Talking points: The exhibition features various oral and video recordings of Emiratis recounting their memories about Qasr Al Hosn

Qasr Al Hosn evokes different emotions: For some it is an important part of their culture and heritage, for others it is the place they met other communities and enjoyed a wide variety of activities and events when it was known as the Cultural Foundation, and for others still, it is the location of a vibrant annual festival.

As part of this year’s Qasr Al Hosn Festival, which ran from February 20 to March 1, organisers have included a permanent exhibition in the hope that it will help preserve not only the fort-palace’s history but the history of Abu Dhabi as well.

“This exhibition’s close to my heart — I’ve been working on it for about seven years. I’ve been fascinated with Abu Dhabi since I began flying in for several trips in 2007 ... the city’s so lively and modern, and yet you can see its evolution through the various buildings,” said Mark Kyffin, the head of architecture at the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi).

The permanent exhibition features various oral and video recordings of Emiratis recounting their memories and stories about Qasr Al Hosn and Abu Dhabi, a mock-up of a traditional barasti dwelling, used by seafaring members of the Bani Yas tribe, and photographs donated by individuals and organisations. The oldest of these is a pair of photographs, of Qasr Al Hosn and Shaikh Zayed Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan — otherwise known as Zayed the Great — from 1903. They are on loan from the Museum of Ethnology, Berlin, until 2017.

“We are keen to connect to the communities here through this exhibition, with its public discussions and activities. Also, we hope to encourage both Emiratis and expatriates to help us preserve Qasr Al Hosn’s important history — since there’s limited documentation on it — through their memories and any stories they might know about it. It’s not just about documenting Abu Dhabi’s past though, it’s also important as a source of information for future generations,” Kyffin said.

Additionally, festival organisers have organised a series of discussions about the architectural landmark’s dynamic history; they began on April 9 and will run until May 10. The topics range from Abu Dhabi’s iconic structures, past and present, to the theme of The National Pavilion of the UAE for the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the 2014 Venice Biennale (June 7 – November 23) — ‘Lest We Forget – Structures of Memory in the UAE’. It was commissioned by the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development.

“I was actually surprised by the strong turnout for our discussion [Hidden Architectural Gems of Abu Dhabi, April 9]. We used a snapshot of Electra Street as a visual component to our discussion, as it’s one of most vibrant areas in Abu Dhabi. It’s also a location filled with buildings from different periods that allow us to observe Abu Dhabi’s architectural evolution from ‘organic’ structures to more modern ones,” said Amel Chabbi, a building conservator at TCA Abu Dhabi, who was pleased with the audience’s enthusiasm and level of interactivity during the discussion. Chabbi was joined by Deborah Bentley, RIBA assistant professor of architecture at Abu Dhabi University.

“It was great because it not only helped us with our goal of community connection but I also learnt a lot more about Abu Dhabi, such as the main purpose of the Shabiyat housing in the Mina area. I assumed they were regular housing but an audience member informed us that they were actually built for construction workers many years ago. We were also fortunate that several people helped us identify several undated photographs through landmarks present in the background,” Chabbi said.

Photography buffs were also given the opportunity to have a closer look and to document buildings of the 1970s to the 1990s that surround Qasr Al Hosn through a special workshop entitled “Last Take” on April 12. It was led by Aqeel Aqeel, historic building conservator at TCA Abu Dhabi; and architects and professors of Interior Design from Zayed University, Marco Sosa and Lina Ahmad.

“The tour was wonderful and opened a lot of discussions on several hidden architectural gems of the 1970s and 1980s. We also discussed the evolution in architectural styles, looking at several examples of different periods ... personally, as someone who grew up in Abu Dhabi, I think the cylinder building on Electra Street is one of its most significant architectural ‘hidden’ gems that is worth keeping and enhancing ... but there are also other gems, such as Hamdan Centre on Hamdan Street, and of course, Qasr Al Hosn, which is known as the Cultural Foundation,” Aqeel said.

Kyffin agreed, noting that among his favourite pastimes is to drive around the capital and look at the variety of architectural designs and elements each building encompasses.

“It’s amazing just how many different designs you can see, even if driving up or down a single street! I love looking up to see how many I can identify or if there’s any that stand out, whether due to age, design, colours ... but don’t ask me to choose which one’s my favourite — they all have such an intelligent aesthetic that I can’t decide,” Kyffin said.

When asked about the challenges of preserving such buildings, especially since several seem to be falling into disrepair or are being torn down despite their seemingly good appearance only to be replaced by modern constructions, all three agreed that a balanced approach was needed to preserve these important links to Abu Dhabi’s past, and it should not at the expense of the community’s health and safety and should allow for continued urban renewal within the capital.


“We’re working on creating a Modern Heritage Conservation Initiative to identify and study the significance of buildings in ‘post-oil’ Abu Dhabi from 1955-60. But I want to clarify that we aren’t trying to freeze construction but rather we want to maintain those old buildings that are still in good condition. My team and I are open to receiving training, and are researching for similar methodologies applied around the world,” Chabbi said.


Aqeel agreed, adding: “I think one of the most challenging things about preserving these kind of buildings is raising awareness among those who develop and manage them. If we succeed in showing how valuable and significant these buildings and their context are, the matter of preserving them will be of public interest, which will support our efforts.”


Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.