Abu Dhabi's heritage buildings allow us to time travel back to the city's first boom

Decision to put 64 sites on a protected list praised as a possible template for other Gulf states

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Take a walk on Abu Dhabi’s Zayed the First Street today and it is possible to time travel. Electra Street, as it is still called by many, is home to several buildings on Abu Dhabi’s new list of 64 modern heritage sites, dating chiefly from the 1970s and 1980s, marked for “immediate and unconditional protection”.

Harib Tower, the Hamed Centre and buildings such as the Saeed Al Kalili (Ibrahimi) and Obaid Al Mazrouei on the street allow us to experience a time and place when Abu Dhabi’s new future was being mapped out. This was the early oil boom. Modern towers, luxurious apartments, the first malls and an influx of multinational residents were transforming a place that just two decades before was sand and barasti huts.

These 64 sites are the bridge between the emirate’s pre-oil days and the modern city we see today. Abu Dhabi has expanded to other islands and to the suburbs with its glittering high rise buildings, financial districts and mega-projects as that era fades from view. But now the focus has returned to these early landmarks that tell us so much about Abu Dhabi’s rich history.

“As an urban historian, it’s heartening to see Abu Dhabi recognising the significance of its modern heritage buildings and taking measures to protect these architectural gems,” said Alamira Reem Bani Hashim, Emirati author of Planning Abu Dhabi: An Urban History, a landmark book that charted how the city grew. “They serve as invaluable markers of the city's evolving urban landscape and architectural achievements.”

Building blocks of progress

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Emirati columnist and researcher, who co-edited Building Sharjah, a work that highlighted the emirate’s unsung architecture, said it was a “significant step towards creating a federal set of regulations aimed at preserving modern heritage across the UAE in all its shapes and forms”.

“It is likely that Abu Dhabi's step will also encourage and even serve as a template for other Gulf States to introduce regulations towards the goal of preserving modern architectural heritage across the region,” he said.

“The next step is to make sure that these buildings are repurposed and turned into active centres of learning or work to ensure that they continue to serve a purpose so that they are appreciated by a new generation of Emiratis as well as residents and visitors.”

Major buildings such as Al Manhal Palace; the headquarters of Adnoc; Zayed Sports City; and Abu Dhabi’s main bus terminal are included. But there is an intriguing selection of smaller and less well-known sites from across the emirate. Some of the capital’s first malls that ushered in a new era of commerce, such as the Hamdan and Hamed Centre feature, along with bus stations City Terminal and Al Bateen Mall that spoke to a new age of public transport. Also protected are the first parks, such as at Khalidiyah, that allowed families time to relax and enjoy some downtime. There are also water tanks, hotels, vegetable markets, a fire station, a school, souqs, health facilities and even the former newsroom of The National at the Abu Dhabi Media Company building.

Many were designed by Arab, South Asian and Eastern European architects. Bulgaria’s Technoexportstroy, for example, and its husband and wife architectural team of Kuno and Stanka Dundakov, were behind the main bus terminal. Coursing through Abu Dhabi during these years was a global exchange of ideas, technologies and ways of operating well before anyone started talking about “star architects”.

Lina Ahmad and Marco Sosa, both associate professors at Zayed University specialising in modern architectural heritage, said the sites are "connected to memories of residents, expatriates and nationals, growing up and using the city”.

Celebrating the capital's rich history

“The preservation of these buildings will also educate generations of young residents to recognise the historical importance of their recent built environment,” Prof Sosa said.

Prof Ahmad said: “With our design students at Zayed University, we encourage this appreciation as we acknowledge that as future young designers working in the construction industry, they can become instigators for preservation, conservation and adapting practices.”

Awareness has been building for years. Universities such Abu Dhabi University, NYUAD and Zayed University have undertaken research projects into the emirate’s architectural history. NYUAD’s research led to a book entitled Abu Dhabi Guide: Modern Architecture, 1968 to 1992. And in 2014 the UAE’s pavilion at Venice Biennale celebrated the country’s architecture under the theme "Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory in the UAE".

Authorities had also been working to safeguard these structures and in 2011 started identifying sites for preservation. Abu Dhabi then introduced a cultural heritage law in 2016 that recognised the inclusion of modern heritage along with archaeological sites and historic buildings as part of its cultural heritage. An awareness campaign to highlight the modern heritage initiative began in 2020 and the 64 new sites are now firmly protected under this law.

“This is phenomenal news,” said Deborah Bentley, Abu Dhabi representative for the Royal Institute of British Architects from 2011 to 2014. “Seeing this many buildings and places preserved at once ensures that Abu Dhabi’s connection with its roots will be maintained for future generations,” said Ms Bentley, who also taught at Abu Dhabi University.

“These buildings reflect not only … technology developments in the 1970s and 1980s but also reflect a time when architects were designing buildings that responded to the environment with deep balconies and overhangs that self-shaded the rest of the building, elements that architects are now reusing as we focus on the effects of climate change.”

Al Bateen Mall and City Terminal are examples of what Ms Bentley refers to. Located in Al Zahiyah (Tourist Club) and Bateen they were built as bus stations to complement the main terminal that opened in 1989. They had curved roofs and concrete canopies to provide shade for passengers. They eventually closed as bus stations and were repurposed as a shopping mall and a city check-in service before these also closed and the buildings stood empty. But renovation work has recently started at the City Terminal and news about its future purpose is expected.

Now they are being preserved, the question is what does the future hold? Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism is clear: “No demolition applications will be allowed for these buildings, instead, priority will be given for them to be maintained and rehabilitated in accordance with their designated grade.” Grading typically means a system to determine the different values and how they might be repurposed. Restoration of the Cultural Foundation and its integration with renovated Qasr Al Hosn across a publicly accessible square shows what is possible. The foundation and the fort have been brought back to their former glory while the square hosts events and invites people to walk and interact, while also rejuvenating the old heart of the city. The DCT said it will continue to work to identify buildings that could be added to the list.

Yasser Elsheshtawy, adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University in the US and an expert on urbanism in the Gulf, said some heritage buildings may not even necessarily have to retain their original function but can go through “adaptive re-use” to serve the community better. One of the protected buildings is the Armed Forces Officer Club which is now being repurposed as a hotel and resort.

“You want to avoid having a city comprised of empty shells, pretty to look at, but otherwise devoid of functional value,” he said. “A city cannot be a fossilised version of its past but needs to change, adapt and grow. This initiative is the first step in achieving this goal.”

Updated: July 29, 2023, 8:24 AM