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.
But it is possible to date the buildings there, somewhat, if you understand how some of the local laws impacted design in the UAE. For example, by the mid-1980s, rules were established that mandated that there must be at least some arabic elements incorporated into the design of the buildings. This lasted for decades, and has only recently been abrogated.
But while this law was in force, it had both good and bad results. In some cases, it led to some very creative regional Modernism (see above). But in other cases, it often led to a lot of superficial pastiche being added to buildings, including using random arches and minarets where it would otherwise make no sense to do so.
Another surprise for me while exploring Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, was that each developed in very different ways. As a result, there are fundamental differences in the Modernist architecture and urban planning of each of these three cities that reflects their own unique identities. These differences are dramatic enough so that one can easily tell them apart at a glance.
I was able to visit the UAE twice this year, as part of two cultural exchange delegations that were sponsored and facilitated by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC, and supported by the non-profit Meridian International Center. For the most recent trip this fall, I accompanied a small group of architects and architectural photographers visiting significant architectural sites across Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. We were able to see some amazing sights, but also meet some wonderful people - sometimes to renew friendships I had made on my previous trip. We had the chance to do walking tours in each city, led by local architectural historians who focused on the mid-century modern architecture in each city. It was quite a privilege to be able to take part. What follows are my initial impressions about the character of each city, through the lens of their mid-century modern architectural heritage.
Perhaps the least well known of the three principal Emirates, Sharjah was actually the first to embrace the modern world. When the British were looking to establish an airport in the region to support air links between Europe and India, many of the Sheikhs were reluctant to support the idea because they feared the additional outside influences that such a facility would bring. Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi - the ruler of Sharjah at the time - was also reluctant, but eventually agreed to the airport in 1932. This became essentially the first Modernist structure in what is now the UAE. (The Sheikh also built a fortified hotel, complete with armed guards, for the passengers and crew. This was to protect against "possible but unlikely raids by bedouin").
Sharjah had always been a relatively prosperous Emirate, and had been a settlement and trading port continuously for thousands of years. With the establishment of the airport and also a major industrial seaport that the British established there at the same time, Sharjah became a major regional transportation hub and also a center for British colonial administration.
As such, the city feels more like a European city than the others, in some ways. There seems to be a higher concentration of early post-War/pre-oil Modernist buildings in Sharjah than anywhere else in the UAE, because there was development here that pre-dated the oil boom.
These buildings were highly influenced by the West - and predominantly Europe. As with other parts of the country, the buildings were often designed by European architects, or by Egyptians. Egypt acted as a counter-balance to the West in the Gulf region throughout much of the 1950s through the 70s, and they would often compete with the British colonial authorities and other countries in the West for influence in the region - often by sending teachers, doctors, and even architects to the region to offer their services for free, or heavily subsidized.
The layout of the city streets also feels the most European of three, and includes traffic circles (roundabouts), with broad, ceremonial avenues and rectilinear streets.
Like in other parts of the UAE, the rulers and inhabitants at the time had little regard for the existing buildings that made up the historic town and traditional dwellings. As a result, most of these buildings were abandoned or demolished, and the residents moved to more modern accommodations in new apartment buildings (and later houses). Even the fort, which once stood as the traditional center of the city, was largely demolished in 1970 and then partially reconstructed only recently.
The result today is a city that has a diverse stock of interesting Modernist residential and commercial buildings that is a joy to explore on foot.
There is also a dedicated group of people in the city who seem to be embracing Sharjah's unique Modernist heritage, and have started to try to identify and preserve these buildings before its too late. People like Sultan Al Qassemi and Reem Khorshid are doing amazing work on raising awareness, and are even working on a book!
Of the three cities, Dubai is the only one that still has a historic city core that pre-dates the modern era. While the buildings are mostly modern, the narrow winding streets and energy feel distinctly Middle Eastern.
The historic heart of Dubai is "The Creek", which is not actually a creek at all but rather an inlet that creates a natural shipping harbor.
The first Modernist buildings in the city were built along the banks of this "creek", and were hotels, banks, and offices that catered to an international clientele.
The architect who is most associated with the Modernist character of Dubai is John Harris, a British architect who trained in London, and laid the foundation of modern Dubai with its first urban plan in 1960, followed by an updated master plan in 1971.
Harris also designed many buildings in the city, and is perhaps best known for his World Trade Center tower, which was recently restored.
This tower was for years the tallest building in the region, and is a local landmark. The tower also represents the first move away from the historical center around the Creek, with expansion and development towards the south.
Today, most development in Dubai has been along the Sheikh Zayed highway south of the Creek, on the road towards Abu Dhabi.
Because of these efforts, there is a distinct separation between the historic Dubai with its traditional and mid-century modern structures, and the new skyscrapers, marina, and beach resorts to the south. Most tourists never see the historic sections, and tend to stay in the newer parts of the city.
Fortunately, architects and researchers like Adina Hempel and Todd Reisz are currently doing a lot of work to promote the unique nature of Dubai's Modernist architectural heritage. Adina gave our group a tour, and Todd gave us a presentation on Harris and his legacy - a subject that he has been working on for years.
Abu Dhabi has undoubtedly experienced the most dramatic changes of the three cities in the past 60 or 70 years. Traditionally, this city was nothing more than a small fishing village clustered around a fresh-water well on an island off the coast. In fact, the entire city is on a cluster of natural islands, surrounded by mangroves and marshlands.
Like for Sharjah and Dubai, the old communal village structures (known as barasti) were torn down in the 60s and 70s in favor of newer, modern buildings. The only pre-oil building in the entire city is now the traditional fort, Qasr Al Hosn.
By the early 1960s, oil had already been discovered in Abu Dhabi, and the city had started growing at a rapid pace - from only a few thousand in 1950 to over 40,000. There was a desperate need to develop a master plan to impose some order on the chaotic development. Urban planner and architect Katsuhisho Takahshi arrived in the city in 1967 to work with Sheikh Zayed, based on a recommendation from the Japanese ambassador to Kuwait.
Working together, the idea of Abu Dhabi's defining characteristic was born: the Superblock.
These monumental tracts of land were built around the automobile, with broad, sweeping boulevards that accommodate multiple lanes of traffic separating each block. The ideas behind Superblocks are very reminiscent of Le Corbusier's ideas on urbanism and Modernist living.
Takahshi's replacement, Egyptian architect Abdelrahman Makhlouf , arrived in 1974 with the desire to "Arabicize" Takashi's ideas. Within the Superblocks, he created a Modernist version of traditional Emirati housing that reflected the communal nature of how most locals preferred to live. It was Makhlouf who created neighborhoods on a human scale within the Superblock framework.
On the perimeters of each Superblock were tall, mixed-use buildings with lots of commercial structures - a legacy of Takahshi's original Corbusian design. Inside each block were more smaller, lower residential blocks, as well as schools, medical clinics, shops, and mosques. These effectively acted as almost villages within each Superblock.
The taller buildings that line the grand boulevards are frankly a mixed bag of architectural inspiration and quality, from all different styles - sometimes on the same building.
But the variety is fascinating, and there are some real gems in there.
And of course, everyone's favorite (mine included) Al Ibrahimi Building...
Abu Dhabi has now moved away from the Superblock concept, and is implementing a new urbanism plan is called 2030. Much of the new development on the outer islands (such as Yas Marina and the Louvre Abu Dhabi) are part of this plan, which intends to create world-class facilities and institutions to make Abu Dhabi a global destination.
The results so far have been impressive (I loved the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the racetrack!). One hopes just that in doing so, they will also restore and preserve their Modernist legacy in the original core.
Many of the Emirati residents who grew up and raised families in these buildings have now moved to more suburban-like homes on the outskirts of the urban core. Many of these shops and apartment buildings now cater to the foreign born populations, and the character of these spaces has evolved accordingly. But the city is still profoundly defined by the Superblock concept, and there is a strong nostalgia about these spaces.
While speaking with locals, including urban planner and Abu Dhabi resident Sultan Al Ramahi (who gave us a walking tour), I got a sense of profound nostalgia for these spaces, and the Abu Dhabi of the 70s through the 90s.
They were all able to relate personal stories about growing up in the city, talking about many of the buildings and neighborhoods we visited. Like in Sharjah and Dubai, there is a nascent recognition about the importance of restoring and preserving these spaces, as an indelible part of the city's character.
For such a small country, it's remarkable how rich and varied the UAE's Modernist architectural heritage truly is. Most of the country grew up living the Modernist ideas that were no more than mere concepts in Europe and America. And their national identity is intrinsically tied to this Modernist architectural heritage - even if it remains largely ignored today.
It is encouraging that we are now starting to see increasing grass roots interest in preserving some of these structures - including government support and new laws requiring heritage reviews before demolition of historic structures.