'It's Sharjah's lung': Wasit Wetland Centre's journey from tip to thriving natural oasis

Ahmed Al Ali and Farid Esmaeil tell us how they employed a form of ‘anti-architecture’ to build a centre that draws from the natural environment

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Many of the birds that stop off at the Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah on their annual journey from Asia to Africa end up staying longer than expected. "The birds don't want to leave the site," says Ahmed Al Ali, co-founder of X-Architects, the Dubai company that designed the centre. "It's very safe and very rich in food. This is what birds want – a place to breed and be safe from predators."

It's little wonder, then, that 350 species of bird – some local, others migratory – can be found at the Wasit Wetland Centre, including the glossy ibis, marbled duck and pink-backed pelican. But it wasn't always like this.

Situated near a large power station on the border between Sharjah and Ajman, this area, once a haven for wildlife, became a dumping ground in the 1970s. The pools of water were toxic with oil. The land was covered in rubbish and bits of rusting metal. It was known locally as Ramtha Tip.

In 2005, however, Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, decided to do something about this mess. The clean-up started immediately and two years later, as the flora and fauna began to thrive again, the 200,000-metre area was renamed the Wasit Nature Reserve. In 2015, the Wasit Wetland Centre, which features a cafe, a visitor centre and a viewing gallery for birdwatching, opened to the public. "This centre plays a very big role in protecting the area, producing oxygen," says Aisha Al Midfa, manager of the centre. "It is like Sharjah's lung."

Last week, Al Ali and his partner at X-Architects, Farid Esmaeil, travelled to Kazan, Russia, to collect an Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the Wasit Wetland Centre. The award, which recognises architecture that improves the lives of Islamic communities, is only held every three years. The Sharjah centre was one of just six winning projects from a list of 380 nominations.

"I really believe in the human capacity to do good and reverse the process of certain directions and destructions," said Al Ali after the awards ceremony. "We have the capacity to re-think what is the right way, shift the discourse and move forward the way we live in this world."

Al Ali and Esmaeil play down their role in the extraordinary transformation of wasteland into wetland. "We came late into the process," says Al Ali. And it's true that the detoxification of the site, as well as the addition of 3,000 indigenous plants, was done years before the centre was designed and built. But the architecture is fundamental to the success of this project. Every single component of the building complements, and often enhances, the environment it serves. It is almost like a form of anti-architecture; its purpose is to melt into the surroundings. "We knew that we didn't want to parachute in a building and make an aggressive intervention because the birds are very sensitive," says Esmaeil.

The Aga Khan, left, presents Farid Esmaeil, centre, and Ahmed Al Ali, second from right, with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in Kazan, Russia, for their Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah. Courtesy Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Wasit Wetland Centre is made up of two long, intersecting buildings (to the sides as you enter are offices; straight ahead is the viewing gallery), which visitors encounter after descending a ramp. A third building, which runs perpendicular to the viewing gallery, contains the cafe and a multipurpose space. Because of the ramp and the topography of the site, the roof of these buildings is at ground level, so it is unobtrusive to the birds, and the floor is below ground level, meaning the birds don't see the flow of human movement through the buildings.

Added to this, the glass walls are tilted fractionally towards the ground. This is important, since birds often fly into glass buildings, mistaking the reflection of the sky for the sky itself. The six bird hides around the lake are made from wood and recycled plastic. Everything has been done with the birds in mind. “The architecture acts as one of the environmental elements,” says Esmaeil. “The birds are so comfortable, one of them was hatching last year 30 or 40 centimetres from the glass. Because of the dense vegetation around the site, the noise has been minimised, so it’s really quiet.”

This project is particularly special to Al Ali and Esmaeil, since they both grew up in Sharjah (Esmaeil just 500 metres from the site) and studied architecture at the American University of Sharjah. They have relished the opportunity to give something back to their community. "Sharjah has a long history of taking care of architecture," says Al Ali. "It started a long time ago with the Blue Souk and Al Mujarrah. We thought this could really present a beautiful perspective of what Islamic architecture could be, not in terms of its form, but in terms of its mission to society. "We have this philosophy: we are passing through this life and we should leave minimal impact while we are on this planet and try as much as possible to leave the things we are using for the next generation and not to destroy habitations."

We have this philosophy: we are passing through this life and we should leave minimal impact while we are on this planet and try as much as possible to leave the things we are using for the next generation and not to destroy habitations.

Were they surprised to win the award? Al Ali breathes out. "From 380 nominees, you know …' he says, disbelievingly. "It was very unexpected," adds Esmaeil. "All of the projects had a good chance, they have enhanced lives and ecology, so that made it challenging. But it is a really great feeling, the team, everyone was happy." And no-one more so than the man who got the whole thing going back in 2005. Sheikh Dr Al Qasimi is apparently fond of turning up at the centre early in the mornings to watch the birds as the sun comes up. "It was his thought to give the people of Sharjah the chance to be environmentally educated," says Al Midfa.

The nature of winning an award is such that it can seem like the culmination of a journey. You make something and it’s then recognised by the right people, who give you a slap on the back. That’s that. But with architecture, things are slightly different. Buildings continue to evolve in a way that, say, a novel or a painting, does not. The six buildings that won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture, including a school in Bangladesh, a museum in Palestine and a university in Senegal, are living, breathing spaces. They will continue to change, not only physically, but in the way they function, too.

So while there was an air of finality at the conclusion of the ceremony in Kazan – see you all in three years' time – the journey of these buildings is only really getting started. Who knows how the Wasit Wetland Centre will look five or 10 years from now or how the birds will respond to it? Equally, the impact on the lives of the people, especially the many children, who visit will have consequences we can't possibly predict. This is what makes it such an exciting project.

“I’m dying to get back,” says Al Midfa. “I can do more, this award ceremony has given me so many ideas … Nothing is enough until you reach your goal. But the main thing is how you are getting there, the way we are sending our message to the people, especially the children. They don’t know what is facing these birds, so we take them out to do experiments, so these things can remain in their minds.

[Sheikh Dr Al Qasimi] has a very big vision to take Sharjah to higher levels of understanding about the environment, so it's our role now to complete his vision."