In a growing city like Abu Dhabi, what makes a building worth keeping?

Heritage activists are campaigning to save what they say is iconic architecture from the capital's early boom, period but they will have to overcome a lack of appreciation for the recent past.

Al Bateen Mall, with its "dramatic flying canopies", has been named in a list of iconic architecture in Abu Dhabi. It and other structures have been deemed worthy of preservation by heritage activists. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
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Heritage activists are campaigning to save what they say is iconic architecture from the capital's early boom, period but they will have to overcome a lack of appreciation for the recent past.

London has its gracious Victorian mansions, New York has its elegant brownstones and Paris has its ornate Empire-style buildings. But what architectural legacy will future Abu Dhabi residents have to remind them of the city's early boom period?

The fear is that Abu Dhabi's headlong modernisation will eliminate all evidence of the city's evolution, leaving nothing significant to bridge the gap between the pre-oil age and the skyscraper city currently being built.

For all the glass-clad towers now piercing the skyline, it's easy to overlook the time when the capital's ambitious vision for the future was embodied by structures such as the Abu Dhabi bus and taxi station.

Less than 30 years after it was completed, it now seems quaintly old fashioned and, because it and many similar heritage buildings sit in blue-chip locations, ripe for demolition and replacement.

The bus station is emblematic of the wider debate under way over preserving landmark buildings from the early stages of the capital's boom period. The structure is one of the best known in the city, as much for its polarising mint-green colour scheme as the sweeping concrete curves that are the key to its passive solar design.

At the heart of this are two beneficial but inherently incompatible goals.

On one side of this debate is the Department of Transport, which is aiming to entice drivers to switch to public transport by offering modern and comfortable facilities. At this time of year, when just standing outside is enough to end up drenched in sweat, the limitations of the bus station are obvious.

On the other side are organisations such as the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), which specifically identified the bus station as a structure it "intends to protect as [one of] the key threatened monuments now in Abu Dhabi".

The two sides are working together to find a balanced solution that will achieve each group's aims but, whatever the specific outcome for the bus station, it's demonstrating a conflict that will occur again and again in Abu Dhabi.

The attempt to balance development with preservation is hardly unique. It's a conflict that occurs all around the world, where heritage activists face the continual challenge of mustering public enthusiasm to protect the architecture of the recent past.

But Abu Dhabi's situation is unique because, unlike other metropolises, the entire city - with the lone exception of Qasr Al Hosn (the White Fort) - dates from the modern era. The sudden influx of oil revenues allowed the capital to jump from what the pioneering Abu Dhabi businessman Mohammed Al Fahim described as an 18th-century urban environment to a late 20th-century one.

Although that transition seems like a seamless progression of increasingly ambitious buildings, the reality is that this progression has involved a series of competing philosophies and distinct eras. Deborah Bentley, an Abu Dhabi-based member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, says to have a meaningful architectural record of the city's evolution means preserving examples from each of these stages.

The bus station is just one structure identified that she deemed worthy of preservation. Other examples of what Bentley dubbed "iconic architecture of the modern age" are the circular, tiled hub of Abu Dhabi Airport's terminal one ("a glorious celebration of modern Arabia of the 1980s"), the parabolic curves of Al Bateen Mall ("dramatic flying canopies on the east and west elevation not only shade the parked cars, it makes the structure much lighter and inviting") and its modified doppelganger, the airport's city terminal near Abu Dhabi Mall.

As for the bus station, she described it as "the big green giant of Abu Dhabi [which] is either loved or hated" but could be revitalised for the 21st century without losing its heritage value.

The passive solar design that was predicated by the more modest means available to authorities when it was built in the early 1980s is now back in vogue because of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council's Estidama - sustainability - campaign.

For all the sweeping concrete curves, Bentley said the building retained a human scale and, with its exposed concrete frame, invoked between-the-wars railway terminals in Europe.

"Environmentally, this building is all about shade and passive design," she said. "The windows in the terminal are on the north side, allowing for lots of natural daylight without solar gain. The waiting passenger bays are shaded.

"All these buildings need is some tender loving refurbishment, some sensitive landscaping and they would be a joy to use."

Bentley likened the bus station's significance to the way English Heritage had recently listed a 1960s motorway services building because of the way it "epitomised the golden era of the transport revolution" even though it did not serve its purpose as well as a modern replacement might.

"There is a growing recognition that these iconic buildings that capture a moment in time, illustrating societies' hopes and dreams as well as design, have to be saved from demolition and restored to their former glory," she stated. The need to protect buildings has already been recognised by Abu Dhabi's cultural authorities. The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) last year launched its Modern Heritage Preservation Initiative for that exact purpose.

When Adach merged with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and the cultural section of the Tourism Development Investment Corporation to form TCA Abu Dhabi earlier this year, the new body adopted the initiative as its own.

The Adach initiative report said that one of the challenges it faces is developers' passion for the new, backed by financial resources that allow for relatively new buildings to be completely demolished and rebuilt from scratch.

The bus station, it stated, is threatened "despite [its] undeniable importance and relatively sound state".

"Usually, the first option for the development of such buildings is to demolish them completely and start building them from scratch, instead of other options for the renewal, restoration and adaptation of the original structure, taking into account the value of the building within the urban heritage of Abu Dhabi."

Besides the bus station, it cited the Al Manhal Palace (which was the seat of government in Abu Dhabi between Qasr Al Hosn Fort and the FNC building), Maqta Bridge, the Armed Forces Officers' Club, the Intercontinental, Meridien and Hilton hotels, the court building and Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Zayed Sports City .

If you need an example of what happens when heritage efforts fail, you only need to visit Adnoc's corporate headquarters on the Corniche, where a mammoth new 340-metre tower is being constructed.

The site of the tower is where one of three interlinked curving Adnoc buildings once stood. The other two remain in place, along with an adjacent rectangular tower dating from the mid-1990s, although earlier architectural plans for the site do not involve retention of any of the earlier buildings.

The Adnoc complex was identified by the Adach report as modern heritage buildings worth preserving, with the goal of the initiative being "to understand the architectural heritage in Abu Dhabi in the post-oil era, evaluate its importance and develop strategies for protecting them".

"Lack of awareness and appreciation" was specifically identified as one of the threats faced by Abu Dhabi's unique post-oil architectural heritage.

"At a time when traditional buildings in Al Ain and fortresses in Liwa have an undeniable historical importance, buildings erected during the oil-associated rebirth of Abu Dhabi in the 1960s are considered to be key testimonies to the features of the development and success of the Emirate," the report stated.

"Unlike archaeological and historical buildings, the modern heritage faces an additional threat represented in the usual demand for modernisation in order to keep up with the latest, cleanest and smartest designs and tastes."

At the conference last year of International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), a non-governmental international organisation dedicated to the conservation of the world's monuments and sites, Adach's Amel Chabbi and Hossam Mahdy described the conflicting goals of modernisation and preservation as the "vicious cycles of Abu Dhabi's urban renewal".

Part of the issue is that most of the overwhelmingly expatriate professional class in Abu Dhabi have no long-term association with the city, tending to stay for only a few years before moving on to somewhere else, which means they do not have the native population's knowledge of the city's development or a vested interest in the city's future.

They advocated that reversing the vicious cycles required buildings to be refurbished before they fall from "the peak of the fashion cycle" and, if needed, to be adaptively reused to prevent the decline that will expedite their demolition and replacement.

"Saving modern heritage buildings from falling into decline or saving them out of a decline phase are the aims of the strategies proposed by ... the Modern Heritage Preservation Initiative," they said.

The emphasis on the brand new, combined with a lack of appreciation for the recent past, helps to explain why preservation advocates are finding themselves fighting an uphill battle.

But quite apart from the preservation of Abu Dhabi's architectural evolution being important for purely parochial reasons, the city is also unique in the world because the sudden arrival of oil wealth meant it suddenly leapt ahead by more than a century.

Mohammed Al Fahim said in Rags to Riches, his early history of Abu Dhabi, that in the pre-oil days, residents of the future UAE capital "lived in the 18th century while the rest of the world, even the rest of our neighbours, had advanced into the 20th".

"We [had] nothing to offer visitors, nothing to export, no importance to the outside world whatsoever. Poverty, illiteracy, poor health [and] a high rate of mortality all plagued us well into the 1960s. We had nothing but our hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow and our belief in God."

Oil revenues allowed for a leap into the modern age. Even Dubai, often seen as the apogee of the instant city, has remnants of the pre-oil days but with the exception of Qasr Al Hosn, no trace of the Abu Dhabi that existed in 1960 can be found now.

Architectural commentator Salma Samar Damluji, author of The Architecture of the United Arab Emirates, said the cities of the UAE presented "a fascinating case study of the urban development that results when planning, architectural design and construction are wholly fashioned after the modern order".

Frauke Heard-Bey, a former Adach board member who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1967, described the availability of concrete, freeing the locals from the restrictions of only using the stone, adobe and palm wood and fronds that were available naturally, was the single biggest change prompted by the oil era.

Aspirations quickly raised to match the new wealth. Where once the residents of Abu Dhabi wanted a home that was not made of barasti, she said aspirations progressively increased beyond merely concrete homes to ones that featured electricity, piped water and then air conditioning.

Similar dramatic changes to transport - where donkeys and camels were replaced with cars - affected the urban fabric. In pre-oil Abu Dhabi, families would tend to stay within walking distance of each other.

When Sheikh Zayed became the leader of Abu Dhabi in 1966, there were only 100 cars in the future UAE capital but as car numbers increased, the new-found mobility allowed family members to move from the centre of Abu Dhabi to comfortable new homes on the outskirts of the city while still keeping in contact with their relatives.

Damluji says the dramatic changes from pre-oil to post-oil Abu Dhabi required an urban fabric that was entirely different from the organic and ramshackle network of huts that existed around the spring at Qasr Al Hosn in 1960.

The first phase of planned development began in the late 1960s, when Sheikh Zayed commissioned the Japanese town planner Katsuhiko Takahashi, then barely 30, to design the new Abu Dhabi.

Takahashi recounts that the overall brief was simple and sketched on the ground using a camel stick: "He [Sheikh Zayed] told me, 'I want trees and green', and so I gave him trees and green."

The plan that emerged is of an Abu Dhabi recognisable today: the original Corniche and the city's grid network, wide main roads and a much greener cityscape than Dubai. When Dr Takahashi began his work, Abu Dhabi was a town of 40,000 but his design was intended to accommodate 15 times as many.

Damluji said because Abu Dhabi effectively had no urban framework in the pre-oil days, unlike the communities in Bahrain, Oman and Yemen, it looked to the West instead of the past for inspiration.

She describes the end result as "a strange phenomenon, manifest in the polished concrete structures beside lush green gentrified boulevards - identifiable with an international trend for the development of skyscraper islands".

The western tradition of new towns was based on an industrialised society, which wasn't the case with Abu Dhabi. The result was an initial architectural legacy comparable only to Qatar and Kuwait, which also lacked any significant previous urban heritage in the pre-oil era.

The Abu Dhabi that emerged was not well received internationally.

In 1977, The Architectural Review devoted an entire issue to the Middle East, reflecting that "despite the great ancient cultures of the Middle and Far East, today none of the countries which belong to those cultures can, when under the pressures of development, proceed on any but western models, for the simple reason that only the West has so far experienced the process of industrialisation".

The UAE and other oil-rich nations in the region were extractive rather than industrial.

The magazine revisited the issue in 1998 but was even more unflattering about the wanton import of architectural styles designed for temperate climates.

"The glass towers and motorways of the West are ridiculously polluting and energy wasting in temperate climates. Pasted into hot, humid, desert and violently fluctuating climates, they become much worse," an editorial in the magazine stated.

"It is completely absurd, for instance, that in places blessed with abundant ambient energy from sun and wind, buildings seem designed to use almost as much irreplaceable and polluting fossil fuel as they can, partly to show how progressive and thrusting they are and partly because, in many places, the stuff comes up out of the very earth."

Damluji said that reflected as much the fixations of the western companies that set up practices in the UAE, seeking profitable contracts but with little knowledge of the local architectural vernacular.

Instead of communicating with the environment of Abu Dhabi island, the language of reinforced steel, concrete and glass in the new city seemed to ignore its location entirely. "A walk along the wide open boulevards of the new cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi," Damluji added, "simply reinforces a hollow fact: there is no language."

Even in the 1990s, buildings constructed in the late 1970s were being torn down. Part of the cause of that was poor build quality. In Abu Dhabi, a city short on water, right up until the 1990s builders would mix concrete using sea water instead of fresh and the salt content would begin to rot the steel reinforcing bars in the concrete.

By the early 2000s, the city had already grown far bigger than the 600,000 Takahashi had planned for more than 30 years earlier. The next phase of Abu Dhabi's development came when the emirate's leaders once again looked overseas for inspiration: this time to Vancouver, which was seen as a shining example of a revitalised waterfront city.

The just-retired head of planning in Vancouver, Larry Beasley, was brought in to create a plan for a city of up to three million people. He spent five years in Abu Dhabi and the Urban Planning Council's Plan 2030 is the result.

It will be for future generations to assess if this latest manifestation of Abu Dhabi's evolution will serve the city well. But it will be up to the architectural heritage activists of 2012 to convince the authorities to save the structures that show the journey Abu Dhabi took on its way there.

John Henzell is a senior features writer for The National.