'Any area that has a lot of people, I’m there' - Dr. Yasser Elsheshtawy
March 22, 2016
We had the privilege of meeting Dr. Yasser Elsheshtawy in his office a few months ago. After making our way across the confusing campus of the UAE University, we arrived at his office and discussed society, cities and the UAE pavilion. As the opening of the 15th Architecture exhibition of the Venice Biennale draws nearer, we share with you our discussion with the curator himself.
Image Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia
What do you think is the relationship between the past and the present in terms of built
environment in the UAE, before the era of iconic developments?
Relationship between past and present is interesting. Even in the context of the UAE, different
Emirates have different approaches of dealing with the past.
A place like Abu Dhabi, pre-1960s before the discovery of oil, was a primitive settlement unlike
Dubai. When oil was discovered urbanization spread and most of the past disappeared. If you
go to Abu Dhabi now there are hardly any historical structures. The oldest buildings are the
fort, Qasr Al Hosn and some structures like the Maqta Bridge and a historical watch tower.
Everything else is brand new. One of the reasons this happened is because the past was
associated with poverty. And people did not want to associate with that.
Dubai was on a similar path. For instance if you look at Bastakiya, it was much larger than it is
now and up until the 80’s it was occupied by squatters. I remember my first visit to bastakiya in
’87. At the time the historical preservation had only started but there were workers living inside
these houses. So one of them took us in and there were about a 100 people living there. It was
absolutely amazing. The floor had been removed and it was just a bizarre scene. And before
that in the late 70’s- early 80’s, Dubai Municipality was demolishing Bastakiya. They built the
Dewan which removed a very big chunk of the district. I’ve heard from many sources that
Prince Charles came on a visit and asked “Why are you demolishing it? You should keep it.”
That’s why we have what we have now, which is a much sanitized version of what used to exist.
The area near the market and Hindu temple was preserved. In some cases, these markets were
reconstructed. In Dubai these areas were realized as an asset, in terms of national identity and
attracting tourists. So the approach to the past here is different.
Sharjah has something very similar. Again it’s a reconstruction version of what used to be there.
It’s a little bit ambivalent about how they look at history. There has been a realization recently
that history is valuable and it can bring in benefits. But there is also the trend that looks at
these structures as something to get rid of and should be modernized.
What place do you think vernacular concepts have in our cities today?
When you look at vernacular architecture in other parts of the world, it is something that has
accumulated over the ages. We don’t really have that here. For example, Bastakiya is not
necessarily something that is expressive of local traditions. It was a land that was given to
Iranian merchants. They brought in their own traditions of buildings like wind catchers which
are Iranian. But over time people have adapted to use these symbols and they have used them
in different ways. In a sense, it has become traditional here. I don’t know if they can be called
vernacular but its a traditional way of building that people now seem to associate with the
There might be other ways of looking at vernacular houses, for example, the Sha’abi house. It is
a housing program that started under the ruler of Abu Dhabi in the ‘70s and continued in the
80’s and 90’s. It was basically a sort of modern house, with a square shape and a courtyard. The
experience of these national houses is different from Emirate to Emirate. In Abu Dhabi and Al
Ain, it’s a bit more organized but with the same concept. For me this is an excellent example of
vernacular architecture because it is something that people have adapted and added to, based
on their lifestyle. When they were designed they were not necessarily compatible with what
people wanted. Sometimes these are occupied by multiple generations.
What is the biggest challenge that architects face while designing built spaces that are
Sustainability encompasses several things. There is the environmental aspect of it. There is also
the social aspect, to have environments that are socially diverse and inclusive, buildings that
enable social interaction among people and so on. That has typically been my focus.
The biggest problem I see here is that there is a lot of focus being given to the environmental
aspect. You have various initiatives and guidelines like ESTIDAMA and LEED. The problem is that
they just tick off points, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the building will be sustainable.
Sometimes people just don’t want to adopt it as it is very expensive. What they say is that
initially it costs a lot, but over the run you will save a lot of money. It’s kind of a mixed verdict
My focus being on urban design, I think that the entire system of cities is not right. You can’t
have individual buildings that are sustainable, and then create conditions where you have to
move by car. That immediately defeats the idea behind sustainability. Public transport is not as
prevalent as it should be. Cities like Al Ain just keeps expanding horizontally because the
government here provides land for nationals which is a big problem. And also every time you
expand, you have to create infrastructure to support it. I think that the urban cities are just not
geared towards sustainable development. If we talk about cities it means you need to increase
density which means that people need to live closer to the center rather than move away from
it. So if you don’t do that all of these individual efforts will work at an individual level, but at a
larger scale it just won’t work. And this is the biggest challenge of sustainability.
What do you think are our next steps in moving towards reducing urban sprawl or bringing
everything closer. Do you see us moving in that direction?
I think that there is a realization in some parts of the country that this is important. If we talk
about Dubai for instance, the metro has the potential to create that sort of development
whereby people come back to the city. The metro stations are being developed and planned
now to incorporate principles of TOD (Transit oriented development). This includes
incorporating issues of walkability and increasing density around the station. For example,
Union Square Metro Station in Deira is incorporating these principles. In many cities throughout
the world, the biggest factor of an area being attractive is that it is located next to a major
transit node. People don’t want to drive cars. In places like New York or Manhattan you don’t
really need a car at all. So, Dubai has the potential to do that, but I don’t think it’s there yet.
The Urban Planning Council in Abu Dhabi is conducting studies to enhance the public realm and
increase walkability. So the effort and desire is there. One of the biggest challenges is that
citizens like to live in the suburbs which results in the city primarily being occupied by expats.
But I think eventually there will be a realization that this kind of development is not sustainable
in the long run. It is simply too expensive, resources are limited.
We’ve seen your talk on little Bangladesh. What are your criteria for picking an area to study?
Is it related to density, time or people?
I’ve been studying these areas for a while now. It started in Dubai. The main factor that I look
for is, when I see a large congregation of people, that then begins to introduce me to the area,
then I begin to walk around, to discover if there are more areas like that. Or if there is one that
is really the center of that neighborhood or that particular section of the city.
In the case of Abu Dhabi, that particular talk was about the area that I call little Bangladesh. I
discovered it by chance in 2004, and later in 2010. I was looking for areas in downtown Abu
Dhabi that attract migrant workers. Generally I’m interested in low income migrant workers,
and their interaction with the city. I feel that they are excluded from the overall development.
They can’t hangout in malls, so their only venue is the street. In the case of little Bangladesh, I
saw this gathering of people around a bus stop in one of these blocks in in the center of Abu
Dhabi city. So I kept walking and exploring that block till I came across this square that was just
packed with people. It was quite unusual. Then I came back 4 years later and this is where this
talk comes in. It was the actual research. I wanted to see if the area still exists and if it’s still a
In Dubai, I’ve done studies with a similar approach. I did a very extensive study in Dubai at Hor
Al Anz, Deira. It wasn’t like the central gathering area that I saw elsewhere. This was a self-
contained community. And I looked at the street and not at the square or plaza. It’s more like a
linear space, but then along the corners and street intersections I discovered these were really
gathering nodes, not in huge numbers but it still attracted people. So that was one particular
setting I studied.
Another was in Al Nasr Square, Baniyas Square. That’s not exclusively low income migrants; you
will find all sorts of people there.
Ghubaiba bus station was one of the first areas I studied in Dubai. I studied it in 2008, and I
went back there last year. If you go on a weekend to the metro station, it is packed. I found that
very unusual in comparison to the other places, as there were a lot of females. You don’t get to
see that in public spaces in Dubai.. Everybody was dressed up and it was like their day out. It
was very festive. The other places I looked at, like Hor al Anz, or the place in Abu Dhabi, it was
exclusively male dominated.
Any area that has a lot of people, I’m there.
Coming back to the biennale, as the curator, what characteristics of UAE are you looking to
The pavilion is commissioned by Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan foundation, which is a
philanthropic organisation. For the biennale every two years, a general director is assigned. The
last architecture biennale, it was Rem Koolhaas. This year, it will be Alejandro Aravena, a
Chilean architect. This was announced a few months ago. He sets the general theme. This
year the theme is called ‘Reporting from the Front’ which wants national pavilions to talk about
architecture that deals with challenges of the 21st century and to show an architecture that
goes beyond the iconic and spectacular. He wants architecture that challenges the status quo. It
is a very challenging theme. What can you really talk about?
The national house is what we felt is the appropriate response to that, primarily because it
shows another side of the UAE’s architectural landscape. When you mention the UAE to
people, it’s all about the image of skyscrapers which comes to mind. So it’s going to be about
the day to day lives of people and how people have created an architecture or how architecture
is created by people. There is a book called ‘Architecture without Architects’, which is an old
vernacular tradition whereby architects are not directly involved in the production of the built
environment. In this case it is not entirely true, because these buildings were initially designed
by an architect in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But then it was flexible enough to allow people to make
additions and changes. So architects provided the tools, with which people could modify their
environment. Again the modifications people made are highly controlled. If you want to make
any addition, you’d need to get permission from the municipality. So when you look at the
result, each house is different.
So I think an example of an architectural experimentation of sorts shows that for the 21st
century, as architects in some conditions, you need to step back and allow people to be
involved in the production of the built space. So that’s the universal theme and that’s
something that we would like to focus on. We want to move away from celebrating the
spectacular and the iconic and the other end of the spectrum, the historical and the traditional.
And even for the design of the pavilion itself, we don’t want anything that is representational.
We don’t want the Areesh or mashrabiya. It’s about the present and the contemporary
environment and how that has been changed by the people here. Moving away from the
historical and traditional discourse to something that is forward looking and progressive, which