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Revitalising gritty and forgotten industrial districts through a cultural agenda has well served global design cities. The Meatpacking District did it for New York City. Alserkal Avenue did the same for Dubai. Now Warehouse 421, the new cultural destination in Abu Dhabi’s port area of Mina Zayed, is doing the same for the UAE’s capital.

“The Mina Zayed port is dear to the people of Abu Dhabi,” says Faisal Al Hassan, manager of aperations at Warehouse 421, of the commercial area established in 1968.

“We wanted to bring new energy to this space and in following an established module of re-purposing industrial areas, we bring new focus and purpose to this cherished location.”

Warehouse 421 has a simple agenda — to support and complement the growing cultural scene in the UAE. Rooted in the principle of sustainability and creating dynamic spaces for diverse audiences, the project will feature works by artists and designers from the region and beyond, serving as a new arena for engagement and creative development through various artistic avenues.

Towards that, the space is designed to lend itself to curated art shows, workshops, film shows, theatre, intimate concerts and talks. “We envisage the space as an incubator of creative talent,” says Al Hassan. “Be they emerging or established creatives, Warehouse 421 will foster their journey, providing a nurturing environment and infrastructure.”

This new cultural district, established by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation — the Abu Dhabi-based philanthropic organisation that develops and supports strategic initiatives in the areas of arts, culture and heritage; education; and health — was designed by architectural practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Founded in 2005 by Bjarke Ingels in Denmark, and globally recognised for its pursuit of sustainability and preservation, BIG has worked on a number of distinguished projects around the world. Most recently they were under the arclights for the sublime designs for Google’s new Mountain View headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Entrusted with transforming a number of warehouses at Mina port into new spaces and functional venues, the group worked to preserve the aged architectural details of the structures, ensuring the history and context of the site is not lost to mindless modernisation.

The result is an urban oasis clad in corrosion-resistant perforated steel skins, punctuated to great impact with its new public plaza.

Warehouse 421’s mid-November launch coincided with the opening of Abu Dhabi Art at Saadiyat Island. With an impressive programme of arts, music and food, the three-day festival was designed to drive new audiences to the area. An international designers’ market, street food and musical performances by the likes of Grammy award-winning Saharan band Tinariwen and the Arab-Swedish folk artists Tarabband provided the perfect backdrop to the two photographic exhibitions: Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999; and Mina Zayed: Through the Lens of Jack Burlot; and an architectural exhibition, the temporary 1:100 The Warehouse –Reimagined.

The works by the fellows of the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship programme — the annual course taught by visiting faculty from the revered Rhode Island School of Design — were exhibited in a neighbouring warehouse, the 411.

Soon, an artist’s studio, planned as an atelier of sorts, will be unveiled in another revamped warehouse. “The studios are an integral part of our vision to support the creative community of the region,” says Al Hassan. “These studios will allow artists a space dedicated to helping bring their visions to life.”

Its opening off to a blazing start, the real success of Warehouse 421 will lie in sustaining public interest. In a fickle world where people go to events more for the sake of their Instagram accounts than for the actual offerings on show, the team behind Warehouse 421 insists they do not have a strategy set in stone. Instead, they want to take a softer, more organic route. “We think of ourselves as being in constant conversation with the [creative] world and its admirers,” explains Al Hassan. “Since the opening, we have been inundated with project proposals, we’ve had people making recommendation on the designers and artists they would like us to foster and of course, we are working on our own cultural programme.”

A six-month programme straddling workshops, talks, exhibitions and performing arts will soon be announced.

For more on Warehouse 421 visit www.warehouse421.ae

— Pratyush Sarup is design manager at one of the UAE’s premium interiors firms