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Mid-Century Modernism in the UAE: A Tale of Three Cities

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

Iconic Mid-Century Modern buildings in Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi (left to right). All images ©Darren Bradley

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.

View of a traditional Emirati building in Old Dubai. Note the narrow alleys (which provide shade during the day) and the "barjeel" (a wind tower, which evacuates warm air out of the building while also catching cool breezes). Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Historic photo of the Al Maqta watchtower in Abu Dhabi in 1950 - but it might as well have been 1650... well, except then there wouldn't be any photos... There was no bridge connecting the islands, but the water was shallow. You had to wait for the tide to go out to cross. Source UAE National Archives

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.).

Historic photo of Levittown, New York in the 1950s. Source: Levittown Public Library

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.

Historical photo of Abu Dhabi in 1964. Note the fort, the Qasr al Hosn, in the foreground. This was the home of the ruler, Sheikh Zayed, and is the only building in this photo that is still standing today. The fort is now surrounded by high-rises in a dense urban core. Source: UAE National Archives
View from the courtyard of the same fort as above, the Qasr al Hosn. The two large towers in the background are the World Trade Center by Sir Norman Foster. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Article in Fortune Magazine about American expatriate life for oil workers on the Arabian peninsula. Source: Raja’a Khalid, from an exhibit I saw at the Jameel Art Centre called "Crude", curated by Murtaza Vali.

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.

The old district of Sharjah has recently been rebuilt and converted into an arts and culture district. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Old quarter of Dubai along the Creek that is being reconstructed and restored, and converted to museums and other cultural institutions. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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?

Ancient wall built from chunks of coral taken from the Persian Gulf. Note it is now illegal to remove coral, so this irreplaceable. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation is a brutalist masterpiece, designed by The Architects' Collaborative and completed in 1981. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Modernist building of the type that is typical in Sharjah. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

The Abu Dhabi Main Bus Terminal was designed by Bulgarconsult A&E and built in 1983. In any other part of the world, you would easily date this building to be at least 20 years older. Photo ©Darren Bradley