Walled wonders: a walking tour around Abu Dhabi’s lesser-known architecture

Taking a walking tour around Abu Dhabi, we check out some of the lesser-known buildings around the city.

The Obeid Al ­Mazrouei building. Brian Kerrigan / The National
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As much as possible, I usually avoid downtown Abu Dhabi. While by rights it’s the centre of the city, for me it smacks of being in a ghetto. I find its shopping malls, shops and restaurants largely depressing, dirty and crowded. On foot, there are few destinations worth visiting, and driving there can be, well, ­challenging.

Sometimes, though, and especially recently, with the completion of the Sheikh Zayed Street roadworks and the smartening up of parts of the area, as well as the new bridge over to Al Maryah Island, I’ve started to notice something. Some of these buildings stand out.

The Al Omaira building on Al Firdous Street near Abu Dhabi Mall was the first place that I noticed, driving past one day in the passenger seat of a friend’s car. A 14-storey residential building, at first it could be dismissed as just another tower – dull, homogenous and not worthy of aesthetic consideration.

Yet dwell on it for just a few seconds and you’re confronted with something that is well-built, attractive – stylish, even. Most of the slim exterior is covered in dark tiling, broken by bold, clean, white concrete lines. The geometric pattern radiates completeness, purpose and, even though it’s decades old, a distinctive look. I found myself wondering who lived there and what it was like.

Judging by a new book published by New York University Abu Dhabi, The Abu Dhabi Guide: Modern Architecture, 1968-1992, I'm not the only one. The Al Omaira building is one of 30 modernist structures profiled by the book's editor, Pascal ­Menoret, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies, and a group of his architecture students. They intend for the book to be used as an alternative guidebook to the city, with the ultimate aim of preserving the urban fabric that we all take for granted.

The book provides a useful map, along with textual detail about each of the sites. The Al Omaira building, the book states, was built in the 1980s by an “unknown architect”. It “was once considered a luxurious apartment building, but its value has since declined. Its residents now represent the fascinating cultural mix of Abu Dhabi; there are Filipinos, Arabs, Indians ... All 50 130-square-metre apartments are tenant occupied.”

I find myself wishing that I lived in a 130-square-metre modernist apartment, so I set out one morning, guidebook in hand, to do as the guide says and mingle in unknown areas – “look at them [the buildings] from all angles, walk around them, talk to their ­inhabitants.”

It also urges us to get out of our cars (“Modern architecture is best discovered on foot, even though a few sites will necessitate motorised transportation”), so, through slightly gritted teeth, I leave my car at home in Khalidiya and jump on the first bus that comes along. It’s a number 5, which takes me along Electra Street to Al Hosn, close to my first stop, the Cultural ­Foundation.

Before I’ve even get there, however, I’m intrigued by what I see from the bus window. On my right, between Hamdan and Electra streets, is number 21 on the list, the low-rise Qasr Al Hosn Villas, built in the 1970s, “initially an upscale area”, but now in relative decline. Nevertheless, the huge villas give a nostalgic sense of faded glory, and I’m surprised that despite having visited the Starbucks on the Electra side of the compound, I’ve never registered what the surrounding buildings look like. Walking through the development, it’s eerily quiet and peaceful; there are no cars, and the only sound I can hear is birdsong. It’s the precise opposite of what you normally see travelling from A to B in this part of town.

After a quick (and nostalgic) stop at the Starbucks, I cross the road to the Cultural Foundation, which is undergoing renovation, but was almost demolished in 2010. I have an affection for this building, partly because it was Abu Dhabi’s main cultural hub when I arrived in the city in 2008. The huge structure, the book notes, was designed by the Massachusetts-based The Architects’ Collaborative, formed by none other than Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School and thus, along with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the principal figures in modern architecture.

The Cultural Foundation, which sits on its own block of land on the western flank of Airport Road, was built in 1977 and opened in 1981; the architect was Hisham Ashkouri, an Iraqi, and the building incorporates a number of stylish Islamic motifs. I’m also struck by how well the building holds its own against the surrounding forest of towers, and I’m glad it was saved.

I walk across the mayhem of Airport Road (pedestrian lights never seem to allow quite enough time to cross), admiring the Etisalat towers, before arriving faster than expected at building number 4 in the book, the Al Otaiba building, which is almost comically diminutive next to the new Central Market and surrounding towers. Perhaps most remarkable is how this relatively petite 1970s block, which fronts onto busy Hamdan Street, has survived all these years. The second thing I notice is how the architecture of the Norman Foster-designed Central Market seems to have borrowed from the Al Otaiba buildings – although, in my view, the brown external mashrabiya screens that adorn the new souq are not nearly as attractive or distinctive as the white ones on the building in front of me. As I take photographs, a nearby resident makes conversation: it turns out that he’s an engineer at Adnoc. Its swirly residential block in Al Bateen, also saved from demolition, is number 23 on the list. Although I won’t make it there today, he has some useful advice for visiting next time.

The once-pretty, now neglected Al Otaiba building is very dark inside, with a lift that makes a charming and old-fashioned ping on each floor. I buy a bottle of water from the downstairs supermarket and press on back down to Electra Street, again, not such a long way, especially if you’re wearing trainers. I stop at the Hamdan Centre, number 5 on the list and still ferociously ugly, though I do have a soft spot for Le Beaujolais restaurant and the outdoor terrace of the Mercure Hotel. I hadn’t realised previously that it’s part of a bigger complex comprising a handful of towers. From the other side of the road, I think that a different colour might help, but inside, I’m so put off by the shopping atmosphere that I exit straight out the back.

Back on Electra Street, I find a trio of buildings – in the book, numbers 15, 16 and 17. The first, the 1980s and laughably named Snow White building (its white exteriors are streaked with dirt) seems disappointing, as although it’s obviously well-built and functional, it suffers from being too close to its neighbours. Like like most of the buildings around here, it looks better from a distance, and would benefit from being cleaned up and sensitively repainted.

A few steps away is the Hamed Center. Still an ugly shopping mall from up close, it has some striking white geometric side cladding that’s grey with dirt; and, from a distance, the slanted brise-soleil give it a certain elegance. The upper floors are residential; inside, I take the escalator up to the first floor and quickly head back down again: its collection of decades-old shops contain nothing that I’d like to buy and the lighting and selection of restaurants is off-putting at best.

The nearby Buty Al Otaiba building, however, is a different story. Although also in a state of neglect – many of its windows are broken and it’s caked in dirt – this 17-floor structure looks like it should be the headquarters of an international law firm. Its matrix of small windows, set behind an attractive lattice-like white (or cream) cladding, seem in good condition and perfectly suited to their environment, unlike many dark-glass towers we see today. Alas, the reception area is uninviting and I don’t venture inside.

After a thali lunch at Sangeetha Vegetarian Restaurant, I walk behind Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre to another place I’ve never been before: the 1985 Vegetable Market. This low-rise, futuristic-looking building is marred by the huge car park running all the way around it. The nicer the architecture, I think, the more disfiguring the cars are. Inside, it’s a clean, air-conditioned shopping space: besides fruit and vegetables, there’s also a small fish market and traders are cheerful and welcoming.

Next, it’s back to Airport Road, where, not far from the HSBC building, is the brutalist Khalifa Al Suwaidi building, a 14-storey spaceship-style edifice I’ve somehow always missed. Its smooth, blocky, gold-coloured flanks glint in the sun, and, although it seems somewhat forbidding from the outside, the dark interior is probably precisely what’s needed after a working day in the Gulf heat. One resident heading to the 13th floor makes conversation in the lift – the same type as in the Al Otaiba building – but I don’t have time to look around his apartment. I’m sure it has a great view.

I retrace my steps and head back to Electra Street. The eye-poppingly attractive Al Ibrahimi building is a 16-storey, 1980s residential cylinder with balconies inside interlocking cubes that look like white ribbon. The Egyptian architect Farouk El ­Gohary, the guidebook states, employed a metabolist style, reflecting the movement founded by Kisho Kurokawa and other Japanese architects in the 1960s. At close range, however, the building is dirty, with pigeons flitting in and out of the dark balconies and washing hanging out.

It’s an even sorrier story a few buildings down at my last stop, the equally striking Obeid Al ­Mazrouei building (sometimes called the “Connect Four” building), a 10-storey residential structure clad in circular, porthole-style windows that sit inside squares. Though the apartments are occupied, most of these windows ooze dereliction and decay. Some windows are broken and others have dank-looking curtains hanging in them. It’s a sad state for what was once a genuinely outstanding piece of architecture. Let’s hope that for this building and others, it’s not the end.

The Abu Dhabi Guide: Modern Architecture, 1968-1992 is available free of charge in Abu Dhabi at The Space, Manarat Al Saadiyat and NYUAD Art Gallery.