Tarik Al Zaharna rips up the rule book
It’s an obvious first question to ask an architect: when did you start designing things? “Well, I used to build a lot of tree houses,” replies Tarik Al Zaharna, owner and founder of T.ZED Architects, a progressive, award-winning architecture and design practice based in the UAE. He’s telling me this at the new mixed-use Canvas project off Emirates Road in Dubai, that his firm has partnered with KOA to develop.
From the evident passion when he talks, I can tell this isn’t your average architecture graduate who got a few lucky breaks. His eyes dart around the room picking up every minor imperfection, and he smiles as I tell him that his junior architect did the exact same thing the previous day when she showed me the space. “I was always conscious of my built environment and the feelings that these spaces would inflict on myself or anyone else,” he says of this inbuilt awareness of his surroundings. “I was interested in what made them comfortable or interesting.”
The new KOA project is certainly interesting. Founded by Mohammed Bin Zaal, former chief executive of Al Barari, the development company is built on the same pillars as T.ZED Architects: to re-interpret how people live, re-imagine the public realm of cities and create commercial spaces geared toward social interaction.
Al Zaharna talks about Canvas with a passion that shows his deep involvement. “It’s contextually relevant, it’s architecture of the region,” he says, detailing how they’ve used natural materials wherever possible, while around 80 percent of the vegetation in the extensive green spaces will be indigenous, which is unheard of here. “We used thermally modified tulip wood on external cladding and grey quartzite stone on the façade. It’s exactly the sort of project I dreamed of doing when I set up T.ZED Architects.”
He repeatedly demonstrates his joy at landing a commission so in line with his own vision. “Every great project, I believe, is a testament to a great client with a great vision,” he says. “I don’t know what we’ve done in the past life to deserve an opportunity like this.”
Aside from lying awake at night worrying how he will ever better this dream contract, Al Zaharna already has his sights set on what could be next. “I’d really like to do a museum or culture centre,” he muses, before explaining how he never loses sight of what he originally set out to do. “I have said ‘no’ to multiple projects as I didn’t feel they were right for us.”
This focus has helped him face the challenge of creating a business that can pay its way, without him having to throwing on a suit-and-tie at the first mention of a big-name corporate client. He seems genuinely at ease with not conforming to the usual stereotypes of his trade. “I don’t represent the image of a successful architect, in the sense that I don’t wear buttoned-up suits and I don’t have the chat.”
Instead he rightfully claims the work speaks for itself.
“We care about what we do, and while we want to make money and be sustainable and commercially viable, we have to produce good architecture to prosper.”
Success and continued growth seems inevitable for T.ZED Architects. But surely money is a factor behind Al Zaharna’s unwavering passion, late-night schedule and above-and-beyond business mentality? He is quick to assure me otherwise. “Money comes and goes, but it’s not the objective of what we do here,” he explains.
His advice to any budding entrepreneurs is simple. “Come across as gentle but be really, really tough on the inside,” he says. It’s a simple mantra and you can see from the team that he has earned both the respect and friendship from his employees.
If there is one more thing to take from Al Zaharna’s story, and his level of success, it’s that his passion results in him often doing things a little left of the middle. “I’m not a rebel by any stretch of the imagination, but you always have to stretch the norms; you always have to do things differently.” Rightly said.
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Tarik Al Zaharna is wearing Burberry, and was one of the faces of Burberry's Art of the Trench Middle East campaign.