The Eastern Bloc history of Abu Dhabi's striking bus station

The modernist building of sweeping curves and white concrete heralded a new era in public transport

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They are just some of the buildings that define the UAE. But what is the story behind them? In the third part of our summer series celebrating the country’s architecture, we look at the history behind Abu Dhabi's Main Bus Terminal.

Four years before Abu Dhabi’s Main Bus Terminal opened, expectations were very high.

Officials said the building planned for the city centre was partly inspired by the famous “shell roofs” of Australia’s Sydney Opera House.

It was to be an elegant and simple structure to make travel a comfortable experience.

“The shell-type design is featured in the central station by the sloping roof over the main departure area and its wings which cover the arrival and departure areas,” the Gulf News report from December 26, 1985 said.

Coverage of the planned terminal appeared frequently in the UAE press throughout the 1980s, and for good reason. The population was surging, and from 14 buses serving Abu Dhabi in 1979, more than 230 plied routes in the emirate by 1988, local reports said, putting huge pressure on the station on Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Street (Airport Road).

This was a pivotal moment in Abu Dhabi’s urban expansion and several key official buildings were going up amid a building boom in the emirate. The new terminal was one of those.

A public transport transformation

When it opened on March 13, 1989, the station heralded a new era for public transport. Archive photographs show the striking modernist building in all its glory of white concrete and sweeping curves that came together under that sloping roof.

A square structure evoking an airport sits on one side, while a circular space age disc housed the bus inspectors. Four concrete prongs stretch out from the main area to serve as shaded bus bays.

But the story behind the creation of one of the most striking stations in the Middle East has been lost to time. It is one of Eastern European design, forgotten Bulgarian architects and a flow of ideas, architectural exchanges and people set against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Technoexportstroy, a Bulgarian state-owned company, designed the terminal. It was one of many companies from socialist Eastern Europe that had operated across the Middle East and North Africa since the 1950s.

They were more affordable than western peers, appreciated the local sensitivities and stayed to oversee the projects in a time of acute labour shortages in the expanding Gulf.

“Some of the [Technoexportstroy] people were prominent in Bulgaria, and to attract people of similar standing from the West would be much more difficult,” said Prof Lukasz Stanek, author of Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War.

The Bulgarian couple driving progress in Abu Dhabi

Nowhere was this level of expertise more evident than the bus station, which was the work of Technoexportstroy's distinguished Bulgarian architects Kuno and Stanka Dundakov.

Individually and as a couple, the husband-and-wife team were also responsible for the revamped Vasil Levski National Stadium in Sofia and El Menzah Sports Palace in Tunisia.

“[Stanka] showed great pride in the station,” said Elena Balabanska, a Bulgarian architect who runs a Facebook group called Bulgarian Architecture Abroad. “She looked back fondly on it years after it was completed.”

The terminal is built in the modernist style, and while some have ascribed the label “brutalist” — a term coined in the West to describe post-Second World War concrete structures — it goes beyond these definitions to try to work with the city in a technologically competent and civic way.

Construction was completed by the Zakum company, while two smaller stations, in Tourist Club and Al Bateen, built to complement the terminal also had curved roofs with concrete canopies to provide shade for passengers.

Technoexportstroy designed a number of other important structures in Abu Dhabi, such as a municipality building in the capital and Al Ain, but these were the work of other architects.

What remains striking, however, is how all these official buildings are horizontal in an attempt to engage with the city amid many more taller, vertical ones.

“When I visited Abu Dhabi, I thought that horizontal buildings have a prominence as carriers of prestige: state, religious, civic, cultural,” said Prof Stanek. “The rest of city is vertical — even the buildings bordering the streets, so horizontal buildings stand out.”

Making a global connection

But another legacy of Technoexportstroy in Abu Dhabi was the exchange of ideas, technologies and ways of operating in the UAE between people from Eastern Europe and across the world during the Cold War. Technoexportstroy had an office in the capital and the Dundakovs visited to oversee the work.

“Remember that they were travelling from Eastern Europe, with power cuts in Romania and hardly anything in the shops in Poland, so the Gulf was very attractive also in this respect,” Prof Stanek said.

“But it also provided them with a crucial professional opportunity of learning. The Gulf was a place of experimenting with new ideas and technologies coming from all over the world. It was not an experience of exoticism but an experience of modernity,” he said.

“They were there to learn and that’s a really different approach to many western designers. It was not a third choice for them but a first choice.”

Traces of Technoexportstroy’s work live on not just in the buildings in Abu Dhabi that people still use today, but also in their collaboration with its local partner on the station. Tayeb Engineering used the knowledge gleaned to push on to larger, more complicated projects in the years after.

“If there is a legacy, perhaps it lies in these instances of collaboration and exchange between the local partners such as Tayeb and these Eastern European firms,” Prof Stanek said.

“These exchanges are remembered and the people who came are remembered.”

The station, which was painted a bright green in later years, still serves as Abu Dhabi’s main terminal. A taxi stand built later was part of the Technoexportstroy master plan but not thought to be its architecture.

The two substations in Tourist Club and Al Bateen, meanwhile, have closed. Al Bateen reopened as a mall for a time, while the Tourist Club station was rebranded as check-in terminal for Abu Dhabi airport. But both now stand empty and their fate is unclear.

Many residents name the main terminal as one of their favourite buildings. But the work of the Dundakovs and Technoexportstroy has been largely forgotten and, in the West, often ignored.

“This era has not been talked about much,” said Ms Balabanska, who helped to stage several exhibitions in recent years in Bulgaria dedicated to this architecture.

“[But the] station is one of my favourite buildings,” she said. “It is one that made me start looking into this field.

“The building is timeless with clear lines and brought a very modern look to the capital at this time.”

A version of this article was first published on August 3, 2022

Updated: August 18, 2023, 10:30 AM