A nation at home: how Emiratis made sha’bi housing their own

The UAE Pavilion at this year's Venice Architectural Biennale explores sha'bi, or folk housing, built from the 1960s onwards. We examine how sha'bi residents transformed their homes.

Construction of sha’bi housing in Abu Dhabi in the late 1960s. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Petroleum Operations (ADCO).
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In the summer of 1974, the architect Wolfgang Braun boarded a Boeing 707 alongside his business partner and fellow architect Peter Säckl, an engineer called Juergen Monnerjahn and a small, carefully selected construction team that included a mason, a concrete specialist and an electrical engineer.

The men, all from the Federal Republic of Germany, were headed for the recently federated United Arab Emirates at the invitation of its founding president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who had asked them to build a prototype house in the desert near the oasis town of Al Ain.

It was not the first time the ruler of Abu Dhabi had worked with foreign architects or had experimented with concepts for a new type of model housing. Ever since he assumed power in 1966, Sheikh Zayed had employed international designers and consultants including Arabicon’s John Elliot, who arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1967, to design public housing as a self-conscious act of nation building and as a means of settling the nomadic Bedouin and increasing the emirate’s population.

In 1968, "anyone who called themselves an Abu Dhabian or said they were from Bani Yas was asked to turn up in Al Ain," Elliott told the architect Ann Wimsatt in The National in 2010.

“If they were accepted they received the princely sum of £1,000 in Marie Theresa silver thalers, the common currency at the time, and were promised a national house.”

Wolfgang Braun had first met Sheikh Zayed in 1973 and the sheikh had expressed an interest in the pre-fabricated building system, which was later to become known as the ‘Kasseler Bausystem’, that Braun and Säckl had developed for the rapid construction of schools.

On his second visit, Braun had presented Sheikh Zayed with a model of a concrete, pre-fabricated villa that responded to the ruler’s brief to design “a housing typology for Bedouins that respected their traditions, while helping to settle them in the urban areas”, but Sheikh Zayed had insisted on seeing a very different type of model from the one Braun and Säckl had created.

“We had built a model in scale 1:50, just about the size so it would fit into a hand luggage,” Braun told the UAE-based architect and academic Adina Hempel at a meeting in January.

“[Sheikh Zayed] liked the ideas and kept asking about a model, which we did not understand at first, as we had brought a model with us. We would find out later that he wanted us to build a 1:1 prototype,” the architect remembered, recollecting the adventure 42 years after the event.


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“He ensured he would cover all costs; we just needed to construct the house as we had designed it, after that he would potentially approve.”

If Braun and Säckl’s house was a success it would not only win the firm a contract to design and build a community of 700 homes but it would also represent an introduction to a new, Middle Eastern market flush with oil revenue at a time when the economies of Europe and North America were plunging into a profound economic crisis.

The task should have been a straightforward one for professionals used to building large-scale municipal projects efficiently and at high speed but unfortunately, three major challenges stood in Braun and Säckl’s way.

Not only would the house have to be built, from scratch, in the heat of an Abu Dhabi summer, it would also need to impress Sheikh Zayed and the advisers in his majlis. Most importantly, the team would have to bring everything they needed for the project with them from Germany.

“We ended up shipping 30 tons of freight,” Braun told Hempel. “The plan was just big enough to ship everything from tools, electric equipment and construction materials to concrete casting panels.

“The plane and all freight arrived with us in June 1974 in the oasis of Al Ain. It was boiling hot and we had about two months to complete the work, which mostly took part at night.”

“We set up a whole production line for prefabrication, something that, if we would get the contract, was supposed to be instituted in the UAE for other projects... [In] August 1974, the construction was completed and the royal delegation was expected to arrive from Abu Dhabi,” remembers Peter Säckl who, like Braun, is now in his 80s.

“HH Sheikh Zayed came to the construction site and walked around, inspecting the building thoroughly. He was pleased and only mentioned small items that needed to be changed, such as the shape of the shower head.

“With the successful construction and unusual presentation of our design ideas in a 1:1 prototype, we went back to Germany.”


In pictures: How Emiratis made sha'bi housing their own


Despite their efforts, Braun and Säckl were not selected to take part in Sheikh Zayed’s housing programme. The fate of their long-disappeared prototype is unknown, and despite going on to have a successful career in Germany and Egypt, neither architect ever returned to the UAE.

The fact that Braun and Säckl are remembered at all is due to Hempel’s detective work and the efforts of the team behind this year’s National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia, which opens to the public on Saturday, May 28 at the Venice Biennale’s 15th International Architecture Exhibition.

Curated by the UAE University academic and architect Yasser Elsheshtawy, the pavilion is called Transformations: the Emirati National House, as is a new book that accompanies the exhibit, and both aim to tell the story of the UAE's sha'bi (folk) housing programme from the 1960s to the present.

From its origins in Abu Dhabi, the housing programme grew to include a separate but similar scheme in Dubai and a federal programme that provided free housing for nomadic and non-property owning families across the Northern Emirates.

Initially built on plots measuring 24 x 24 metres, some of the earliest sha'bi houses were described in an article in Abu Dhabi's Al Ittihad newspaper from May 1972.

“Each house consists of two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, bathroom, shower and a spacious courtyard where children can play and enjoy the Sun in the winter and spend their evenings in summer in the backyard where housewives can also raise poultry.”

Defined by a perimeter wall, the earliest sha’bi houses were all modern, unadorned single-storey structures that, as well as including a date store, also afforded residents access to the roof where they could sleep in the comfort of cooling breezes in the summer months.


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Despite being a programme that produced sha’biyat, or folk housing developments throughout the Emirates, from Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region to Al Jeer in Ras Al Khaimah, the precise number of sha’bi houses constructed in the UAE is difficult to estimate.

In 1976, Al Ittihad newspaper reported that 40,000 such homes had been built between 1971 and 1976 nationally while in 1997, a report by the Public Works Department in Abu Dhabi estimated that 13,941 national housing units were constructed in the emirate between 1966 and 1990.

Figures for the capital are difficult to come by because all of the sha’bi houses on Abu Dhabi Island were demolished in 1978 when their residents were relocated to newer sha’biyat on the mainland, in areas such as Al Wathba, Al Shahama and Baniyas.

But as the urban planner Alamira Reem Bani Hashim reports in the book accompanying the pavilion, the Abu Dhabi census for 1985 revealed that 68.6 per cent of the emirate’s rural households still consisted of nationals living in sha’bi homes.

For Elsheshtawy, it is the lessons that can be learnt from the sha’bi houses rather than their number, geographical scope or rich history that led him to choose them as the subject for this year’s UAE National Pavilion.

“We have the historical section [in the pavilion] and we have a survey, but our emphasis is on how the sha’bi house is being used now,” says Elsheshtawy.

“It’s not a historical investigation or a matter of nostalgia for the good old days. What we really wanted to show is how the houses are being used now and how they have changed over the years.”

The question of how Emirati families have modified their sha’bi homes to meet their changing needs forms the basis of the exhibit that sits at the heart of the UAE National Pavilion.

Following sections that address the history of the architecture and development of the sha’bi house and its operation at a neighbourhood level, The Al Meqbali House: a Case Study traces the changes made since 1978 to a single house in sha’biyat Al Maqam in Al Ain, using family photos, sketches and quotes from its owner, Ali Al Meqbali.

“The original floor plan had two rooms. Then some were added as the family became larger and needs increased,” explains Mr Al Meqbali. “Today the building consists of different sections; each section for one son with their family.”


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For Elsheshtawy, the modifications made to the Al Meqbali house and to sha’bi houses in general raise important questions, not just about the role of architects and architecture, but about “architecture without architects” and the benefits of adaptable architecture.

“I think there are a lot of lessons here in terms of creating open and flexible frameworks and a modular and adaptable architecture, and I think that not only speaks to the situation here in the UAE but to architectural discourse in general,” the curator says.

“Sometimes it is much better for an architect to step back and to provide a basic framework within which residents can make their own changes and adaptations, and I find that this relates to the theme of the Biennale.”

The Biennale's theme and title in 2016, Reporting from the Front, was determined by its curator, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, and has been seen as a call for case studies that not only illustrate how the built environment can improve people's lives but for examples of architecture of the people, for the people and by the people.

If the UAE's sha'bi housing sounds like a perfect fit for Reporting from the Front there are, Elsheshtawy admits, other resonances between the case study and the curator of this year's Biennale.

Aravena, who was accepted into the architectural establishment this year when he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, first rose to fame with a concept for low-cost social housing that he described as “half-a-house”.

Aravena first employed the concept in 2004 at the Quinta Monroy social housing development in Iquique, Chile, where he designed homes that gave residents the essential core of a house that they couldn’t build by themselves, while providing a framework that would enable them to complete their homes according to their own schedule, means and needs.

“The initial building must provide a supporting, [rather than a constraining,] framework,” Aravena explained at the time, “in order to avoid any negative effects of self-construction on the urban environment over time, but also to facilitate the expansion process.”

When it was published in the architectural press Quinta Monroy was hailed as a radical example of “incremental” housing design and earlier this year, Aravena’s firm, Elemental, posted several of its low-cost residential designs on its website as an open-source resource to help tackle the global affordable housing crisis.

Elsheshtawy hopes that the clear similarities between the adaptations made to the UAE’s sha’bi houses and Aravena’s ideas will not only speak directly to the audience in Venice, but will also show the deep history of “incremental” housing in the UAE while helping to overturn some of the stereotypes that continue to inform international perspectives about life in the Emirates.

“The Al Meqbali house captures a lot of the issues we are looking at, not just change and transformation over time but also how houses can act as a site of memory and that resonates with many people here, precisely because there is such rapid change,” Elsheshtawy explains.

“I think perhaps, that these houses are a way of establishing a sense of permanence in a rapidly changing society but they are also clearly a case of adaptable architecture and a case of architecture without architects.

“That’s something that people have written a lot about. Bernard Rudofsky was one of the very first people in the 1960s to look at vernacular architecture as a true expression of people’s culture, but in this case the housing was initially provided by the government.”

The ways in which sha’bi houses have come to express Emirati identity despite being designed by western architects is one of key concerns of Dr El Sayed El Aswad, professor of anthropology at the UAE University in Al Ain.

One of the many collaborators who have worked with Elsheshtawy on the research for the pavilion and its associated book, El Aswad was one of the first people to research sha'bi housing, in the mid-1990s. He also published a book in Arabic, Folk House: An Anthropological Study of Folk Architecture and Traditional Culture of the Emirates Society, which drew on a year's ethnographic research conducted in sha'biyat in Al Ain and Um Ghafa, on the border with Oman.

“The people here did something remarkable. The sha’bi houses were originally designed by western architects and some of the residents found that they were unsuitable to their values and style of life,” explains El Aswad.

“So they changed the structure of their houses according [to] the structure of their values and ideas, and the modifications they made reflected the Emirati world view by reflecting traditional notions of modesty, privacy, family bonds and hospitality, and the traditional and Islamic way of life.

“That makes the sha’bi house a place where the local and the global interact. If you look inside you can see that the people have modern things – they have cars and TVs and satellites – but at the same time they still sit on the floor and they eat with their hands because they are proud of their identity and they want to maintain it.”

The National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia – Transformations: The Emirati National House will run until November 27, 2016 at the Arsenale – Sale d'Armi, Venice. For more details visit www.nationalpavilionuae.org. Readers interested in the book accompanying the pavilion should email info@nationalpavilionuae.org.

Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.