Mention to people that you went to the United Arab Emirates to photograph mid-century modern architecture and you're likely to get a lot of blank stares, or maybe even a laugh. When thinking about UAE, most people really only think about glittering skyscrapers in the desert - and maybe a beach resort or two. Of course, you'd be forgiven for thinking such a thing. That's pretty much all you see in the tourist brochures, films, and news reports about the place. But dig a little deeper and you discover a wealth of mid-century modernist architectural heritage in the UAE. Turns out, the country established its national identity and developed its infrastructure during the same period when Modernism happened to be the prevalent architectural language in the world. The United Arab Emirates is fundamentally a modern country, with Modernist architecture at its core. In fact, the tenets of Modernist architecture and urban planning largely helped to define the character of the country as we know it today.
The United Arab Emirates is a very young nation. It was established on 2 December 1971, formed from 6 Emirates (see map below for the list... a 7th Emirate, Ras Al Khaimah - the pink one on the map - was a holdout but joined a couple of months later).
Prior to independence, the country had been a protectorate of the United Kingdom for centuries, and was known as the Trucial States.
The main criticism that we often hear about the UAE is that this is a country devoid of history, or any sense of place. Of course, that's not true at all. The people of the region come from an ancient and rich culture, and the traditional architecture is reflective of both Arabic and Islamist designs from around the Persian Gulf, and with elements unique to the Emirates.
But the narrative of a city rising from the sand in the Arabian desert is a popular theme. Even historical photos from less than a hundred years ago reveal only tiny villages made of mud brick and coral blocks, where there are now large cities.
In the West, urban development and architecture are often referred to in the context of pre-War and post-War, as World War 2 was a major event which led to significant changes in how people lived, and how cities were designed (i.e. post-war reconstruction, movements to the suburbs, etc.).
But in the UAE, the most defining event in the country's history is undoubtedly the discovery of oil in 1960 in Abu Dhabi (and soon to follow in other Emirates, as well). So architecture and development are probably best described in those terms: pre-oil vs. post-oil.
This distinction is important not just because of the injection of large amounts of new capital into the country, but also the presence for the first time of large foreign populations: especially Americans, Brits, and European engineers to develop the oil industry, and South Asians from India and Bangladesh who provided much of the manual labor for construction. The influx of these populations dramatically changed both the culture and the architecture - away from traditional, communal structures towards western-style stand-alone villas and large apartment buildings.
Most of the traditional pre-oil structures have long since disappeared - razed on the orders of the rulers of the time, or abandoned by the local populations who were eager to embrace modern, western conveniences and ways of life - especially once air conditioning became common. Many of these old districts are now being rebuilt, with the idea of re-creating the historic hearts of these cities, and to help give them a sense of history and identity that they otherwise lacked.
Historic buildings are very effective at creating a sense of place and cultural identity. So it's easy to understand the motivation for recreating and/or restoring these long-vanished traditional buildings again today. I am personally all for the idea, as long as they remain authentic in their construction and don't descend into a sort of historical pastiche of kitschy caricatures. After all, many European cities were rebuilt brick by brick after WW2, so why not do the same in the UAE?
Alas, what many people fail to understand still is that this need for preservation and sense of place doesn't stop with traditional architecture. The identity of the UAE is fundamentally intertwined with Modernism, and therefore also extends to Modernist buildings and city plans created in the 20th century.
What I noticed while traveling between the Emirates of Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi is that each city has a Modernist core of historic buildings in its city center, which are considered "ancient" by UAE standards.
Another thing is that "Mid-Century Modern" seemed to happen a bit later in the UAE than in other parts of the world. So it's often difficult to identify a date of construction - at least compared to what we would assume based on what we would see in Europe, the US, or Australia. For example, there are buildings there that were designed in the late 1980s, that look like something you'd see no later than the 1970s in Europe or the US.