The UAE's best buildings of the modernist era

Modernist architecture is part of the country's heritage

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The modern architecture that typified construction in Europe and the Americas in the 1930s came late to the UAE.

At that time, prior to the export of oil in the 1960s, most structures in what was soon to become the Emirates were made from palm fronds or mud bricks.

But the pace of the development following the discovery of black gold in the region proved rapid.

From the 1970s, concrete and glass replaced traditional materials as great cities literally rose from the sands.

Some of the world’s best architects made their mark on the skylines of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, developing a distinct style that reflected their location.

But these buildings were not always designed to last, either because of the materials and construction methods used, or the pressure to replace them with something bigger and more profitable.

Today, as they vanish, there are now moves to preserve the best of them as architectural gems.

In 2020, Dubai listed the Deira Clock Tower and the World Trade Centre as being of historical interest. Here are a dozen modernist buildings in the same category:

A version of this article was first published in March 2020

Cultural Foundation, Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi's Cultural Foundation was established in 1981. Reem Mohammed / The National

Conceived in the 1970s, the Cultural Foundation opened in 1981. The work of the American based The Architects Collaborative, itself founded in 1945 by Walter Gropius, the legendary creator of the BauhausMovement in pre-war Germany.

Closed in 2009, along with the adjacent Qasr Al Hosn, the building’s future was assured with the regeneration and restoration of both structures, which were officially reopened in 2019.

World Trade Centre, Dubai

Aerial view of Dubai's World Trade Center (C) taken 12 November 1999. Oil was discovered in the emirate of Dubai in 1966 and its first oil exports three years later saw the trading town develop into a modern city with a population of around 800,000 people. (Electronic Image) (Photo by RABIH MOGHRABI / AFP)

Now listed as of historic interest, this is a building that is significant in many ways.

It was designed by the British architect John Harris, who created the first masterplan for the city, and was officially opened in 1979 by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and Queen Elizabeth.

Now dwarfed by surrounded towers, at the time the building’s 39 floors made it the tallest in the region, and marked the growth of Dubai away from the traditional creek area. It also features on the Dh100 banknote.

Central Bus Station, Abu Dhabi

With its sweeping terminal roof and distinctive pale green paint, the Central Bus Station is a familiar and much loved landmark that has been at the heart of Abu Dhabi life since 1989.

Built by contractors Zakum, its designers included the Bulgarian architect Georgi Kolarov, with the clear imprint of Soviet brutalism in its architectural style.

Al Ibrahami Tower, Abu Dhabi

Experts consider the Al Ibrahimi Tower on Electra Street a rare and world-class example of a building of its kind, yet the architect is unknown. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

A concrete cylinder of interlocking squares, the 16-storey Al Ibrahami Tower, on what is still generally known as Electra Street, is one of the capital’s most striking buildings.

Built around 1983, it takes its name from the restaurant on the ground floor. The architect is generally thought to Egypt’s Farouk El Gohary.

Rashid Hospital, Dubai

Another design by John Harris, Rashid Hospital was completed in 1973 and is the second oldest medical facility in the city.

Its minimalist design incorporates a number of Islamic features, including the large tent-shaped shade structures at its entrance and the distinct hospital mosque.

Dubai Petroleum Building

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: N/A: The Dubai Petroleum building. Wednesday, March 4th, 2020. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Stark and simple, the Dubai Petroleum building is a classic of modernist architecture.

It was designed by Victor Hanna Bisharat, who was born in 1920 and trained at the American University in Beirut.

After moving to the United States, Bisharat worked on Disneyland in California and many buildings in Stamford, Connecticut. The 1978 Dubai building’s brutalist exterior hides an interior courtyard, with hexagonal stars giving light to the lobby.

Al Bateen Mall, Abu Dhabi

This small mall, with a supermarket and a handful of shops, was originally a satellite bus station for Abu Dhabi.

It was designed by Bulgaria's Technoexportstroy, a state-owned construction company responsible for numerous projects across the Middle East.

Opened in 1986, the building was converted to a shopping centre in the 1990s but its original purpose can be seen in the sweeping seagull wing canopies that would have provided shade to passengers.

Obeid Al Mazrouei building, Abu Dhabi

Another Abu Dhabi landmark, the Obeid Al Mazrouei building was constructed in the 1980s and takes its name from the original owner.

The architect is unknown, but the design of balconies behind circular windows, which shield residents from the heat, is clearly inspired by Bisharat’s 1964 Koujak-Jaber Building in Beirut.

Fish and Vegetable Market, Abu Dhabi

Often overlooked, the 1985 Fish and Vegetable Market near the Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre is one of the city’s most futuristic designs.

Constructed by Spectrum Engineering, the building forms eight zones, defined by alternative roof heights and concealing a light-filled interior that resembles a traditional outdoor market.

Al-Qasimiyah Primary School, Sharjah

Al-Qasimiyah School. Courtesy: Sharjah Architecture Triennial

Al-Qasimiyah School is one of a number of modernist buildings from the 70s and 80s now preserved after falling into disuse. It is now the headquarters of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial.

One of around 20 similar schools built in the mid-1970s in the UAE, it was designed by Khatib & Alami, an international architectural, engineering and planning consultancy working in Sharjah since 1968.

Commissioned by the Ministry of Education, the school featured classrooms shaded by concrete arches looking into a central courtyard.

King Faisal Mosque, Sharjah

August 08. King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah. August 08, Sharjah. United Arab Emirates (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National)

Opened in 1987, the mosque is the work of Saudi architect Abdul Rahman Abdul Hafidh Al Junaidi, a student of Beirut’s American University and the Aleppo College of Engineering.

With 12,000 square meters for worship, the mosque, in Al Ittihad Park, can hold over 16,000 worshippers, with twin 70 meter minarets and a library on the second floor.

Al Mahtatta Museum, Sharjah

Without question, this museum is oldest modernist building in the UAE, incorporating 20th century architecture with tradition materials and construction.

It was originally the city’s first airport, built in 1932 as a staging post on the first Imperial Airways flights from London to what was then British India, and Australia.

The complex, which included a resthouse for passengers to break their journey, was converted to an aviation museum in 2000. The runway is now King Abdul Aziz Street.