I had the opportunity to attend a talk titled'Lessons from the past: Reflections on Historic Architecture in the UAE'by Ronald Hawker in the beginning of the year. Here is a short summary interspersed with my thoughts and views.
Ronald Hawker at Zayed University, Source: Digital Heritage Blog
Being new to the UAE and not very aware of all that it has to offer I went in with a blank slate and came out with a buzzing mind that is still not at rest. The image I had of the UAE was that of a glamorous cityscape with tall glass buildings, a Western import of sorts. Of course I was amazed by the structural marvels like the Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab, but that was it. I had not spent any time thinking about much else. After living in Abu Dhabi for a few months I started noticing the inherent Emirati culture and Islamic design symbolized in bits and pieces. It was present in a lot of places, be it in the façade designs of some buildings, the railing at the Abu Dhabi Corniche, the snack stalls with geometric motifs all over and the newer buildings housing cultural activities. However I felt that it was not enough of an accurate representation of the architectural history of the place. This is also a thought that Hawker echoes. He feels that contemporary architecture in the UAE is led by people raised on western design principles and thought processes derived from modern architecture. I also feel that these prototypes are very Le Corbusier-en in terms of form but lack all of the functionality he stood for. There is poor choice of material and unsuitable design prototypes derived from an entirely foreign culture and climatic system. Traditional architecture here used materials like stone, mud, palm fronds etc along with elements like wind towers for cooling. There is a complete disconnect between the old and the new.
Hawker touched upon a few different topics over the course of the hour. It made me think of the Gulf Area before oil. It was even then a vibrant and thriving society. Hawker spoke about how historic architecture in the UAE had two major sets of challenges, environmental and social. The biggest environmental challenges being high temperatures, limited running water and limited building material. The solutions that he mentions are, in my opinion, the very basis of the form and function of vernacular architectural practices. He spoke about the use of passive cooling strategies that take into account the material and immaterial conditions of the site. These include groundwater being supplemented by innovative water carrying and storage systems and the use of simple building patterns that allowed for building material to be harvested from the surrounding physical environment that was then supplemented by imports, especially of hard wood.
Ronald Hawker at NYUAD, Source: Author
The next set of challenges he speaks about are social in nature, mainly, religious requirement for gender segregation and tribal affiliations. There was also the use of multiple resource sites through the year, wherein, the community would settle down in one place for a few months of the year and then pack up and go to another site for the remaining months. Clearly, this has contributed in the design and aesthetics of the housing systems as well as in choice of building material. Some solutions to the above challenges are houses that are structured around the idea of controlled access to private spaces with external facades and high walls to limit external view points, individual structures laid out in interdependent patterns that keep tribes and sub tribes together, simplicity and portability in structure and material. This is achieved by simple design principles and a fixed program that is designed for versatility in space usage. An example of this is the courtyard. Traditional Emirati houses feature heavy use of the courtyard. This space serves many purposes.
Apart from the more obvious function that is air circulation, it is a social area and the most used part of the house. As the sun moves through the day, shadows are cast all over the courtyard in different directions and of varying sizes which provides relief in the harsh desert climate. It is also better ventilated than closed spaces and hence is a place of constant activity and is used through the day for different functions. The Majlis is another design element that has taken shape from the social need for a gathering space.
Climatic considerations have led to innovative elements like ventilation holes in the house which result in the lowering of inside temperatures to a great degree. The housing blocks are oriented such that no house looks on to the other thus solving the need of gender segregation and privacy. The units are arranged in a way that there is scope of expansion and new units can be added as the family expands.
These are some of the topics touched upon in the lecture. It was a great introduction to the vernacular heritage and architecture of the UAE and what it was like before the discovery of oil. It has served as a stepping stone for delving deeper into the subject and I hope to learn much more in the process.
All in all, traditional architecture in the UAE has stemmed from generations of fixed cultural practices, social structures and climatic challenges. With the rapidly increasing Emirati economy and influx of Western ideas, media and commercial avenues the social fabric of the Emirati peoples is changing greatly. With this change the social parameters that guided architecture in the past are also changing and the only thing that remains constant is the climate. Contemporary architecture needs to bridge the gap between the older need of cultural elements and the ‘McMansion’ style so prevalent today.
More about our guest author, Arushi Chitrao.
An architect by profession and a traveller by passion, Arushi loves visiting new places and learning about new cultures in depth. She has worked as an architect in Gangtok in the state of Sikkim from 2014 to the end of 2015. She is back to Abu Dhabi now and exploring the UAE since the beginning of the year. She plans to further her career in Urbanism. She is passionate about photography, writing, creating healthy recipes and has recently caught the running bug. Check out her blog.