'Building Sharjah': New book shines a spotlight on the emirate's modern architecture

The book, co-edited by Sultan Al Qassemi and Todd Reisz, contains images, essays and stories that contextualise Sharjah's urban development between the 1960s and 1980s

In late 2018, the team behind Building Sharjah faced what seemed to be an impassable hurdle.

They were missing photographs for several structures they wanted to highlight in their book, a compendium of Sharjah’s modern architecture published by Birkhauser in June.

The buildings in question, which served as crucial examples of Sharjah’s architecture between the late 1960s and early 1980s, had been either drastically renovated or demolished. But they could not be omitted, nor could they be included without imagery. The project was at an impasse.

“We were missing images of more than a dozen buildings,” Sultan Al Qassemi, co-editor of Building Sharjah and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, tells The National. “And we couldn’t publish the book without some of them, such as the post office."

A serendipitous meeting at a Sharjah cafe in December 2018 solved the problem. While having coffee, Al Qassemi was approached by an Iraqi engineering student who recognised him from his social media channels.

“He introduced himself as Zain Omari and I invited him to join me,” Al Qassemi says. “He said he had been living in Sharjah for eight years but had a relative who lived here in the 1970s.”

That relative was Naman Al Jalili, a photographer who had come to Sharjah on assignment in the 1970s to photograph its buildings. “I tempered my reaction,” Al Qassemi says. “I was excited, of course, but I managed my expectations. People have said they could get photos many times, but they were never found.”

Al Qassemi and Omari exchanged numbers and parted ways. Six months later, Al Qassemi’s phone began to ping incessantly. “I was sent one photograph after another,” he says. “It turned out Al Jalili had taken more than 200 photos from Sharjah and the UAE. Every building we wanted was in that album.”

The buildings Al Jalili had photographed included Sharjah Post Office, the Kuwait Tower and Sharjah Civil Court. The photographs, which had lain forgotten in an abandoned family home in Iraq for years, were crisp and professionally composed.

“A cousin of Zein’s found them,” Al Qassemi says. “He rummaged through dusty boxes until he found the photographs in a shoebox.”

Al Qassemi says the images helped to elevate the quality of the book “dramatically”. However, as much as they illuminate a scarcely documented time in Sharjah, it is the rest of the book's material that brings it to life.

Co-written and edited by Todd Reisz, author of Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai, Building Sharjah contains blueprints, images, essays and stories that contextualise the urban development of Sharjah in the early second half of the 20th century.

It opens with an essay by Al Qassemi about his mother, Nama, exploring how she became one of the emirate's first teachers to present a modern curriculum, as well as the active part she played in her community.

“Writing about my mother was important because the book would have been full of men,” he says. “That’s a problem in the architecture industry. It’s somewhat changed, but it’s still very male-dominated. I wanted to write about my mother to introduce a female character, but to also show there is more to building a city than concrete.”

An illuminating piece by Reisz explores how Sharjah’s first master plan was drafted, while also addressing important moments in the emirate’s history, from the ambitions of its early rulers to the seismic power shifts that predated the unification of the emirates.

Building Sharjah goes on to peel back different layers of the emirate's urban and social fabric, with essays by curator Suheyla Takesh, historian Talal Al-Rashoud, architect Reem Khorshid and artist Hind Mezaina, among others. The book comes to a close with a short story by Temporary People author Deepak Unnikrishnan, followed by a transcribed conversation between photographers and long-time collaborators Ammar Al Attar and Prem Ratnam.

The end result is a beautiful 450-page fabric-textured hardcover. The book contains large and detailed photographs of several buildings that are no longer standing. There are forgotten gems such as the Airport Mosque, with its elaborate facade, the Mothercat Building, which stood on Al Wahda Street, and the Sheba Hotel, where “arriving entrepreneurs assembled to see and be seen”.

The Central Souq, Al Qasimiyah Primary School for Boys and Al Majarrah Buildings are among the existing structures in the book, while unbuilt projects, such as the Golden Gate, are also highlighted along with their illustrated plans.

The wealth of material meant structuring the book was anything but straightforward. Architect Khorshid, lead researcher for Building Sharjah, says she and Reisz met at Al Qassemi’s home while he was away to decide how best to arrange the works.

“We printed everything and laid them all out on the floor,” she says. “We didn’t want to have all the building entries one after another, that would be boring. We also didn’t want the essays compiled after each other. We needed a storyline.”

The key was in the book’s title. The team decided against arranging materials chronologically, but fashioned a structure that reflected the order of Sharjah’s urban development.

“We wanted to have it in the order of how the city was built, in a sense,” Khorshid says. “The book starts off with the airport, which is an example of Sharjah’s early modernism, and then there’s the master plan, the Royal Air Force base and so on.”

Al Qassemi says deciding which buildings made it into the book was largely contingent on what documents were available.

"You can have a building in mind and write about it, but if there’s no picture or documentation, you can only do so much."

Another deciding factor, Al Qassemi says, was the importance of a building in historical, political or social terms. “We have a few buildings [in the book] that are not beautiful, but they played a major role in Sharjah’s development.”

He says the book would have been impossible without the reach of social media. The Emirati commentator, who has more than 500,000 followers across his online platforms, relied on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to let people know he was looking for images and other material.

“It was really the power of social media that got us a lot of the information and photographs. And if Zain hadn’t recognised me through social media, he wouldn’t have approached me. That’s why there are no author names on the cover or the spine, because of the collective effort involved and because this book is not about its authors, but about Sharjah.”

The driving impetus of Building Sharjah was knowing the book would resolve a scarcity of information on modern architecture in the emirate, an issue, Al Qassemi says, most major Arab cities are facing.

“There’s a book on Cairo, another on Kuwait and now this book on Sharjah. There aren’t any works on major cities such as Aleppo, Damascus or Baghdad, which saw so much development in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Five years and countless hours of sleuth work later, and Al Qassemi says he still can’t believe the book has been published.

“I wouldn't have wanted to work on any other book in my life over this. The book is my gift to Sharjah, a city I really love.”

Updated: August 9th 2021, 5:58 PM