Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation to be revitalised

Abu Dhabi's Cultural Foundation signifies a journey from tradition to modernity on a single city block. We speak to its architects and most ardent admirers.

A view from inside the Cultural Foundation building's covered walkway. Christopher Pike / The National
Powered by automated translation

With the opening of the Qasr Al Hosn Festival on Wednesday, the public were granted temporary access to two of Abu Dhabi’s most important historic buildings for the second time in as many years.

At first sight, Qasr Al Hosn and the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation make unlikely neighbours. Part-fortress and part-royal residence, Qasr Al Hosn is as central to the story of Abu Dhabi as the Topkapi Palace is to Istanbul.

A place of history, Qasr Al Hosn is a symbol of Emirati identity and a fully fledged monument whose place in the national narrative is established and ­assured.

Some 220 years younger, the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation is in a different situation: commissioned in 1974 as the home of the first national library, theatre and community and arts centre, its significance is only just starting to be understood.

“I remember when there were rumours about the building’s demolition,” says architect Yasser Elsheshtawy, associate professor of architecture at United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain.

“There was great resistance and there was even a Facebook page created to try and save the Cultural Foundation. You could see that there was great nostalgia towards the building and what it meant to people. It wasn’t just a cultural centre or a place for workshops and reading books, it was a great meeting place. That really comes across when people recall their memories of the building.”

For the duration of this year's Qasr Al Hosn Festival, the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation will be open to the public for only the second time since 2009 when the building was closed and earmarked for demolition.

Popular and professional memories of the Cultural Foundation are now being enlisted by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA) in the production of a conservation-management plan that will that will guide ­decision-making about the building’s future.

Compiled by TCA and ProDenkmal, a team of German conservation specialists who have recently worked on important 20th-­century buildings such as the Bauhaus Dessau and the Neues Museum in Berlin, the plan not only examines the physical and material condition of the building but also aims to assess its wider significance.

“We need to understand the values that this building has,” Amel Chabbi, a building conservator with TCA, explains. “We’re looking at its historical, political and symbolic significance and we’re making social, architectural and technological comparisons to understand its influence locally, regionally and internationally.”

The conservation-management plan may still be a work in ­progress but a 3-D laser scan has been made of the building’s interior to record its condition while providing a baseline prior to future conservation work.

“In some rooms it’s very simple and the 3-D scan is simply picking up a column, a wall, a ceiling and a floor but in the theatre, for example, we’ve needed to map out where all the seats are, where the proscenium is, where the boxes are. That’s a great place to record with a 3-D scan,” explains Mark Kyffin, TCA’s head of architecture.

“It took around three weeks to scan the building and another three to four weeks to process all of the data but we now know exactly how the building was when it was closed and we now have a good understanding of just what it is.”

Alongside their assessment of the building’s condition and materials, the conservation team are also engaged in extensive and ongoing research. Part of that process is Wall of Memories, a video-booth installation at this year’s Qasr Al Hosn Festival, where members of the public are being invited to record their recollections of the building.

Perry Neubauer and Hisham Ashkouri were two of the Cultural Foundation’s originators. Both men worked for The Architects Collaborative (TAC), the ­Massachusetts-based office that won an international competition to design the Abu Dhabi National Library and Cultural Centre, now known as the Cultural Foundation, in 1974.

Although he was only 25 at the time, Iraqi-born Ashkouri was part of the small team responsible for the proposal that won TAC the competition.

Remarkably it was Ashkouri’s first project for TAC, conducted in 1973 during his gap year between postgraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and ­Harvard-MIT.

Ashkouri was assisted by another TAC architect and the Iraqi expatriate, Basil Hassan, who was working as an associate architect. The submission was overseen by Louis McMillen, one of the seven partners who had founded TAC in 1945 alongside Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, in 1919.

“This was my first accomplishment as a young architect in the United States and it was nice because it was for a Middle Eastern country,” Ashkouri tells me. “I had just finished with Louis Kahn’s class at the U-Penn and when I finished I was very influenced by him.

“The [UAE] government gave us a space programme with three major components. The first was a library, the second was an auditorium and three lecture halls, and the third was the main exhibition hall and administration,” he explains.

“In the first design the three components were all geometrically shown as individual components tied to a central courtyard. On the left there was the library in a block, in the centre there were the lecture halls and the administration and on the right there was the auditorium, with a ­common courtyard connecting all of them.”

Ashkouri left TAC to complete his studies at Harvard-MIT and the design was then developed by another team who produced a scheme that resembled another TAC project, the Johns Manville World Headquarters (now Lockheed Martin) in Jefferson County, Colorado.

The authorities in Abu Dhabi rejected this design and by the time Ashkouri returned from Harvard to work on the project for a second time, it had entered its third and final iteration and it was this design that was eventually constructed in the emirate in 1981.

“The redesign was essentially about the exterior expression,” Ashkouri explains. “It turned the building into a single rectangle rather than having every building separately expressed and the only thing you see at the front is the common arcade with the internal courtyard.

“The idea was to try and gather the important elements of the programme around a central exhibition hall. There was a central courtyard for royal visitors and for the public, parking on the left, the public entrance in the middle, and a children’s amphitheatre on the right.”

Another addition to TAC’s final design was the creation of an external corridor that framed a view of Qasr Al Hosn.

“If you look at the plans,” he says, “an effort was made so that people coming to the central reception court could see that there was a palace on the other side of the building.”

By the time Ashkouri returned from Harvard in 1975, the project team was already being managed by Neubauer, a TAC associate who was to eventually become company president.

One of Neubauer’s first responsibilities was to fly to Abu Dhabi in the winter of 1975.

“Going into a meeting you never know what a client is going to say,” Neubauer remembers. “We’d spent two or three month working up a scheme that was essentially a brand-new design where everything was all under one roof and we were nervous.

“We presented the site plan and some sketches to a Dr Ibrahim – he was Sheikh Zayed’s cultural adviser – and we took a model and we left it there. There were never any specific suggestions, they just said: ‘Yes, that’s great. Keep doing it,’” Neubauer says.

The scheme that was developed now arranged itself around an interior courtyard, as the Cultural Foundation does to this day.

“You could almost say that it was like an atrium house. We know many houses in the Middle East that are arranged around an enclosed courtyard inside and in many ways this was an expansion of that concept.

“We wanted, in a contemporary way to express the traditional architecture of the region, not unlike the old palace,” Neubauer explains.

“Go to Baghdad, go to Riyadh, there are buildings that are ­stolid-looking from the outside but they have courtyards on the inside. We were very much driven by wanting to make the architecture respectful of the region, visually as well as functionally.”

Those functional references to traditional Islamic architecture included the north-facing skylights in the roof of the exhibition hall, which ensured continuous indirect daylight for the space, and the building’s covered walkways and cloisters, all of which were built.

“Later we worked up the carved wooden doors, the tilework around the arches, even the concrete paving in the courtyards was a traditional design with eight-pointed stars and the fountains were along the same lines,” he says.

One of the key features was a large sculpture that featured on the south-east corner of the site.

“We had shown in our drawings that there would be a sculpture on the corner of Airport Road and Sheikh Zayed the First Street. We didn’t know what that sculpture was,” he admits, “but we thought that would be a nice place for one. So I sat down with one of the members of the design team and we constructed an eight-pointed star out of toothpicks.

“It was constructed in New York, by a fabricator in Queens, and he did some of the fence around the library also using bronze. He went over and welded it all and put it up.”

One of TAC’s key considerations was to produce a design robust enough to survive the impact of local building practices.

“We heard stories of how people had used salt water to pour concrete and in fact, there were buildings that were failing because of the salt water in the concrete.

“The way we counteracted that was that we wanted to supervise the building extensively and put what we would call a ‘full-court press’ on the contractor. We had similar experience with Kuwait and our approach in Abu Dhabi was the same.”

Now that the Cultural Foundation building is undergoing a process of conservation, evidence from its original designers, building users and the building itself is allowing the team at TCA to make informed decisions about its future, one of which has already been made.

TCA have reinstated the visual link between the Cultural Foundation and Qasr Al Hosn that was such an important part of TAC’s original design and, in doing so, they have recreated a framed view of the palace that has been lost for more than 20 years.

Kyffin describes the Qasr Al Hosn Festival as “a spotlight” on the conservation work but that focus will return later this year with TCA’s announcement of a new design for the area between the Cultural Foundation and the fort.

For Kyffin, it is one of the most important locations in the whole of Abu Dhabi.

“This site shows the development of Abu Dhabi from tradition to modernity on a single city block,” Kyffin explains.

“We have one of the nation’s most significant examples of modern heritage on a site that has the nation’s most significant historic building.”

“This will be the first modern heritage building that will be conserved according to the latest standards and according to international best practice,” Chabbi adds. “That will be a major achievement.”

• The Qasr Al Hosn Festival runs ­until Saturday, February 21. Visit www.qasralhosnfestival.ae for more information