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[Finally!] Exploring the United Arab Emirates (Part 1, Abu Dhabi)

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi was completed in 2007 and is considered one of the largest in the world. Photo ©Darren Bradley

So I finally got the chance to visit the United Arab Emirates. I know I have a bit of a reputation for traveling all over the place, so some people may be surprised that I had never been before. And considering all of the architecture happening in Abu Dhabi and Dubai these days, there's really no excuse, I know.

The Qasr Al Hosn is the old fort and royal palace in the center of Abu Dhabi. It includes both an inner fort, built in 1795, and the outer palace (seen here), built during WW2 (1939-45) Photo ©Darren Bradley

To be honest, there are lots of places I wanted to go. Yes, it was on my list, but it wasn’t at the top of my list. I had seen photos like everyone else. But I wasn’t sure it was really my vibe… I guess I saw it as a sort of "Las Vegas of the Middle East". I’m not really a big fan of the real Las Vegas, either. Still, when I got an invitation to visit the country, I accepted enthusiastically. If I’m going to go someday, what a better way to go than as an invited guest of the host country? Turns out, most of my pre-conceived ideas about the place were wrong. It's amazing and quite fascinating!

Masdar City, designed by Foster & Partners and completed in 2010. More on this in a bit. Photo ©Darren Bradley

So a few months ago, I got an invitation out of the blue from an organization based in Washington, DC called the Meridian International Center. They asked if I was interested in being part of a cultural delegation of artists and art professionals to visit the UAE, as invited guests of the UAE Embassy in Washington. My first thought was: “Is this for real?” My second thought was: “Have they mistaken me for someone else?”

A little googling revealed that Meridian works with the US State Department and various other countries to facilitate cultural, political, and economic exchanges. They were established in 1960, and have been doing lots of programs of this sort since then. I assumed they would eventually get back to me and apologize for the mistaken identity, retract the invitation, and that would be that. So before that could happen, I quickly accepted and packed my bags.

The itinerary revealed a fairly packed seven-day tour, with a mix of contemporary art fairs (we would be there during Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennale), museums (Louvre Abu Dhabi, Jameel Art Center…), cultural institutions (Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, Etihad Museum), and other points of interest. I was a bit concerned, because I’m hardly an expert on contemporary art. I also noticed that most of the other delegates came from the art world. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not really my scene and I wasn’t sure I’d have much to contribute.

This fear was reinforced when I met up with the three other members of the LA/So Cal contingent of our group in the Etihad lounge at LAX on the flight out there. They all moved in the same circles and shared the same friends, so immediately began throwing out names of people they knew in common and artists and galleries and such in a flurry that made my head spin.

Turns out, though, everyone was extremely nice and instantly made me feel welcome. The organizers - from Meridian and the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - did an amazing job of facilitating the meetings, and everyone there was also fantastic.

Photo of the group by Haitham Al Mussawi

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and the largest of the seven Emirates that make up the country. Most of the government administrative functions are located there, but it's really got a bit of everything.

For the geographically challenged, the UAE is a federation of 7 Emirates, situated on the Arabian Peninsula, on the Persian Gulf. It shares a border with Saudi Arabia and another with Oman (in two different locations). Qatar was originally also part of the federation but withdrew over various disputes in 1970.

Each Emirate has a very distinct identity, look and feel. Abu Dhabi is mostly a string of coastal islands, linked with bridges (at least the city is that way...). The Emirate is a combination of desert and mangroves/reclaimed marshland along the coast. It was beautiful and not too hot when we were there, although I understand that temperatures can get very high in the summer... with unbearable humidity.

But enough yapping. I'm guessing you're not here for a history or geography lesson, let's look at some architecture.

Masdar City

Masdar City's Multi-Use Hall. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Our first day was mostly free and not everyone had arrived yet, so I decided to explore Masdar City with one of the other guys on the tour, Australian photographer and artist George Byrne.

Masdar City is planned community in the desert about 10 miles outside of the city of Abu Dhabi, near the airport. It was designed by Foster & Partners. Foster's design team started its work by touring ancient cities such as Cairo and Muscat to see how they kept cool. Foster's team found that these cities coped with hot desert temperatures through shorter, narrower streets - usually no longer than a couple hundred feet in length. This has the effect of pushing hot air upwards and creating corridors of cooler air and shade within.

Masdar City by Foster + Partners, with the modern interpretation of traditional Arabic mashrabiya screens and balconies. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Buildings in this region also have heat chimneys, which can carry the heat from the buildings up and out, and capture cooler air from breezes above.

You see them in nearly every traditional building in the region...

These towers serve several purposes, but also act like heat chimneys, carrying the warm air out of the buildings, and capturing cooler breezes. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Masdar applies these principles in several ways. The city has thick terracotta walls decorated with traditional arabesque patterns to shield the buildings from direct sunlight and warm winds. There's also a wind tower modelled on traditional Arab designs sucks air from above and pushes a cooling breeze through Masdar's streets.

The site is raised above the surrounding land to create a slight cooling effect. Buildings are clustered close together to create streets and walkways shielded from the sun. The result is that the temperature in the streets is generally 15 to 20 °C (27 to 36 °F) cooler than the surrounding desert.

Modern version of the wind tower as Masdar City, designed to keep the air around the buildings cooler. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Also, vehicular traffic is generally restricted to the lower level, away from pedestrians. Most locals know Masdar for the little, driverless pod cars that shuttle people around the community.

Here's one of the driverless pod cars that bring people around Masdar City.

The terracotta-colored buildings also incorporate a modern interpretation of traditional Arabic balconies and patterned screens, called mashrabiya.

Construction began on Masdar City in 2008 and the first six buildings of the city were completed and occupied in October 2010. However, the global financial crisis which nearly sunk neighboring Dubai also took its toll in Abu Dhabi. The ambitious plans were scaled back considerably, and also delayed. The final phase was supposed to be completed in 2015, but has now been pushed back to 2030 at the earliest. Of the 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses planned to occupy the site, only 2,000 people and a few businesses currently occupy it, including a university.

Auditorium at Masdar City, used by the univesity. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The university, which is a branch of the local Khalifa University, seems to be the largest current occupant of the site.

Photo ©Darren Bradley

There's one major corporate tenant, as well, Siemens...

Siemens' regional HQ is also part of Masdar City. It's a LEED Platinum building with a funnel-shaped courtyard that uses the venturi-effect to force hot air up and out, while cooling the air below and around the complex. The screens also shield it from direct sunlight and help keep cooling costs down. It was designed by Sheppard Robson. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Ferrari World

I also had enough time to check out Ferrari World while I was there. Yes, Abu Dhabi has a Ferrari-themed amusement park. It's on Yas Island, which is billed as "the Entertainment District" of Abu Dhabi. The complex also includes a water park, an absolutely gigantic shopping centre, and of course, a Formula One racetrack that holds a Grand Prix race every year.

Anyway, back to Ferrari World. You access it from the neighboring shopping mall. Like the mall itself, Ferrari World is absolutely ginormous.

Bridge that connects Ferrari World to the mall, and is the principal entrance to the complex. I probably should have held the camera level, though. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Oddly, it actually feels smaller inside than from outside. Usually, it's the other way around with domed buildings - they tend to feel larger inside.

Inside the Ferrari World amusement park. Ferrari may want to stick to cars... I asked them if they had any Porsches. They didn't think I was funny... Photo ©Darren Bradley

Emiratis love shopping malls, yes. This is stating the obvious. And yes, partially it's because they have a lot of disposable income and they enjoy spending it in malls. But also, it's because they are air conditioned, and in many months of the year, it's really the only way to escape the heat.

The same rings true for their amusement parks - many of which are actually also completely enclosed in giant, hangar-like buildings. That explains why Ferrari World is built this way.

The Ferrari World structure itself is quite impressive. But to be perfectly honest, the inside felt a bit unfinished and sad inside. Several of the rides, including the main roller coaster, were down for maintenance indefinitely. And the place seemed a bit empty. The restaurants were all shuttered, too. There were little miniature Italian cities and landscapes throughout, but they seemed like they were made of papier mâché, and reminded me of a neighborhood miniature golf course. I was expecting something at least on par with Legoland inside, and this was not that at all.

There ARE a few actual Ferraris scattered around to look at, and that was the best part for me. I would have liked to see more. Some of them were actually just mock-ups, rather than actual cars. I was also hoping to get to drive a few, but none were available for that. Just karts...

There were several different gift shops scattered around, too, of course. I was hoping that at least one of them would be selling gear from other Formula One teams or other car marques, but no. All stores carried essentially the same exact Ferrari-branded clothing.

I also asked someone else if they had any Ford GT40s. They didn't find that funny, either.

After my impromptu day on the "entertainment island" of Yas, we started our official tour on the "culture island" Saadiyat. Abu Dhabi is creating entire districts/islands with themes like those above. Saadiyat's concept is still in its infancy, and will ultimately one day contain multiple museums and performing art centers by architects you've heard of, and other cultural institutions. For now, it really only has two that I saw: the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Manarat Al Saadiyat.

Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I already wrote a dedicated blog post about the Louvre Abu Dhabi, so I won't go into it here. It was my favorite thing in Abu Dhabi. You can find all that here.

Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Manarat Al Saadiyat appears to have been originally intended as a visitor center and temporary exhibition space, until some of the museums like the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the new Guggenheim are built.