Architecture tells us about our history and ourselves

The buildings that line our streets reflect all those that have walked along them

Sharjah, 28th June 2010.  Sultan Al Qassemi with the arts exhibited.  At Barjeel Art Foundation, Maraya Art Centre in Al Qasba.  (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)
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Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, who famously built Abu Dhabi’s spectacular Sheikh Zayed Bridge, once said of her craft: “It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think.” Whether it was built a decade or a century ago, every building has a soul. And the edifices that line our streets are a reflection of all those that have walked along them.

In Sharjah in the years after the UAE was formed, that meant a pastiche of architectural styles supplied by Arab, South Asian and European architects, reflecting the Emirate’s demographic mix.

It is those early decades of Sharjah architecture that Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is determined to uncover with his Building Sharjah research project. With many of the buildings that dotted the emirate in the 1960s and 70s now being torn down or converted, Mr Al Qassemi sees the project as his "social responsibility", as he told The National in an exclusive interview.

And with good reason. Architecture offers an insight into the UAE’s identity, its dialogue with other nations and its connection to history. Mr Al Qassemi deserves praise and gratitude for his painstaking efforts to document our past.

Because with the UAE’s breakneck pace of development and construction, we are rarely afforded an opportunity to pause and reflect on what has been accomplished in such a short period of time. In its timelessness, architecture allows us to do so. While architectural marvels like Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa draw enthusiasts from across the globe, there is much to be learned from the older, less striking buildings in both cities – about our surroundings, our interactions and ourselves.

In all cities, large and small, urban and societal development can be mapped by architecture. That’s what makes Mr Al Qassemi’s project so important.

But as he notes, documenting our architectural history is just the first step. The second is a concerted effort to preserve significant buildings. Because each structure that disappears from view takes with it a small piece of history.