The Palestinian architect behind Bahrain’s preservation initiatives

‘Head of Architectural Affairs’ for any country seems like a daunting and wide-ranging role, yet Palestinian architect and curator Noura Al Sayeh Holtrop has swiftly taken it on, despite it being her first professional experience straight out of university. Having just completed her master’s degree in architecture from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Holtrop joined the ministry in October 2009 and has since continued to work under the tutelage of Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa.

The position came with an open mandate of reviving Bahrain’s heritage and restoring the position of culture as an important pillar of society, explains Holtrop, who felt she could contribute to achieving such an ambition through architecture and urban planning. Her work often involves a trifecta of architectural preservation, exhibition and pavilion curation, and competition commissioning.

House of Architectural Heritage, renovated by Holtrop and Leopold Banchini Architects

One of her first projects was the curation of the Bahrain Pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010, which was awarded the Golden Lion for best national participation. Soon after, projects rolled in, and, in the short time since, Holtrop has been in charge of the ideas competition for Bab Al Bahrain Square, the commissioning of several cultural buildings, and countless more curation roles (including the Bahrain Pavilion again in 2012, 2016 and 2018).

Since 2016, though, she’s nearly buckled down, and is currently directing the Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy Project, a UNESCO listed World Heritage site in Muharraq City that consists of 17 buildings, three offshore oyster beds, part of the seashore and the Qal’at Bu Mahir fortress on the southern tip of Muharraq Island. It’s a role that – yes – she’s balanced while taking on other projects, like curating the Hangar Exhibition for Amman Design Week 2019.

“After having worked for nearly 10 years in Bahrain, it was a really great opportunity to be able to work on an exhibition at a regional level,” she says of her work on the Hanagar Exhibition, “and to look at what is happening on a larger scale across the Arab world. I tried to understand what the interests, concerns and challenges of designers were, and if there were any commonalities across different countries and disciplines.”

In doing so, she structured the exhibition around four emerging themes: weaving shelters, material investigations, territorial reconsiderations, and storytelling and the city. But her commitment to Bahrain and protecting its architectural and cultural heritage remains a strong pull, and she always finds herself back in the ministry.

“Our hope, through the heritage preservation mission, is to protect an important part of Bahrain’s national identity, as well as reinforce local expressions of architecture,” says Holtrop. “We hope to do this by both preserving this built heritage and by building contemporary, locally-rooted architecture within these historic urban landscapes.”

Moving forward, Holtrop, whose team is in the final stages of construction on the remaining projects on the Pearling Path, is busy commissioning the Bahrain pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 2020, as well as its pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai. For her, it’s an incredible sense of responsibility to work on projects that “have the possibility of influencing the way a country and culture is perceived and perceives itself.”

“I have many dream projects,” Holtrop adds. “Luckily, there’s always an outlet to develop those ideas.”

This was originally published in Architectural Digest Middle East in February 2020.

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