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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

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.

The university buildings in Al Ain are a good example of how arabic elements have been incorporated into Modernist design principles. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Arabic elements incorporated into the design of this building in Sharjah. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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 Airport (Al Mahattah), in the mid-1930s. Source UAE National Archives

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.

The Córdoba Buildings (aka Bank Street Apartments) are a large complex that was completed in 1977 by Spanish architects Tecnica y Proyectos (TYPSA). Photo ©Darren Bradley

Same as above. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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 Naser Lootah Building, designed in 1976 by Architects Khatib & Alami. Thanks to Sultan Al Qassemi for the information. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Sharjah Electricity & Water Authority building (aka Al Mutanabbi Bookshop Building) was designed in 1974 by Egyptian architect Ali Nassar of the International Company for Construction and Trade. Thanks to Sultan Al Qassemi for the information.Photo ©Darren Bradley

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 re-constructed fort can be seen in the foreground. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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's a whole series of these buildings in Sharjah, often with subtle variations on their concrete features. Would love to know more about them. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Sharjah National Travel & Tourist Agency (SNTTA), completed in 1976 by Spanish Architects Tecnica y Proyectos (TYPSA). Photo ©Darren Bradley
Photo ©Darren Bradley

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!

Reem Khorshid providing a tour to our delegation in Sharjah. Photo Haitham Al Mussawi


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.

Typical street in Deira, old town Dubai, near the Creek. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Old Dubai... narrow, winding streets and classic Modernist structures, bursting with life. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Not how most people think of Dubai, but very real and fascinating. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

View of Dubai Creek in the 1950s. Source: UAE National Archives

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.

Modernist buildings along the Creek. Photo ©Darren Bradley

This was built in the 1960s as a local branch of a New York bank. Some people claim that the screens on the facade are a Modernist interpretation of Mashrabiya (wood patterned sun shade screens found on traditional arabic architecture). But I believe this was built before any requirements to incorporate arabic elements into the architecture were imposed. Also, frankly, the same types of screens exist on buildings from that period from Brazil to Palm Springs to Miami to the south of France. So it's unlikely that there was a direct reference intended. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Too bad about that advertising... but love the building. This is the Deira Tower on Baniyas square. Completed in 1980. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Phoenicia Hotel on Baniyas Square in Dubai. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Another residential building in Dubai. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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. 

Architect John Harris with Sheikh Rashid, ruler of Dubai, in 1978 while on a site tour of the new World Trade Center building during construction. Source: John R. Harris Library, Dubai (and Todd Reisz)..

Harris also designed many buildings in the city, and is perhaps best known for his World Trade Center tower, which was recently restored.

Detail of the World Trade Center Tower by John R. Harris (1979)

View of the World Trade Center (now Sheikh Rashid Tower) in the early 1980s. For years, this tower stood as the tallest in the Gulf region. This was the beginning of the push for development outside of the Creek zone. Source: UAE National Archives

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.

Similar view as photo above today reveals a very different landscape. Source UAE National Archives

Today, most development in Dubai has been along the Sheikh Zayed highway south of the Creek, on the road towards Abu Dhabi.

Modern Dubai, looking southwest. Abu Dhabi is about an hour or so in that direction. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Most new development projects in Dubai since the 1980s have moved away from the Creek and southwest along the Sheikh Zayed highway that links the city with Abu Dhabi. Photo Darren Bradley

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.

Adina Hempel giving our group a walking tour of the architecture sites in Deira (old Dubai). Photo by Haitham al Mussawi

Abu Dhabi

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.

Abu Dhabi in 1958. Source UAE National Archives

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.

Katsuhisho Takahshi with Sheikh Zayed and the other leaders of Abu Dhabi discussing the plans for the city. Photo ©Raymond Depardon / Magnum Photos

Working together, the idea of Abu Dhabi's defining characteristic was born: the Superblock.

Strict height limits imposed through much of the 70s through the 90s created a sort of uniformity similar to Washington, DC. It also looks a lot like Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse concept (see below). Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Rendering by Le Corbusier of his Ville Radieuse concept, which looks remarkably like Abu Dhabi.

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.

Dr Abdulrahman Makhlouf and Sheikh Zayed in 1974, planning how Abu Dhabi should look as it develops from a small fishing village into the UAE capital. Photo: Courtesy National Centre for Documentation and Research

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.

Tall commercial buildings on the perimeter of a Superblock. Access to the interior courtyard spaces with the lower, more human-scale buildings can be seen on the right. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Low to mid-rise apartment dwellings, shops, schools, and mosques cater to the local communities in the interior spaces of these Superblocks. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Ummmm.... these are gonna hafta be a "No" from me, dog. Photo ©Darren Bradley

But the variety is fascinating, and there are some real gems in there.

Notice the pre-requisite Arabic detailing on this Brutalist Modern building. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Strangely, many of the uglier glass buildings here originally used to be Modernist concrete construction, but were "updated" at some point in the 1990s to make them look more 'modern'. I much prefer them in their original form! Photo ©Darren Bradley

Obeid Al-Mazru'i Building... It reminds me of the game Connect 4. Architect unknown, but sometime in the 80s, again. Photo ©Darren Bradley

And of course, everyone's favorite (mine included) Al Ibrahimi Building...

This building is often credited to an Egyptian architect named Farouk El Gohary. But I understand there's some debate about that. I have no idea either way. It was built in the 80s, although like so many from that period here, appears to be much older. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

New developments on some of the neighboring islands, which are part of the Plan 2030.

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.

Classic Modernist buildings such as this one sit on prime real estate, adjacent to new, much larger developments (Norman Foster's World Trade Center Towers are opposite). Buildings like these have virtually no chance for survival without preservation and protection. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

I was surprised to walk into this shopping mall and see a clear reference to Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin County Administration Center... See below. Photo ©Darren Bradley

See what I mean? This is the Marin County Admin Center, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

1980s interpretation of a classic 1960s Modernist breezeblock. This mall was apparently THE place to go for bootleg video games in the 1990s. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Sultan Al Ramahi giving us a tour. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Abu Dhabi's Bus Terminal is one of my favorite buildings in the country. I need to spend more time there.Photo ©Darren Bradley

I have too many photos of this place, as it is. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I was literally only there for five minutes, though... maybe less. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation was once shuttered and threatened with demolition. But it has now been lovingly restored (that tile!), and is again the heart of cultural and social life in the city. Photo ©Darren Bradley

With restoration and preservation, one could easily imagine the economic rationale for keeping these buildings becoming as important as the cultural rationale. This would include increased architectural tourism to visit the Modernist cores of each of these cities, including boutique hotels and districts akin to what has been done in places like Miami Beach and Palm Springs.

The Vegetable Market at Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I would like to express my profound gratitude to the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC (Dana Almarashi and Haitham Al Mussawi) and Meridian International Center (TK Harvey and Lindsay Amini) for making this trip possible. It was an incredible experience and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate. I'd also like to thank the other members of the delegation for making this trip so special.

UAE / USA Architecture Delegation. Photo by Haitham Al Mussawi


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