Urban fabric

As new neighbourhoods are developed on Reem, Al Maryah and Saadiyat Islands, many of the buildings in the capital’s older districts are scheduled for demolition. This week, two of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, Tourist Club and Zayed City, also received new Arabic names. Is the future erasing our past?

The Main Bus Terminal on Muroor Road.. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

When it comes to Abu Dhabi’s architectural heritage, the relationship between the present and the past is far from straightforward.

Since the 1960s, the city has become synonymous with the kind of profound changes that modernisation and rapid urbanisation can bring and now, if anything, the pace of that change appears to be accelerating. As new neighbourhoods are developed on Reem, Al Maryah and Saadiyat Islands, many of the buildings in the capital’s older districts are scheduled for demolition and in November 2013, 14 streets in the capital were renamed as part of Abu Dhabi’s new Onwani (my address) project. This week, two of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, Tourist Club and Zayed City, also received new Arabic names.

For the authors of The Abu Dhabi Guide: Modern Architecture 1950s-1990s, the city’s rapidly disappearing urban fabric has acted “like a clarion call: loud and precise.”

“The pace at which Abu Dhabi has risen from the sands into an international melting pot has brought massive changes, but the frantic cycle of construction and demolition threatens to leave the nation without a memory. Today, we face the risk of forgetting how the great transformation of the city occurred.” The product of only three weeks’ intensive research, the guide describes 31 buildings and structures selected by 14 students who embarked on a short course, Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi, that was taught in January by Pascal Menoret, an urban historian, anthropologist and assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

An expert in the relationship between urban form and daily life in the Arabian Peninsula, Menoret is the author of the forthcoming Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism and Road Revolt, a study of “drifting” and car culture in contemporary Saudi Arabia. The seeds of Menoret’s course, and the guide, were sown on his very first visit to the capital.

“The origin is me coming to Abu Dhabi two and half years ago and just looking up. I’ve been in the Arabian Peninsula for a while. I spent four and half years in Saudi Arabia, I’ve lived in Yemen, but when I came here, I was fascinated by the very specific, very diverse, very multi-layered environment.”

Menoret’s other inspiration was the relative paucity of research relating to Abu Dhabi’s post-oil urban fabric. Other than Salma Samar Damluji’s 2006 survey, The Architecture of the United Arab Emirates, and the research conducted by Yasser Elsheshtawy, an expert in Gulf urbanism and associate professor of architecture at the United Arab Emirates University, almost nothing exists.

“In three weeks, we wanted to go as deep as possible and to reconstitute the layers of Abu Dhabi’s history and culture,” Menoret explains. “I’m really fed up with that general discourse that Abu Dhabi has no history, that Abu Dhabi has no culture, that Abu Dhabi has no architectural references. There is a really interesting architectural vernacular here … and that’s what we have tried to explore.”

The picture painted by the guide may only provide a snapshot of the city, and a very partial one at that, but the fact that it exists at all and the quality of much of the research, make it rather more than the outcome of a short student project. As far as Abu Dhabi’s all-too-ephemeral modern architecture is concerned, the guide is an important record of a cityscape and ways of life that would appear destined for extinction and whose intention “is not to say that the future should imitate the past, but rather, that it should not trample over it as if it had never existed”.

As well as including recognisable Abu Dhabi landmarks such as the Cultural Foundation, Maqtaa Bridge and the InterContinental Hotel, as well as many more anonymous structures that might be recognisable to Abu Dhabi residents by sight but not by name, it also describes others, such as the Volcano Fountain and old souqs, that have long since disappeared. According to its authors, the guide’s intention is “not to be the ultimate collection of Abu Dhabi’s architectural gems. It is more of an insight into what Abu Dhabi has to offer, whomever is willing to look ...”

As Tom Taylor, one of the guide’s researchers, admits, Abu Dhabi’s post-oil architecture is something that is easy to miss. Taylor, a 22-year-old undergraduate student from Australia, has lived in Abu Dhabi for almost four years and will be one of NYUAD’s first cohort of students to graduate.

“For the first time in three-and-a-half years, I looked up and took in buildings that aren’t Abu Dhabi’s typical drawcards, that aren’t part of the Big Bus tour. You only need to look along Electra Street to see that the real estate is prime and that a lot of the buildings there are probably under threat. People sense that. There’s a sense on the street that no one really knows what’s going to happen.”

Like all of the researchers, Taylor was free to select whichever buildings he wished, but used guidelines issued by Docomomo, the International Working Party for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement and selection criteria that included the building’s architectural interest, historic value and role in shaping Abu Dhabi’s urban experience to guide and record his choices. These included Abu Dhabi’s bus terminal and a building on Electra Street that is far more typical of post-oil modern architecture in Abu Dhabi in that it resisted all of Taylor’s attempts to find out more about it.

The residents Taylor interviewed suggested calling the building Obeid Al-Mazru’i [sic], after its owner, but, thanks to the similarity between the circular metal screens that decorate the building’s facade and a popular children’s game, Taylor refers to the building as the “Connect Four Building”.

“The reality is that it’s really hard to gather any information on these buildings, so in many cases, we had to collate anything we could find that might constitute a history of the building,” Taylor explains. “That might include conversations with residents, our own observations, descriptions, what residents might tell you about how long they’ve lived there and what they think the prospects are for each building.”

While the frequent absence of formal and historical information in the guide’s entries may frustrate readers looking for a more conventional approach, it provides an insight into one of the most important but ephemeral aspects of Abu Dhabi’s modern urban history, the “lived” experience of the city’s inhabitants, something that is often beyond the reach of more traditional histories.

While they are at pains to explain that there need not be any contradiction between development and conservation, for the students the need to preserve Abu Dhabi’s modern heritage is self-evident. “In a city whose culture and history were shaped by modernism, modern buildings should be preserved.” Menoret is both more circumspect and more ambitious, describing the guide as a “conversation starter” that is designed to “tell the community to go out, leave their cars, and to start walking because this is really a wonderful city”. If the guide succeeds in this, it will have achieved something profound indeed.

The Abu Dhabi Guide is currently under production. Copies will be available from NYUAD before the end of the current academic year.