Abu Dhabi: The UAE has one of the highest rates of building development in the world, yet authorities are also working hard to preserve its historic architectural sites, a top architecture and heritage conservation expert has said.
Even as the country welcomes modern architectural marvels like the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, and the seven-storey pillar-less Museum of the Future, it is also working to uncover historic settlements that date back more than 8,000 years, and to preserve historic neighbourhoods like Al Shindagha and Al Faheidi, said Rashad Muhammad Bukhash, chairman of the UAE’s Architectural Heritage Society.
“Cities in the Gulf are the fastest growing in the world. In the UAE, the population has grown more than 100 times, and the number of buildings has grown at a similar rate, in keeping with population growth. We don’t want to lose our history [as we welcomed many modern building projects], and this has given birth to many museums and conservation projects,” Bukhash said.
The architecture and heritage expert was delivering a talk on the evolution of architecture at the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute. Bukhash, who has himself supervised the conservation of 215 historic buildings in the UAE, as well as the design and execution of 200 modern buildings, traced the development of built structures in the country, from the early sandstone constructions dating back to 6,500BC in Abu Dhabi’s Ghagha island, to the upcoming Dubai Creek Tower that is slated to be even taller than Burj Khalifa when completed.
Al Shindagha restoration
He told Gulf News that authorities are working hard to preserve historic buildings, while also uncovering and analysing architectural finds. One of the most prominent conservation projects is nearly complete at Dubai’s Al Shindagha Historic District. More than 190 historic buildings in the area had been demolished in the early 1990s, but have now been completely restored as a museum that covers numerous aspects of traditional Emirati living.
“We carried out more than 20 interviews with [elderly] people, and tracked 196 names of the owners. The buildings had been demolished in 1991 but the foundations remained. So we started looking into the old maps, conducting interviews, and taking a note of old photographs to determine the shapes and structures of the older buildings that had been brought down,” Bukhash explained.
These buildings, including Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House and Sheikh Obaid Bin Thani House, now form the Shindagha Museum, the largest open museum facility in the Middle East, built under the orders of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
“The museum covers all aspects of life in the UAE, and is divided into 28 distinct wings, which explore Bedouin living, coastal living, desert living, the history of the Dubai Creek, the art of perfumery, and various other elements of Emirati tradition and culture,” Bukhash said.
Open to visitors, it is expected to be formally inaugurated later this year. The development also features a boutique hotel and a number of traditional restaurants.
Al Shindagha is just one of the UAE’s 3,250 recorded archaeological sites and historic buildings.
Like it, Al Fahidi Historic Area was previously restored with its 54 original houses, and developed as a culture and tourist destination that opened in 2008.
Similarly, the UAE’s first school to offer a form or formal education, the Al Ahmadiya School in Dubai, was restored to become the Museum of Education. Abu Dhabi also rehabilitated the Qasr Al Hosn, the capital city’s first permanent structure and historic home of the Al Nahyan Ruling Family, and the Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain. Another conservation project in Umm Al Quwain is currently restoring about 350 houses that make up the Old City in the emirate.
Discussing the UAE’s traditional architectural style, Bukhash said it features a number of elements that are best suited to the region’s culture and climate. For instance, courtyards bring in natural light and ensure privacy, whereas wind towers allow for ventilation. These buildings are also made of locally available and sustainable materials like gypsum and coral stone.
“The UAE’s buildings today incorporate [many] architectural styles and influences. But going forward, I feel we would do well to incorporate ideas that were developed from a mature architectural style suited to the region’s climate and cultural norms. This architectural style developed over centuries and was uniquely suited for the region,” the expert said.
“So while we need not imitate [traditional architecture], we can incorporate ideas to make our modern buildings more suitable, such as a C-shape structure that mimics a courtyard style, or elements that allow for the use of that UAE’s year-long access to sunshine. City planning departments are certainly regulating the use of more sustainable building methods and materials, and we encourage architects to adopt them in their styles too. I believe [such changes] are coming [to the architecture of the UAE],” Bukhash added with optimism.
The expert went on to explain the importance of various elements that are typical of traditional Emirati settlements from pre-modern times.
For instance, most cities in the UAE featured defensive walls to fend off attacks from outsiders. Inhabitants also built forts for the same purpose, but these also doubled as homes for ruling families, and sanctuaries for the city’s population at times of attack.
“There are 67 forts that are still standing within the UAE, with the majority of them built after 1793, when the Qasr Al Hosn was built,” Bukhash said.
Cities also includes watchtowers at strategic locations on their boundaries, and the UAE boasts 130 of them at present. Bukhash said authorities are considering registering them, and even applying for them to be recognised as world heritage sites.
As for residential dwellings, Bukhash said they developed from portable structures used by the Bedouins, to mud and stone structures topped by wooden palm frond frames known as barasti. There were also houses made entirely of barasti as well, whereas more affluent families built permanent structures that increased in size as the family grew.
Courtyards were a prominent feature of such dwellings, whereas the distinctive wind towers or barjeels that allowed for cooling and were first incorporated into Emirati traditional architecture from 1902 onwards by migrants from Southern Iran. They allowed for natural cooling and ventilation, and studies have shown that the temperature under a wind tower can be as much 10 degrees lower than other sites in a house.
190 museums, with 65 public and 125 private
Oldest in UAE
Oldest settlement: Stone Age settlement in Abu Dhabi’s Al Ghagha Island, which dates back to 6,500BC.
Oldest known mosque: Mosque in Awd Al Tawbah in Al Ain, which dates back to the 9th or 10th century
Oldest mosque still in use: Al Bidya Mosque in Fujairah, which has served worshippers since 1446
First museum: Al Ain Museum, which first opened in 1969
First school: Al Ahmadiya School in Dubai, now the Museum of Education. The school was founded in 1912, and marked the birth of formal education in the UAE.