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Modern Architectural Heritage, Lina Ahmad and Marco Sosa

The UAE’s modern heritage, whether monuments, buildings or neighbourhoods, is a result of the collective experience that narrates the emirate’s transformation from the 1960s to the present day.

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 oil 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.

We talk to Lina Ahmed, Associate Professor and Chair of Design and Marco Sosa, Architect (RIBA) and Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Research, both at the College of Arts and Creative Enterprises, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, about modern architectural heritage n the UAE and how it is shaping the identity of Islamic heritage and architecture for the future.

How is architecture and urban planning an indication of art, culture and heritage?

We remember asking this question to our students, Architecture is a lasting direct reflection of art, culture and heritage, it might not be as fast to respond as film making and fashion design, but it will last longer. Modernism was a direct reflection of machination and mass production. Contemporary architecture of the 21st century including parametrism is a reflection of the fast paced, quick thinking social media, potentialities produced from design software digital fabrication and automation. Likewise, urban planning address how the different architectural interventions are brought together. It very much follows similar trends and addresses the same issues, but looks also to the experiences in between. Relationships between the various nodes of inhabitations as forms of communication, connectivity and distribution; networks that houses within existing, revived and instigated forms of cultural adaptation, heritages identity and art vitality.

Why is archiving the history of architectural and urban development in the UAE in the early days of the founding of the nation, during the 1970s-1980s, necessary to facilitate our understanding of modern heritage in the Middle East?

This question is connected to the previous one. We are dealing with a particular period that is crucial as representational of the development of this country. The period you mention is also known as ‘Etihad’ representing the time of unity, rapid progress and development never witnessed before. The 1970’s and 1980’s represent a period of architectural ‘awakening’ where everything could be possible. It is so embedded in the spirit of the union, that it still is! Archiving, preserving, maintaining and most importantly re-using buildings from this period is crucial as it allows 21s Century residents of UAE cities to see the immediate past. A community cannot be made of the very old; Qasr al Hosn, Albidiyah mosque and the ultra-new, EXPO site, Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre, Burj Khalifa and Louvre Abu Dhabi. Architecture defines the built environment of a nation and also its past. These buildings have their cherished place in residents’ hearts and minds. Buildings such as the Cultural foundation, Abu Dhabi Airport, Al Bateen Mall, Sheikh Zayed Stadium (Abu Dhabi), Bank street, Blue Souq, (Sharjah), Sheikh Rashid Tower (WTC), Dubai petroleum building, Rashid Hospital, (Dubai). Some are high profile, some are small and modest but have served the community and deserve some respect and attention. A lot of these buildings are extremely flexible and can be adapted to be reused for new and different purposes.

Saying that, we are not advocating to preserve every single building or structure. What we are calling for is documenting them and acknowledging the role they played in the city’s development. And to have a criteria to assess what to preserve, what to adapt and what to demolish. Built environment that is getting constructed today uses different materials and construction methodology than that used on in the Etihad period. Many of these building are demolished with the memory remaining only in their past inhabitants memory. Having an archive is a form of preserving this nation’s history and recount an accurate accumulative history to the future generation.

Can you tell us more about what is being done to document the modern architectural heritage of the UAE?

In the past two decades, the UAE has developed various initiatives and projects to document and protect modern heritage buildings. These include restoration projects such as that of the walled historic centre of Sharjah (1990), followed by the creation of Sharjah Heritage area (an initiative instigated by the ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah) in addition to the protection and restoration of Al-Fahidi neighbourhood in Dubai (spearheaded by Rashid Mohamed Bukhash).

Other initiatives launched by governmental bodies such as the Abu Dhabi Department of Tourism and Culture, directed by Amel Chabbi and Hossam Mahdy, reflect an awareness of modern architectural heritage.

Similarly, academic interest has fuelled great publications such as the Abu Dhabi Guide by Pascal Menoret (NYU Abu Dhabi), documenting some of the capital’s modern heritage buildings built between 1968 and 1992, work by Yasser Elsheshtawy (UAEU), essays by George Katodrytis and Kevin Mitchell (AUS) focusing on projects from the UAE, and the Lest We Forget UAE initiative, by Michele Bambling, documenting Emirati life and culture through a public collection of photographs, later published in a book series and several exhibitions.

All these initiatives planted seeds in the collective consciousness of the nation to increase awareness and instigate action, recently manifested in the last three UAE national pavilions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture- Lest we Forget- Structures of Memory in the UAE (2014), Transformations- The Emirati National House (2016), and Lifescapes beyond Bigness (2018). Finally in 2019, the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development in partnership with Zayed University launched the Zayed Institute for Architecture, Heritage and the Arts.

Other forms of interest are reflected in artists, animators and illustrators interested in highlighting the importance of these buildings in their work. Artists such as Emirati urban planner Sultan Al-Ramahi and his vector drawings, Hussain Al-Moosawi and Ruben Garcia Rubio’s architectural photography, and robotic drafting and plotting by media artist Patrick Lichty as well as conceptual art based on architecture of the modern period by Emirati artists Afra Al-Dhaheri and Asma Belhamar.

We, as educators, mainly work with our students as they are the future keepers of their own nation. They are graduating as designers who will be dealing with these buildings. We try to incorporate adaptive reuse in our curriculum as much as possible so they become accustomed to dealing with these buildings. We have introduced design projects based on buildings such as the Cultural foundation, The national theater, Al Bateen mall, Abu Dhabi bus station and ADNOC residences. We also introduced a survey methodology in the studio to produce a series of facades; as 2D drawings and as 3 dimensional relief models of buildings from this period.

Recently we started working with Abu Dhabi department of Culture Authority (DCT) with buildings from the mid 20th century that have been ‘rescued’ and are awaiting to be used for something. We have introduced the use of 3D scanning and point Cloud digital modelling along with BIM software and traditional methods to produce a series of recordings of these buildings along with a possible ‘afterlife’ for them. We have written extensively about our methods in order to help other academics gain an insight not just on the problem but finding a solution at an academic level.

We also believe that we are instigating a slow but a steady grass roots change. Our students are tomorrow’s professionals and custodians of their nation’s modern heritage. We believe that they will carry over the various encounters and experiences they had. The seeds of thought and awareness we are implanting, will find their way to flourish and instigate positive change.

The modernist architecture and urban planning of the Emirates sits within an international framework, and demonstrates the interplay of international influences with a local vernacular. What can this tell us about the UAE being at the crossroad of the East and West?

It shows how dynamic, open minded and inclusive the UAE is towards architecture. The nation has a great history of important collaborations. These collaborations demonstrate how brave the leadership is to allow experimentation and fulfillment of grand projects to make sure the residents’ needs are met through the built environment infrastructure. There is a need for an identity, but this has been expressed in various forms. Sometimes not so subtle, but other times the local vernacular is expressed by buildings taking into consideration the climate, culture and availability of materials. Several of UAE modernist architecture have illustrated how global principles can be applied into regional settings taking into consideration local parameters, and result in structure that are routed in their neighborhoods and well situated within their society and passage of time. To us this demonstrates acknowledgment of local vernacular and not an expression of style. A style constricts architecture, it limits its expression.

In 2012, you published a photography book about the oldest functional mosque in the UAE. The book is titled "Al Bidiya Mosque, A visual Essay" . Why was it important for you to document this history?

(Marco) When I first arrived in this country I was \ aware of the uber-contemporary architecture produced in the UAE. I was not aware there was any architecture older than 100 years! To me it was a delight to ‘discover’ this wonderful, unassuming, little place of worship tucked in by the coast in Fujeirah. When I tried to research about it, there was a limited amount of information available. So, I decided to produce something simple that informs and educates the reader. The book is a collection of images that capture the mosque during a particular time in its history. The process used help me develop a methodology that I then applied in my courses and we, with Lina, still use in our research.

In 2014, you were part of the curatorial team as Head of Design, for the First National Pavilion for the UAE at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. What was that experience like?

(Marco) It was an honour to be part of such a great team headed by curator Dr. Michele Babling. It was a task that brought so much responsibility and helped cement the UAE’s presence in the Venice Architecture Biennale. This presence recently culminated with the amazing accolade of winning the Golden Lion award by the UAE’s contribution in 2021 by curators Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto.

What defines an interior space and how does this shape our understanding of architectural heritage?

We spend most of our time inside spaces. Specially in countries where we experience extreme weather like the UAE. This is why Interior architectural Design education is so important. Some may argue, even more important than architecture as building often get built only once, the interior chances constantly over the lifetime of a building. We must understand the relationship of the building’s structure, outside and inside to be able to produce spaces that are efficient, financially viable and aesthetically pleasing. Surrounding exterior conditions are very much an integral part of how a structure is occupied, used and inhabited. Respecting and reusing Architectural Heritage is one of the best expressions of environmentally conscious design. These buildings are upscaled and given a new lease of life to be enjoyed by future communities.

How does modern architectural heritage impact memory making and our understanding of space?

Massively! As human beings we travel through space, cities by memory, instinct and our senses. As city dwellers, these buildings don not just became landmarks, but they also represent our past and accommodate our present in preparation for a future. How many landmarks, buildings and structures are remembered in our lifetime? How many of these played a role in our development in our cities? The definition of ‘heritage’ in UAE and interesting and unique to some extent. The past and present are very much related and compressed into a compact time frame. The past UAE generation have witnessed and took past in this development. They witnessed or remember the initiation of many of these buildings. They occupied, used and interacted with them. And also witnessed their transition to the ‘heritage’ category. Today, they look at them and see an array of momentums whose accumulation led us to where we are today. Their aspiration for the future generation is built on their memory of active involvement and fast-paced transition.

We are all for development, being in-par with the world and ensuring today’s young nation at the fore front with their knowledge, aspirations, and contributions. But we also believe in the uniqueness and individuality that comes from a deep understanding of regional local context paired with a global awareness. Space experience is an accumulation of momentums, accumulated through intervals of time and forms of inhabitation.

How is modernist architecture of the UAE shaping the identity of Islamic heritage and architecture for the future?

We think we need to reflect for a second on the definition of Islamic heritage, as again it is very much situated with the society forms inhabitation. To many, Islamic architecture is defined by Islamic pattern decorations, arches, and dome. To us however, Islamic heritage signifies social trait, preference, and customs. This is seen on many levels and have changed it form and identity through time. The repetitive façade pattern on many of the modernist high-rise building resembles geometrical interplay of light and shadow but is also a semi-private thick occupied strata the mediates the transition between the public outdoor and the private indoor. The spatial room organizations in many of the residential settings takes into account the element of privacy. And on an urban scale, the morphology of Abu Dhabi city superblocks always housed a mosque within its center, in proximity to the surrounding residential neighborhood.

We also acknowledge that there are several great examples of modernist architecture in the UAE that captures the identity, but has also a more direct association with ‘Islamic heritage’. King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah completed in 1987 is one of them. What really interests us is the new wave of contemporary mosque architecture that captures the essence but also interprets a more contemporary vision of Islamic Architecture. Examples include Palm Jumeirah Spine Mosque formally known as Abdulrahman Al Siddik Mosque by Yaghmour Architects in Dubai 2011, Al Warqa’a Mosque by waiwai architects in Dubai 2016, Qasr Al Hosn Al Musallah Prayer Hall by CEBRA in Abu Dhabi 2019, and more recently Mosque of Mohamed Abdulkhaliq Gargash by Dabbagh Architects in Dubai 2021.

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


Lina Ahmad is currently employed as an Associate Professor and is the Chair of Design at the College of Arts and Creative Enterprises, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. Ahmad holds a Master Degree (MArch) from the Architectural Association, in London. She has over 10 years of UAE professional experience working across different sectors and project stages; ranging between design work from proposing alternate schemes to detailing and executing architectural packages, participating in projects’ execution and site supervision. Ahmad works at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi at the capacity of Associate Professor and also holds the position of Chair of Design. Her work has been awarded and exhibited, including contributions for the National Pavilion UAE at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. Her work has been published and presented at various conference around the world. She is passionate about Modern Heritage and is an advocate of digital fabrication technology and its impact in regional Interior Design education and UAE Creative Industry.

Social media:

Instagram: @lina.ahamd

Twitter: @LinaAhmad_arc

Marco Sosa is an Architect (RIBA) and Associate Professor and the Assistant Dean of Research at the College of Arts and Creative Enterprises, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. He holds a BA (Hons) and a postgraduate diploma in Architecture, and a MA in Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources from the London Metropolitan University. In 2012, Sosa published a photography book about the oldest functional mosque in the UAE. Sosa has also designed, participated and curated exhibitions, nationally and internationally. In 2014, Marco was appointed part of the curatorial team as Head of Design, for the First National Pavilion for the UAE at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Rem Koolhaas. The exhibition and catalog featured many of Sosa’s photographs. Sosa is interested in materials, their presence as space forming medium adding materiality to a ‘place’ and how to integrate digital fabrication techniques in the studio for Interior design learning.

Social media:

Instagram: @marco_sosa_uk

Twitter: @MarcoSosaUAE


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