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Fibers and Fragments: Weaving local resources into modern material culture in the Arabian Gulf

The discovery of oil in 1932 accelerated the use of reinforced concrete in the Gulf, which British officials and economic agents in Bahrain first spurred. Ninety years later, the construction industry has yet to find a replacement for François Coignet's steel reinforcement bar.[1] Its corrosive nature is exacerbated in harsh climates and weakens reinforced concrete. The thesis responds to this challenge by drawing lessons from craftworkers' practices before the oil extraction era in the 1940s. The woven and mortared dwellings using palm fibers, clay, and stone provide productive analogs for the possibilities of using synesthetic fibers and concrete in future construction practices.

The Crown Jewels feature a construction system of post-tensioned concrete rubble. Piercing, stringing, threading, weaving and splicing lead to a more effective combination of carbon fibers and concrete fragments. These processes tie the two contrasting materials together:

(1) Concrete derived from demolition of modernist blocks, which are frequently a devalued 'waste' material destined for landfills, and

 (2) Carbon fiber, a highly valued and energy-intensive counterpart. 

Although a technical endeavor, this thesis operates in a geography where Gulf states are trying to reinvent their economies and building practices. Yet, these states still maintain an affinity and adherence to British regulations set during its time as a protectorate. To that end, these proposed systems and materials align with a nationalist, developmental narrative, which is untethered from foreign norms and rather is rooted in prior material practices and cultures of building of the land.

On local sourcing: a concrete 'vernacular.'

Abiding by local material palettes, this thesis makes several remarks. First, an apparent alibi is a prevalent advocacy for local sourcing as a sustainable practice. It speaks to the local climate and endurance of material 'of the land'. In European and North American contexts, this has supported the increased use of renewable sources such as timber instead of steel or concrete. Moreover, it has increased interest and popularity in 'vernacular' construction methods, whereby a presumed lack of mobility birthed resourcefulness and material economy.

Second, and more important for this thesis, local resources make an implicit political statement on self-sufficiency. A particular form of independence is gained by relying on materials from the land it sits on alone. For the Arabian Gulf, local materials offer an opportunity to construct a national narrative around constructive systems.


[1] Petroski, “Engineering: Concrete Canoes.”

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