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Arabian Sites

review

Arabian Sites is an exhibition of Omani architecture designed to coincide with the launch of The Architecture of Oman by Salma Samar Damluji. Even by the standards of architectural publications, the book is a lavish affair - a 500-page account of an architectural heritage which has been subject to Indian, East African, Portuguese and British influences, complete with numerous drawings, plentiful colour photography, and an introduction by the Prince of Wales.

So it comes as a surprise to find that the exhibition is remarkable chiefly for its restraint. A few carefully selected artefacts - a silver pen case, wooden platform slippers, heavy anklets worn by an Omani bride - are on display, but the awaited commentary on their cultural significance never materialises. Each item is accompanied by the most cursory of descriptions, and these evocative objects are left to speak for themselves.

Architectural drawings of Omani buildings, an exhibition of work by a British artist living in Oman, and a series of slides which the visitor can enjoy while lounging on floor cushions, are similarly devoid of commentary. The curatorial voice is that of an enigmatic, gentle ghost, rather than the usual garrulous know-all. Somebody is telling the story, but, like a ghost, the presence never quite takes form.

Sometimes, it is an insider, keen to illuminate local construction processes such as how bricks are made 'by hand from clay extracted from date palm fronds, mixed with chaff, soaked in water, and left to ferment'. Momentarily, it seems to be an outsider to the culture, entertaining a child with memories of past travels. The shift of the population from traditional housing to more modern parts of town is mourned in these terms: 'nobody lives in the old mud-built quarters anymore, said the builders, except for cats and dogs and snails'. But more often, the story-teller simply doesn't feel like speaking: there is no comment, just images - of buildings, of people, of desert sands.

Spending time with such an unobtrusive presence is restful, and, especially when contrasted with the lunchtime clatter at the riba, it is easy to imagine the sense of retreat on entering an Omani palace, after the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets. The pantomime cut-outs of the Omani skyline and brightly coloured arches which are visible from outside the space are misleadingly brash. Once inside, all is tranquillity: walls are arranged to hint at a sequence of rooms, without carving up the floorplan, Omani garments hanging from the ceiling emphasise the loftiness of the space.

This tantalising glimpse of a rich architectural heritage might just tempt the visitor to read the book, which contains enough research and information to satisfy the most curious of minds, but the exhibition is most successful as a themed remodelling of the Florence Hall.

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