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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.