Rifat Chadirji Prize for Sharjah art museum design goes to Mexican studio

The Rifat Chadirji Prize for 2019, for the design of a new art museum in Sharjah, has gone to Rolando Rodriguez Leal and Natalia Wrzask from Aidia Studio in Mexico City. The winners will receive the Rifat Chadirji Prize Statuette, designed by celebrated Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi, plus $5,000 and an all-expenses trip to the award ceremony in Amman.

This year the prize, an annual thematic award named after the prolific Iraqi architect and academic Dr Rifat Chadirji and part of the Tamayouz Excellence Award programme, was held in partnership with Barjeel Art Foundation.

The brief was to design a modern Arab art museum to house Barjeel Art Foundation’s extensive art collection. There’s no guarantee that the winning design will actually be built, though the site is earmarked and funding is reportedly in place.

Perhaps surprisingly for a proposal from Mexico, the design does seem an elegant response to the brief in terms of both social and climatic environment. The judges certainly commended the Aidia project’s “beautifully thought-through analysis” that “very cleverly interprets regional architectural, social and vernacular expressions”.

The citation goes on: “The roof, made of wood and based on a traditional Emirati weaving structure, generates a contemporary motif that naturally filters daylight and creates surprisingly high – and beautiful – semi-public spaces and landscapes, such as the sculpture route and walkway.

“The woven quality of the roof further allows the walls to be dynamic, as shade patterns created by the sun’s changing position during the day dances across them. The walls therefore become a festive skin.

“Also, while the tower appears introverted, a corner boundary wall that is half-height opens the building to the surrounding context. This offers an element of respect and makes the building less intimidating.

“The contemporary reinterpretation and form of the original barjeel is also very successful. The design has a very consistent choice of materials in which the raw stone of the base has a strong connection with the landscape structure – it almost looks like a quarry where the spaces have been carved out. The light, transparent wooden structure gives the whole project a light-footed refinement. Behind the choice of materials there is also a well-thought-out installation concept.”

Given the Sharjah connection, and the need to reflect both the local cultural heritage and the (often tricky) environmental conditions, it’s perhaps surprising that only three of the 20 shortlisted submissions came from the UAE (all from Dubai studios) and none made it to the awards. Maybe the composition of the jury had something to do with it – as you can see below there’s a definite European bias, and no representation from Sharjah or Barjeel.

Second place went to Solid (Nader Moro and Sameh Zayed), a Cairo studio which used the Barjeel art collection as the starting point for development of a spatial concept with two layers – space for events and roof gardens above, the exhibition areas below. “This results in a design that is rich in spatial experiences,” concluded the jury.

“The observation of the present fragmentation in the collection inspires an approach to the museum as a collection of fragments” so that there’s a definite relationship between the landscape and the building.

Second place: elevation with palm trees

“This connection exists literally in the sense that the public domain as a continuous space is interwoven with the complex, as well as figuratively in terms of morphology by linking up with the characteristic structure of the urban context.”

Another Cairo-based design, from Mohamed Hassan Elgendy, took the third spot. This one perhaps represents the clearest sense of community and context: “the simplicity of the cube and plaza below creates a calm reflective space embedded in the geology and culture.

Third place: low rise exterior, hidden depths inside

“As a cultural plaza with a central public space, the design offers an attractive and inviting area for meetings, community building, temporary events and performances. This intervention under the raised volume of the museum is a strong statement, and the sloping ground level takes on the character of an amphitheatre. The patios further act as lightwells, and bring daylight into the lower domain. Through these patios, a glimpse of the exhibition space can be seen from below – a wonderful contrast to the hermetically sealed outer façade of the lifted box, and a powerful and beautiful field of tension.”

A third Egyptian submission, from Cell Studio, took the People’s Choice Award. The six Honourable Mentions went to proposals from Turkey, Indonesia, Tehran, the States, and Egypt again (twice).

More information about all the Rifat Chadirji Prize 2019 submissions is here.

The Tamayouz jury, which met in October 2019 at Coventry University in the UK, consisted of:

  • Stephen Austin, head of School of Energy, Construction and Environment at Coventry University (the academic partner of Tamayouz) UK
  • Dr Rasem Badran, founder of Dar Al-Omran Jordan
  • Dia Azzawi, Iraqi artist UK
  • Claudia Linders, dean of architecture and urbanism at Fontys Academy Netherlands
  • Fernando Olba, Fernando Olba Arquitectura + Urbanismo Spain
  • Mandy Franz, MICA Architects UK
  • Nahed Jawad, Nahed Jawad Design UK
  • Philip Michael Wolfson, Wolfson Design UK


  1. My name is Rolando Rodriguez-Leal and I am the co-founder of AIDIA STUDIO, the architecture firm behind the winning proposal for the Barjeel Museum For Modern Arab Art in Sharjah.

    I recently read the piece published in your platform magpie and I find a number of statements quite unfortunate.

    First the one saying:

    “Perhaps surprisingly for a proposal from Mexico, the design does seem an elegant response to the brief in terms of both social and climatic environment.”

    What is this supposed to mean? How much of Mexican architecture do you know? Why would it be surprising that a design from Mexico would be elegant? Did it occur to you that perhaps having a similar latitude to the UAE we have better awareness extreme climatic conditions?

    Secondly, suggesting there was a European bias because only three Dubai based studios made it to the shortlist, the submission was anonymous, how is this bias proved? but let’s just say for the sake of argument that there was bias, what are the nationalities of these Dubai based offices you mention?

    Ignoring to acknowledge the credentials of the jury, the effort put by offices around the world and the organisation by Tamayouz Awards is appalling.

    What your article misses and it would have provided a better insight into what prompted our design to be chosen, a fact you could have very easily verified by actually doing the research is true fact that we were based in the UAE with Jean Nouvel for five years in charge of delivering the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Maybe we know a thing or two about museums and artwork that your article failed to capture.

    If you have any journalistic integrity you will post this as a comment on your article. If not then there’s no surprise about why this skim opinions are published in the first place.

    Posted for Rolando Rodriguez-Leal

  2. We are always happen to accept criticism, and in specifics we stand corrected: in particular we acknowledge our omission of AIDIA’s experience of working on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an oversight for which we apologise. Even though the material we were supplied by the competition’s organisers made no mention of this, we should have checked the background more fully.

    Equally, we acknowledge that a throwaway line implying significant differences between conditions in Mexico and Sharjah used too broad a brush; there are parts of Mexico where the heat and dust do mirror climatic conditions in the UAE, though obviously there are definite social and cultural differences.

    We do however stand by some of the other assertions that the commenter found so offensive. We didn’t say the proposed solution was inelegant — quite the opposite. We weren’t disrespecting the endeavours or credentials of organisers or the jury, merely expressing mild surprise that there weren’t more UAE studios on the shortlist.
    This is a prestige prize for a prestige local project. Maybe the local designers chose not to apply, maybe the designs of those who did apply were less impressive. Equally, the makeup of the jury is clear: our comment was not that the jury was unqualified, just that the project was so tightly rooted in a sense of place and a very specific cultural ecosystem which were not obviously represented among the jurors.

    In what amounts to an extended news story reporting the result of a competition, we don’t have the space or the resources to provide a detailed analysis of the winning designs. Instead we quoted extensively from the jury’s verdict, highlighting both the overall summary (“beautifully thought-through analysis … very cleverly interprets regional architectural, social and vernacular expressions”) and some specific details.

    magpie is a small organisation that relies on input from readers and the steady accumulation of knowledge and insight. In this case we may have been guilty of something of a kneejerk parochialism that we regret.

  3. Thank you for your answer but I must insist that the core of your argument is flawed. Suggesting European bias or not enough UAE representation as the reason for not enough local designs being shortlisted; there is absolutely no correlation simply because the submission was anonymous and the challenge the jury faced was to choose a design that would meet the brief requirements in a compelling way.

    Posted for Rolando Rodriguez-Leal

    The jury make-up is broad just as their expertise; true personalities in their fields from Art, Culture and Sustainable Design. Local representation cannot just be ascertained by the etymology of their names; if that would be the measuring standard then you an an English national would be the least appropriate person to comment.

    Finally we take great pride at designing for site specific conditions; we design for a time and a place, aim to read the site, analyse climatic conditions, study the local culture and their traditions and aim to translate that into a contemporary architecture. So excuse me for reacting to the comment that our geographical base excludes us from understanding the social and cultural make-up of Sharjah.

    All that said, I’m grateful for the space to debating these issues

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