Protecting buildings is about more than bricks and mortar

As well as palaces and theatres, an Abu Dhabi initiative will preserve everyday sites such as parks and markets that act as focal points for the emirate's communities

Zayed Sports City is just one of 64 sites and buildings in Abu Dhabi that have been identified as requiring 'immediate and unconditional protection'. Andrew Watkins / Zayed Sports City
Powered by automated translation

When it comes to the meaningful work of preserving the bricks-and-mortar history of our towns and cities, saving old bus depots, vegetable markets or fire stations can be as important as efforts to maintain ancient places of worship or striking heritage houses. Civic heritage comes in many forms, and buildings from our recent past are more than capable of holding value and meaning.

Embracing this concept is the Modern Heritage Conservation Initiative in Abu Dhabi that is adding 64 locations in the emirate to a list of buildings and sites earmarked as requiring "immediate and unconditional protection".

On the list are high-profile entries of major cultural, religious or political significance – such as the National Theatre and Al Manhal Palace, where the UAE flag was raised after the country joined the UN in 1971. But there is also the Abu Dhabi Bus Terminal and Taxi Stand, Al Ain Vegetable and Fish Market, and Zayed Al Awwal Secondary School. Because of the diverse nature of these listed sites, many of them places that people visit every day, the initiative from the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi will help to create an invaluable, living repository of the daily lives of the millions of people who have lived in the emirate. Essentially, it is about people and community as much as architectural heritage.

Indeed, few places have developed as quickly as the UAE capital, and its urban landscape is a unique and eye-catching mix of contributions from an array of international architects spanning many decades. But preserving this diverse modern heritage is far from being a mere museum project. Carefully managed preservation can pay economic dividends, as historic districts can increase property values. Preservation work also creates employment and, by making use of existing sites, champions sustainability. Abu Dhabi has been able to strike a balance between preservation and development, such as major renovation work on the waterfront near the Eastern Mangroves district that instead of simply erasing what went before retained many much-loved architectural elements.

The Abu Dhabi approach of valuing all kinds of heritage also complements the UAE’s well-established efforts to preserve Arab and Islamic heritage, both at home and abroad. The country has carried out significant work in Iraq in partnership with Unesco as part of the Spirit of Mosul project. This was launched in 2018 to rebuild some of the city’s historic landmarks that were destroyed by ISIS or damaged in fighting to expel the militants. These landmarks included the Al Nuri mosque complex, as well as two nearby churches, Al Saa’a and Al Tahera, and involved $50 million in funding from the UAE.

On Tuesday, 100 restored historic homes in Mosul were handed over to their owners to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the city's liberation from its ISIS occupiers. The hard work put into this restoration project – and many others – demonstrates the importance of saving and preserving buildings that are a repository of human history and development, and the stage upon which people act out their lives, whether these be religious sites frequented by generations of worshippers or everyday markets around which entire communities revolved.

Published: July 27, 2023, 3:00 AM