For the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture, a group of Abu Dhabi historians filled an entire pavilion with material that showcased the architectural story of the UAE. It was a feat repeated a few months later for the 2015 Qasr Al Hosn festival.
Perhaps even more impressive is that this vast collection of material is now compressed into a black cardboard sleeve and four slim volumes of print.
"An exhibition in a box" is how Michele Bambling, the creative director of Lest We Forget, describes it, following the publication of Structures of Memory. It is the fourth from the project, which condenses the Venice and Qasr Al Hosn exhibitions into book form.
What started as a classroom project for students at Zayed University back in 2011, Lest We Forget is now based at the Warehouse421 art centre in Mina Zayed and backed by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.
Structures of Memory, like the others, draws deeply from the memories, stories and possessions of ordinary people in the UAE. It seeks to tell the architectural story of the UAE not just through the structures themselves, but through the role they played to those who lived, worked and observed them.
While still in exhibition form, it was object based. The Venice pavilion featured a shaded room to invoke the courtyard of a traditional Emirati home, and cabinets with drawers that could be opened by visitors to explore with everything from architectural drawings to family photographs inside.
In addition, the exhibitions featured videos, taped interviews and interactive graphics. They highlighted the most significant buildings in the country, but within a social, political and economic context.
Compressing this into a box barely ten centimetres wide, then, is quite a task and one that, on and off, has taken nearly four years. “We wanted to show all the content as a lasting record of the exhibitions,” Dr Bambling says.
The thickest of the four volumes is essentially a walk-through of Structures of Memory, featuring detailed histories of some of the buildings, including Zayed Sports City Stadium and the Abu Dhabi Bus Station (which was originally painted white and acquired its mint green hue in the 1990s in an attempt to jazz it up).
Some of the stories are export architectural appreciations, but also more everyday experiences that add an extra element of life — a good example is the story of the free rooms given to Kuwaitis who had fled the Iraqi invasion of 1990 by the Radisson Blu Hotel in Sharjah.
“These are the things that linger in the memory of those people,” says Dr Bambling.
The surprise is that, despite what is generally seen as a naturally conservative and private culture, people were generous with their memories and possessions.
“People were really excited to talk about these subjects because many of these [buildings] are disappearing, and because it meant their own experiences matter," she said.
Two of the other books give an overview of the architecture, one in English and the other in Arabic, but it is the third, and slimmest, which has the most immediate impact. It opens up as a series of wall charts that trace the history of the UAE’s most notable structures in a timeline that also contextualises them globally.
The timeline begins far earlier than most people might expect: in 1914 and Dubai’s Al Ahmadiya School. It ends a century later with the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre in Al Ain. In the 1930s, as the Empire State Building rose in New York, Dubai’s first office building, Bait Al Wakeel, was under construction.
As the modernist designs of architects like Miles Van Der Rohe gripped the West in the 1950s, the gentle two story house of Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, with its shaded balconies and arches, changed the face of Al Ain.
By the end of the timeline, the world’s most spectacular buildings are in the UAE — from the Burj Khalifa to the twin Al Bahr Towers in Abu Dhabi, with their distinct computer controlled parasol shading.
For the moment, Structures of Memory can be bought only at Warehouse 421, where it costs Dh315, although there are hopes it will be in bookshops later in the year.