This is a story from more than a year ago, when we participated in a very interesting workshop in Sharjah. The workshop was brought to the UAE by a research team called ‘Failed Architecture’ based in Amsterdam, in April 2014. They aim to raise questions that force you to look at architecture as built environment made complete with its social, political and cultural factors. Their main themes include space battle, myths of modernism, ruin and dystopia, future failure etc. The final outcome of this FA workshop was also showcased as an exhibition at Maraya Art Centre, in the form of a timeline. The timeline was created based on the Failed Architecture methodology, which studies five topics: built environment, social context, economics, political context and reputation over the years.
Timeline created during the workshop
A Little about Sharjah
Sharjah, the third largest of the seven emirates of UAE, was a small fishing village. It later became a permanent settlement thriving on transactions of goods between the tribal locals and port dwellers.With the launch of the oil-export economy, Sharjah set on a modernisation program that included the construction of the Bank Street buildings as part of an urban development plan by British company, Halcrow.It is the first modern commercial street of Sharjah. This wave of construction led to the destruction of traditional houses and the Al Hisn, which was partly saved from demolition.. The construction of these buildings was completed in 1983 and has been a vital part of the urban life since then. Sharjah is now undergoing rapid cultural development under the rule of His Highness Shaikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council member and Ruler of Sharjah. The cultural project is being carried out both in the form of preservation of values and traditions and promotion of cultural knowledge and growth. The list of projects that are in the pipeline is remarkable, most of it in the form of mosques, universities and art spaces. The emirate of sharjah ‘rebranded’ itself in a way, after the economic crisis, as the cultural hub of the UAE for tourism. Almost naturally, the central, historic part of Sharjah came into the limelight and the Bank Street buildings found themselves in the unfortunate position of not falling into that category. In spite of being symbols of modernism and iconic landmarks of the city, these buildings will be demolished. It will be interesting to see how the new environment merges with the old urban fabric. How fast can development occur for it to still seem natural?
Location and Surrounding
View of present day Bank Street, Sharjah
Buildings on Bank Street
Coming to the present day scenario, an urban plan reminiscent of the traditional spaces that were destroyed has been approved to replace the Bank street buildings. The ‘Heart of Sharjah’ project plans to turn Bank Street and surrounding areas into a heritage and cultural quarter housing museums, art galleries, mosques, souqs and a few residential units. Excavations were carried out to trace the foundations of the old structures, which was probably an attempt to make them as authentic as possible. It is the growing success and popularity of different art events in the city like heritage days and Sharjah art biennales that has created a need for more cultural spaces. One of the Bank Street buildings was in fact used as exhibition space in the 2013 biennale. The plan to include residences was a conscious decision by the planners to make sure the area remains lively at all hours of the day. It is being carried out in five stages and will be completed in 2025. It is currently in its second stage and it is this stage that will see the start of demolition of the Bank Street buildings.
The floor area will be reduced from 300,000sq.m to 28,000 sq.m. The residential units will go from 70 per cent to 15 per cent with the inclusion of more leisure and retail spaces. This makes it clear that the displacement of people is unavoidable and raises the question whether this has been addressed in the new plan.
The present opinion of the people about these buildings is divided. Some people think these buildings are unsightly and the new project is being welcomed with open arms. On the other hand, you have the residents of these buildings and other business owners, who do not want to leave, not necessarily out of admiration for these buildings, but simply because it is the lively Central Business District.It is a clash between progressive ideas and nostalgic reverence to heritage and culture. The fact remains that the existing Bank Street and Rolla area is the real beating heart of Sharjah and the new project would be a forceful intervention whose success or failure is hard to predict.
The aim of the new project is also to bring the local families that moved out in 1950-1960s back to the central part of the city. However, on the second day of the workshop we had an interesting talk by Shaikh Sultan al Qassemi who pointed out that there were no emirati families living anywhere near Bank Street at the moment. He expressed doubt over the willingness of these families to move back into this busy locality, which saw severe traffic congestion and overcrowding at peak hours. He also made a poignant statement that this historical lifestyle was a reminder of tough days, which brings back memories of hardship.
“You can’t stop the locomotive of modernisation – you can at most derail it. But you’ll be seen as an enemy of progress. Sometimes it is a good thing not to have money, because it preserves what’s already there.”
-Sheikh Sultan al Qassimi, on the second day of the workshop at Maraya Art Centre.
Proposal for Heart of Sharjah
View of the Heart of Sharjah
Architecture is the process of modifying our surroundings to make them more suitable to the lifestyle we want to follow. In the process we make forceful changes to the surface of our planet, which naturally would take thousands of years for the same degree of change. Therefore, decisions regarding these changes need to be contemplated thoroughly, with great understanding of the influencing factors. In the context of Bank Street, it might seem irrational to tear down the buildings which seem to be functioning perfectly simply because they don’t fit into the new scheme which focuses on tradition and culture. Its targeted users will undoubtedly welcome the new project. However, in the process, a chunk of history, which is the beginning of the modernist phase of Sharjah, is being erased with the Bank street buildings. It seems like a harsh reminder of the transient nature of buildings and cities. However, for the sake of history, they will be missed and hopefully not forgotten.
You can read all about Failed Architecture at failedarchitecture.com
Maraya Art Centre in Al Qasba, Sharjah is a dynamic, creative space that hosts workshops and exhibitions. Check them out here:http://www.maraya.ae