BY RABI’AH M
Meet Alya Al Battashi and Rihab Al Zakwani- an energetic and talented duo who co-founded ISTUDIO, an architectural firm in Oman. Their outstanding design bagged them the Oman Pavilion design project at Expo Dubai 2020. Oman Magazine Contributor Rabi’ah.M talks to them about their journey, struggles, and the pavilion design inspiration.
Considering how challenging and uncertain the last two years have been for the global community, the Expo 2020 is viewed as a much-awaited event, bringing a wave of fresh breeze which provided an excellent opportunity for participating countries to showcase their talent and take pride in doing so. One such case is the Oman pavilion which I had the pleasure of visiting. In doing so, I was not only fascinated by the exterior and interior designs, but I was also keen to find out who the creative design team was amongst the very few pavilions featured at the Expo which captivated my attention symbolising its rich Omani culture and heritage. The talented team behind this exciting design project is a dynamic Omani duo, Alya Balarab Al Battashi and Rihab Al Zakwani who powered together to bag an outstanding proposed design for the Oman Pavilion at one of the world’s most happening and exciting mega-events, Dubai Expo 2020. They established the ISTUDIO company- their brainchild firm based on their passion for their major at university, architecture. Both are pleased to be architects. When referring to Al Battashi, who was born in Muscat, and she is eager to complete her master’s degree in project management. She holds the position of co-founder at ISTUDIO and is a co-founder of HeForShe Oman volunteer group. On the other hand, Al Zakwani was born in Izki/Al Dakhiliya. She is happily married and a mother of two children and a co-founder of ISTUDIO- also a concept designer of the Oman pavilion. The journey of the duo associated with working on the Oman pavilion as Alya explains is a long story that goes back to 2016 and initially featured many individuals, companies, and teams. As she explains: “We landed in different sectors between government and special on this trip.” Interestingly, Al Zakwani narrates the journey by mentioning how in the beginning they were fresh graduates who were searching for a full-time job, and they were working as freelancers. “We tried our level best to stay with the team who was responsible to get an opportunity and get involved with them. From then onwards, we kept attending brainstorming sessions to develop the main project.” It was by 2018 when they participated in an architectural competition to design the Omani pavilion. She points out how they were initially involved with a design firm, but things went sour: “Based on a disagreement between us, we decided to part ways by the time we reach the second submission. It was around this time when Al Battashi and I decided we needed to develop our team. The judging jury did not object to our decision which helped us remain strong together.” It is worth mentioning that they were the youngest participants at the time. Also, during the competition, they secured a job with an Omani architectural firm. In terms of the challenges, they experienced whilst working on the design and structural elements, Al Battashi tells me they did not face any when it comes to working as a team: “We are a perfect team heading towards the same direction. Designing the pavilion was an easy task. However, the challenges were mainly associated with the people we were working with since they were not architects and belonged to different departments and teams.” It is their like-mindedness on concepts, ideas, and objectivity that enabled them to bag the award for the competition.
On the other hand, Al Zakwani gives me a slightly different view explaining that they worked on the architectural concept design only which was quite challenging for them because they were competing with people who were far more experienced than them. Also, spaces and expo requirements were not a simple task. Working on this project’s last leg of the trip with the frankincense tree took around two months. The frankincense tree was chosen as the key inspirational element for the Expo 2020 as Al Battashi tells me it represents something “pure Omani” whereas Al Zakwani explains there is a combination of historical, economic, and cultural relevance which traces back to the past, present and future. She beautifully describes the connection “We preferred to choose the mother tree of Frankincense because it is more familiar for the human eye, simple to be memorised and because of the natural relationship between human and mother nature.” In Al Zakwani’s opinion, they were determined to present Oman as a destination to the world: “We wanted to showcase Omani identity and to promote future promising and opportunities and to communicate with the global community.” When you ask them what their strengths and weaknesses are, Al Battashi says: “I am a diligent individual who is flexible and can collaborate with teams and I can manage my issues in life, and I love challenges. In terms of my weaknesses, I am sensitive when it comes to anything happening to people I love.” On the other hand, Al Zakwani comments on their strengths and weaknesses as a team: “Our greatest strength is our friendship and understanding between us, seeking after the same goals and guided by ambition. Our weakness is we are workaholics.” The feedback they have received so far from visitors to the Oman pavilion is a positive one as they tell me how most of them expressed their likeness and they would have been amazed by the concept to represent Oman in a new and youthful version, varying from its former image as presented by previous participants over the years in World Expo. It would also inform them about the importance of the frankincense tree in Omani culture. When asked what advice they would give our readers, Al Battashi provides words of encouragement: “For all those young Omani people who work, be ready to go on challenges and speak to the world that we are here, and this is our time.” Whereas Al Zakwani likes to express the importance of challenging work and success: “Working hard is the only easiest way to achieve success. Keep believing in yourself; this is the key to achieving success. Work with the right team this is the magical side to keep going on.”