Louvre Abu Dhabi's Al Manama celebrates overlooked element of UAE architecture

Installation designed by urban researchers and designers Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib in collaboration with luxury brand Cartier

Al Manama installation will be on display until April 23. Photo: Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Powered by automated translation

The manama, an often overlooked but integral aspect of traditional local architecture, has been given the Cartier treatment at Louvre Abu Dhabi.

In Arabic, al manama means “a place to rest and sleep”. It also refers to the summer pavilions built across the Arabian Gulf. In the local context of the UAE, the manama is a structure often seen in mountains and along the coast. It allows heat to be trapped within the ground and keeps animals outside.

In its essence, the manama is an elevated plinth that is designed with the aim of promoting airflow during summer. It uses sustainable forms of construction to keep the temperature cool, much like Japanese tea houses or Mongolian yurts.

For the showcase, titled Al Manama, three structures have been installed under the museum's characteristic dome. They will be on display until April 23, as part of Louvre Abu Dhabi's Ramadan celebrations.

The manamas were designed by architects and urban researchers Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, in collaboration with luxury brand Cartier. All three feature cotton walls, which, when wetted, will cool the breeze ventilating the space..

However, for the purpose of the exhibit, each is dedicated to a specific function. While one houses a majlis, another is designed as a library. The third, meanwhile, features a recessed seating area that promotes gathering. Archival footage highlighting the significance of the manama is projected on the fabric of its walls.

“The idea of the manama came from my grandmother,” Rashid says. “When we used to talk to her in the majlis, she’d tell us about the manama and how they used to gather there during the summers. It was also a communal sleeping area, where my grandmother would sleep with other women from the neighbourhood.”

One of the three manamas features a recessed seating area with historical footage highlighting the architectural feature displayed on its cotton walls. Photo: Louvre Abu Dhabi

Rashid defines the manama as a communal structure, rising between 50cm and 1.5m above the ground. The fabric that made up its walls and act as a tarp was often made of abandoned sails.

“They would soak the sail in the ocean and tie it from the sides around the bottom,” he says. “The air would pull in from the bottom because it is an elevated structure into this wet sail. Then you’d have a windtower above with a pitched roof.

“The manama is [an early] example of air conditioning, a passive cooling system,” he says. “Everybody asks how people used to survive the summers, and how they were able to withstand the heat. It was through the manama.”

As far as traditional architectural features go, the manama is not as widely celebrated as, for example, the barjeel wind towers, but still serve as an important facet to understanding the scope of Emirati architecture.

Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib stand with Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, alongside the UAE Pavilion's Golden Lion Award for Architecture 2021. Photo: Ahmed bin Shabib

As manamas can be easily assembled and disassembled, they allow for a certain modularity.

They can be grouped together into a larger space. The form, and its passive cooling system, also makes it ideal to use in public locations, including bus stops or rest areas.

“Engineering companies can easily reimagine manamas as bus stops,” Rashid says. “They can take a budget of 10 bus stops and invest them in 10 prototypes of manamas and give them to architecture students. Or expand the approach to passive cooling, where one person might take inspiration from a wind tower, or another passive cooling fan, and it can serve as a bus stop or shelter.”

Ahmed echoed the sentiment in a speech at the Louvre last Saturday, saying manamas can also be utilised in response to global needs in the face of climate change and population increase.

“We really have to reevaluate our relationship with nature and one form of that is looking at architecture,” he said. “We’ve passed the precipice.

The manama is a historic aspect of local architecture, commonly found in coastal and mountainous regions across the Gulf. Photo: Louvre Abu Dhabi

“The human population is also expanding significantly. People are moving from one environment to another, so this idea of assembling and dismantling is quite important."

The manamas at Louvre Abu Dhabi are not the first the Bin Shabib brothers have designed. In April last year, they presented an earlier version of the installation at Al Khazzan Park in Dubai and Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi. That project was also supported by Cartier. The brothers have also built a manama in their home in Dubai, using it as a gathering space all year round.

Rashid and Ahmed have long examined the intersection of architecture, cultural identity and sustainability with their work. They produced the accompanying publication, The Anatomy of Sabkha, for the UAE Pavilion's participation at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2021, which won the Golden Lion Award for Architecture.

The brothers also helped shape the final proposal at the Venice Biennale by pointing towards the UAE's sabkhas as troves that could be studied for sustainable urban development.

The Anatomy of Sabkhas. Photo: Rizzoli

For Expo 2015 in Milan, they created an exhibition for the National Pavilion UAE that looked at how dates, the palm tree and the falaj system produced a social and environmental ecosystem.

A coming exhibition by the brothers will also be opening at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany later this month. Hot Cities: Lessons from Arab Architecture will look at how the region's inhabitants coped with its harsh climate, examining them for solutions that might help us today as climate change becomes more apparent. The significance of manamas in that context will be highlighted in the exhibition.

The brothers have also led public architecture projects, including benches at Al Serkal Avenue and Jameel Arts Centre that are inspired by old high seats with leg rests. They also built pigeon towers in France’s Domaine de Boisbuchet, three hours from Paris.

“We worked with an Egyptian mason who has been producing pigeon towers for decades,” Rashid says. “You can see them across North Africa. The question we were trying to ask here, is whether architecture always have to be for people. Can we produce architecture sometimes just for nature?”

Brownbook, however, is perhaps the Bin Shabib brothers’ most recognisable output. Published between 2007 and 2018, the magazine featured artists and innovators from the region, and “focused on casting a light on the unsung cultural revolutionaries of the Middle East”.

The publication is marking its return this month after a three-year hiatus. Its first reprisal issue will examine the Middle Eastern diaspora in Tokyo, Japan.

Updated: June 08, 2023, 6:55 AM