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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.