancient irrigation system once stretched across the Arabian Peninsula, bringing water to barren areas through a complex system of tunnels that lead to impressive man-made oases.

Until recently, the Falaj seemed to be fading from history. With the region’s rapidly growing population and fast rate of urbanisation, there has been a high demand for water. High-tech irrigation systems such as sprinklers have taken over the landscape, yet there are still many questions surrounding their sustainability and efficiency in the desert-like landscape of the Arabian Peninsula.

That’s where Cultural Engineering (Studio CE) comes in. A Dubai-based multidisciplinary practice, it finds creative solutions for modern-day problems of research, education and urbanism, the company reinvented – or rediscovered – the Falaj, adapting the system for modern use from the few authentic falajs that remain in the Gulf.  

CE’s first exhibit ‘Al Falaj: Water Systems of the Gulf’s Oases’, at the 2016 London Design Biennale, presented the company’s design and architectural research, which focused on redesigning irrigation in the UAE. 

Al Falaj: the ancient Middle Eastern design that is transforming the local landscape
Cultural Engineering and Allies and Morrison present their Madinat Al Irfan design in London

Though the Emirates boast many of the region’s newest and smartest technologies, Farah Sabobeh, Education Manager and Content Researcher at Cultural Engineering, explains that the Falaj is about more than just irrigation. Not only is this system sustainable, using nothing but traditional design to transport water, it also encourages a sense of community and cultural tradition – two things that are essential to the UAE. 

Cultural Engineering envision the Falaj constructed in between the high-tech skyscrapers of cities like Dubai, creating modern oases scattered around the landscape. Potable water is available for all to drink: from natives to travellers, school children to adults.

Indeed, following the success of their research at the London Biennale, Cultural Engineering finalised the planning for a series of public and private Falaj systems across the UAE. More recently, the company have taken their al falaj design to extraordinary levels, teaming up with London-based architecture and urban planning firm Allies and Morrison. The team are designing Madinat Al Irfan, an extension to the city of Muscat, Oman. The largest modern-day example of the Falaj, the system will be built around a wadi, or valley, connecting Muscat International Airport to the existing cities of Muscat and Seeb.

Predicted to house 280,000 people, Madinat Al Irfan will host everything from valuable architectural land to parks, a mosque and a souk. According to Studio CE, the design “responds to its geography and culture to create a unique place, uniquely Omani, uniquely memorable,” all of this using a traditional sustainable system developed in the region thousands of years ago. Not only this, it will be entirely sustainable, displaying a 50 per cent reduction in local energy demand.

Cultural Engineering’s groundbreaking developments are part of a host of architectural talents coming out of the region. Many local designers are turning away from ultra-high-tech solutions, in favour of modern designs that embody the region’s rich architectural tradition, like the Falaj. Such innovative solutions remind us that sometimes, going back to tradition is the only way forward.