PhD Profile: Noor J. Ragaban

A number of new PhD researchers have joined us in the last 12 months, and we’d like to make some introductions.

Name: Noor J. Ragaban

Research Title and Summary: How the Home Works: The lived-in experience | A Case Study of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
The research aims to decentre the position of architects and convention that places architecturally designed elements as the primary components . It considers users as a major element in redefining architecture.
The study focuses on the city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. There is a scarcity of studies in this region that examines the interior domain of the dwelling.

The project seeks to answer the following questions: how do families in Jeddah live? Does the architecture reflect their lifestyle, or is there a conflict or tussle between the built fabric and lifestyle? How do the homes ‘work’; which family members occupy which parts of the house, how are the houses decorated, embellished, and furnished? And why?

The interest in domestic architecture stems from the various tangible and intangible practices that the home enshrines. This is especially important in cities like Jeddah where a broad spectrum of genres de vie are found, and are only observed (and even visible) when one is socially immersed in the community. The existing cultural diversity of Saudis in this city is the result of two major migration phases that occurred due to the city’s strategic geographical location. The first phase took place before the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and was a result of pilgrims visiting the Islamic holy cities of Makkah and al-Madinah, as well as traders from all over the world exploiting the coastal position between Europe and the East. The second wave took place after the unification of the Kingdom (a prolonged process that was only resolved in 1932) and the discovery of oil, which attracted major migration and rapid expansion to the city.
The study investigates two of the most common types of dwellings in Jeddah, namely flats and villas (based on the 2019 Saudi General Authority of Statistics survey). It targets a wide range of participants, 30-90 year old males and females who live with their families. Emphasizing the users’ experience, the research deploys a number of qualitative methods such as semi-structured interviews; observation; auto-photography and mapping, and architectural survey of the domestic properties. Through these methods a number of common and intertwined sociocultural values can be scrutinised to understand notions of family, privacy, and hospitality.

Aims and Objectives:

1-     Explore and describe the various domestic lifestyles of Jeddawis.
2-     Identify the architectural elements of Saudi houses in Jeddah.
3-     Analyse the tangible and intangible effects of the architectural elements on the domestic life of Jeddawis, looking into three intertwined sociocultural aspects: family, hospitality and privacy.
4-     Analyse the physical and non-physical effects of the sociocultural aspects on domestic architecture.
5-     Develop customised qualitative data collection methods to suite the culture and the private researched domain.
6-     Document the diverse users’ lived-in experience.

What did you do before the PhD Research?
After completing my B.A. in Interior Design in 2008 at Dar al-Hekma University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I have worked as an interior designer for 9 months at C1, a workplace specialized architecture firm. In 2009 I decided to go to the UK for further studies and was able to successfully complete an M.A. in Architectural and Urban Studies in 2011 at the University of Brighton, United Kingdom.
From 2011–2018 I have been working as a lecturer in the Architecture department at Dar al-Hekma University, where I have taught several courses ranging from foundation courses to advanced studios, and theoretical courses. In 2015, I have also taught in the Interior Design department for two semesters. From 2018 –2019 I have taught in the Interior Design department at King Abdulaziz University, College of Art and Design in Jeddah, SA.
During summer breaks, since 2011, I have yearly enrolled in architecture and urban studies courses that focuses on culture, all of which took place in Germany and Austria. As my interest grew stronger in culture, I started learning the German language while in Germany. During the summers of 2017-2019 I also took a number of art courses while in Turkey to explore new mediums and experience the culture in an artistic environment.
In parallel with my academic career, and as part of community service that have always complemented my career and personal life, art education was on my agenda. From 2012–2017 I have taught drawing to autistic children in one to one sessions.
Recently in 2019, I have volunteered to work at Verve Studio, SA, in hope to contribute the art scene in Jeddah. For six months, as an art director, I have curated their first exhibition; set up sculpting and drawing course plans; and taught drawing courses.

Why did you pursue a PhD, and what made you choose University of Liverpool?
My graduate studies and the summer courses have exposed me to several culture-related topics that encouraged me to observe spaces and users simultaneously, to find out how they affect each other. My interest developed to observing family activities in different environments, often houses. There I noted a number of dissatisfactory remarks on both the architecture and lifestyle, that were sometimes merged with nostalgic comments. Considering how varied the dwellings types are today, I started reading about traditional dwellings to form a comparison between life in both architectures. That was when I realised that research on Jeddah traditional dwellings have studied the architecture only, excluding the users; also, there was no recent research that discusses inhabitants life within contemporary houses. Thus, I have decided to feed my curiosity and contribute to knowledge through pursuing my PhD, in hope that a close understanding of Jeddawis home use will eventually result in user-friendly homes, besides documenting the unique private environments experience.

Why I chose the University of Liverpool- After carrying out an extensive research into a number of prestigious and top ranking universities, I have selected the University of Liverpool for a number of reasons. Number one, the diversity of international students and the welcoming supportive environment the university provides for them. Its genuine care about academics and interpersonal skills progress and development of its students, as well as their wellbeing rendered a positive environment where I saw an opportunity to grow and succeed.
Number two, the broad spectrum of conducted research subjects and interests, not only collectively across the School of Architecture, but also of each faculty member. Which for me is an important factor as it allows further exploration and investigation of new areas beyond expectations.
Number three, I believe the University of Liverpool will help me achieve my long-term goal in Saudi as a young female. Due to its long history and record of achievement, the university is one of the most reputable universities amongst Saudis, and is acknowledged by the Saudi Ministry of Education, making it highly respected in the industry as well as academia.

What have you found the most fun part of the PhD, and the most challenging?
What I have found truly fun about the PhD is involving participants and acquiring information from them, as opposed to relying solely on  literature. The interviews, focused on the lifestyles within dwellings, allowed a significant number of questions to be asked. Questions that I could not ask in a normal conversation (or otherwise be called nosy and ill-mannered!) Similarly are the observations, where as a researcher I was welcome to scrutinise homes, viewing rooms I might have never seen under any other circumstances.
Equally, that was also one of the most challenging aspects. Even though all participants fall under the umbrella of Saudis living in Jeddah, that did not mean they were all the same, especially in regard to their little private kingdoms. Thus, constantly considering how and when to inquire about an information, without giving the impression of prying, was quite challenging. Another challenge is acquiring data from government sources and architectural offices in Saudi.
The lockdown, I must admit, was quite challenging at first, having lost the work dedicated space -campus office- and the idea of being forced to stay home. However, that soon became yet another part that I have found quite pleasant. It provided me unlimited reading and working dedicated time, especially that I am on my own. Such a joyful productive solitude.

Post-Phd? Any ideas of what you’d like to do next?
I am fortunate enough to have a job to go to back home, teaching at King Abdulaziz University, where I plan to return in order to continue working on my proposal of improvements in the university. Alongside, as a Saudi university faculty member, I plan to become a member of the Saudi Building Code National Committee, in hope to take part in informing policies and decision making. I’d like to achieve this goal before going back home.

Any advice for others interested in doing a PhD?
While the right time and perfect opportunity maybe motivating factors to pursue a PhD, I’d personally recommend to only start once having found the right subject. It needs to be a subject that you’re truly passionate about, and are willing to commit to for a long period of time (rather than only doing PhD for the sake of it). I would also add that the topic, or the interest indeed, should be initially broad. A broad interest will allow endless possibilities of focuses for the researcher to choose from, which certainly requires the student to be fixable and open to explore new spheres within their area of interest.

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