Emirati artist, photographer and graphic designer Hussain AlMoosawi studied and worked in Australia for several years. The amazing changes he saw in his country every time he travelled home motivated him to embark on a photography project to document buildings from the 1970s, 80s and 90s across the UAE that are being overshadowed or replaced by new structures. He is presenting a series of photographs from this ongoing project in an exhibition titled Façade to Façade at Gulf Photo Plus.
Like the layers of sediment at an archaeological site, the facades of the buildings from across the UAE captured by the artist serve as an architectural guide to the young nation’s history. Ranging from the archetypal to the idiosyncratic, these buildings speak about the innovative spirit of the designers and architects who have shaped the UAE and reflect the relationship between human beings and the urban spaces we build.
“Most cities around the world have a regeneration cycle of 30 to 50 years, but here in the UAE this has been compressed by the rapid pace of change. Every time I visited from Australia, I would see new developments and even familiar neighbourhoods looked so different because of the new buildings and infrastructure. When I moved back after eight years, I felt I needed to make sense of all the changes and reconnect with the place. So I began taking pictures of buildings to understand the myriad design and architectural influences around me. As I saw that many of the older buildings are not in a good condition and some are on the way to being demolished, I decided to transform my project into a documentation of the architectural heritage of my country,” AlMoosavi says.
My project traces the evolution of the UAE through its architecture. It is about appreciating and preserving the past, celebrating the present and looking forward to the future with an open mind and positive spirit.
The artist has been driving around various emirates, cities and neighbourhoods, scanning every block and street for interesting buildings. The photographs he is showing in this exhibition focus on the facades of tall towers. Some of these are well-known landmarks, but signs of neglect and age can be seen on many of the facades.
At first glance AlMoosawi’s images look like abstract artworks with symmetrical geometric patterns. The focus is on the facades with no contextual elements such as surrounding streets and structures or even the horizon. A closer look reveals that the rhythmic patterns and symmetry are formed by architectural details and design elements such as the arched windows of the Dubai World Trade Centre, the curved balconies of the Zabeel Tower, the circular port-hole like windows of Obeid Al Mazrouei Building, the grid decorating the front of the Al Ibrahimi building, and the minimalist lines of the Premier Inn, Ibn Battuta.
The different colours on the facades and elements such as a well-known street artist’s signature ‘clouds’ painted on the Jedariya building add to the beauty of the images. AlMoosawi has also included a three- dimensional model of a building in the show for viewers to experience the impact of the design and the different look on the sides. He has also created maps showing the locations of the buildings featured in the show. Together the photographs, models and maps provide a picture of the variety of architectural styles found across the UAE and indicate how quickly the contemporary becomes classic in a country that embraces change, modernity and innovation.
“These photographs transport us to a different era. Each building has unique elements that tell us about the design trends and aesthetics of its time. Even if you do not know much about architecture and design you can instinctively guess which decade it was built in. These were much admired modern buildings designed by leading architects of the time. They became the focal point of the neighbourhood — and some still are, demonstrating the impact of design on local culture and our daily lives. I love the blend of modern design and traditional Islamic architecture that gives these buildings a lot of character,” AlMoosawi says.
The artist has deliberately eliminated contextual elements and focused on the symmetry of the designs. In one picture he has combined two separate images of each side of the façade to exclude a tree standing in front of the building. There are no people in most of the images.
“My aim is to focus purely on the design and how the architects imagined these buildings. I want to create an archive of objective, standardised images that can be used to compare, study and understand the architectural styles and influences in the UAE during different decades and to classify buildings based on various criteria such as the period when they were built, location, colour and style. I want to document buildings that might be under threat of demolition, or that are deteriorating due to poor maintenance but I also want to photograph buildings that are in their prime because we have to acknowledge that whatever has been built recently will become part of heritage in just 10 years. I have focused on symmetry as a unifying element between the old classic architecture and new styles,” AlMoosawi says.
The artist chose to begin with towers because most of the well-known buildings are in that category. But he plans to add images of other types of structures to the archive such as low-rise buildings and villas. He also hopes to collaborate with researchers to compile information about the architects, their vision and influences, floor plans and other details about the buildings he photographs.
“The UAE believes in focusing on the future while honouring traditions and heritage, and there is now a growing movement to expand the view of heritage to embrace the recent past. As I move from façade to facade my project traces the evolution of the UAE through its architecture. It is about appreciating and preserving the past, celebrating the present and looking forward to the future with an open mind and positive spirit,” AlMoosawi says.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.
Façade to Façade will run at Gulf Photo Plus, Alserkal Avenue, until June 8.