Abu Dhabi architecture: Inside John Harris's diplomatic home
Few architects are as closely associated with the rapid growth that defined the UAE’s early years as John R Harris, the designer of Dubai's World Trade Centre and the British Ambassador's residence in Abu Dhabi
In 2014, the curators of the UAE’s national pavilion for the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale recounted the story of the country’s urban development to an international audience for the first time.
Entitled Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory in the UAE, the pavilion focused on a crucial moment, the 1970s, when the newly established nation not only looked to invest in its infrastructure but also began to use architecture as a means of expressing the scope and scale of its ambitions on the international stage.
The impact of mega projects such as the Burj Al Arab, Burj Khalifa, Masdar City and the Louvre Abu Dhabi on the UAE’s international profile is now well understood, but Structures of Memory looked at the impact of an earlier generation of buildings such as Dubai Airport’s Terminal 1 (1971), the Blue Souk in Sharjah (1978) and Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation and National Library (1981).
Of these, only one structure needed no introduction to the wider public. John R Harris and Partners’ 1979 World Trade Centre in Dubai not only features on the back of every Dh100 banknote, but still stands as a recognisable landmark on the Sheikh Zayed Road even after 38 years of breakneck development.
More than an icon or a moment in architectural history, the building had an impact that was felt city-wide, acting as fulcrum that helped to redirect the pattern and direction of Dubai’s development in Abu Dhabi’s direction.
Built before the completion of the Sheikh Zayed Road, it was the earliest example of the UAE’s now familiar “build it and they will come” approach to planning.
“When HH Sheikh Rashid decided to pursue the World Trade Centre in either 1973 or 1974, a collection of buildings that would include an exhibition hall, a Hilton Hotel, and a 39-storey office tower known as Rashid Tower, he confounded all of his advisors, who criticised both the size and the location of the project,” wrote the architect and historian Todd Reisz in the catalogue that accompanied the UAE pavilion. “More than four kilometres from Dubai Creek, it promised trade where there was none to be found.”
A British architect who became a trusted advisor to the Ruler of Dubai, Harris deserves to be far better remembered in the UAE and understood as a forerunner of contemporary architects such as Norman Foster – the designer of Masdar City, Abu Dhabi’s World Trade Centre Towers and national pavilions for both the Shanghai and Milan World Expos – who have been entrusted with high-profile projects that have helped to define the country’s architectural self-image.
Not only did Harris design Dubai’s World Trade Centre and two master plans for the city, its first in 1960 and a second in 1971, but he also designed Dubai’s Rashid Hospital, which was built in 1973 and is still operational on the Oud Metha Road, near Dubai Creek.
Harris’s work in Abu Dhabi is less well-known. Drawn up in 1962, his first project for the capital was an early master plan that stands in stark contrast to the city’s existing grid, imposed by later planners on Abu Dhabi island as if its sands were a tabula rasa.
“An examination of some of his recommendations and the prepared master plan reveals that he is not trying to erase the “existing city” – but instead his additions attempt to blend the new city centre with the existing morphology,” the architect and historian Yasser Elsheshtawy writes in Informal Encounters: Mapping Abu Dhabi’s Urban Public Spaces. “This is also reflected in the proposed road system, which is designed to accommodate the existing urban form.”
Other than the plan, which sits in the John R Harris and Partners archive, the only other reminders of the architect’s contribution to the capital are two very discreet diplomatic residences, one for the United States and one for the British Ambassador.
Of these buildings, it was the British ambassador’s residence that made it onto the list of architectural milestones that were used to tell the UAE’s architectural history at the Venice Biennale.
Although there are no details of Harris’ commission, the decision to build a new residence was a definite response to the diplomatic changes wrought by federation in 1971 when overnight, the United Kingdom’s political agent to Abu Dhabi, James Treadwell, became its first ambassador to the UAE.
The original residence, a simple two-storey structure designed in London in 1956, offered little or no scope for the kind of entertaining expected of an ambassador, and was therefore no longer fit for purpose. But it was to be a full decade before Harris’s building was completed and occupied in 1981.
For Mark Bertram, author of Room for Diplomacy: Britain’s Diplomatic Buildings Overseas, the slow pace of the residency’s completion is no surprise as only five were built for British ambassadors worldwide between 1968 and 1983.
In his book, Bertram defines the 1970s as a moment in which “a great deal of effort was expended on achieving relatively little” following failed projects in Bonn, Copenhagen, Madrid and Tokyo.
“John Harris’s approach to buildings was commonsensical, pragmatic and humane, and the residence is dignified, but not showy. It’s not glitzy, but it works well,” explains Bertram, who trained as an architect before joining the Overseas Estate Department at the UK Foreign Office, where he worked for 30 years. “I’ve stayed in the building a couple of times and I rather like it as a house. I think it’s a modern, quiet, humane answer to the brief.
“The people who did the commissioning and briefing of architects like Harris knew a great deal about what worked and what didn’t around the world,” Bertram adds. “They were able to set a fairly firm brief or in discussion in the early stages of development of buildings they would have been able to make sure that it would have been operationally efficient and not too overly architectural.”
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Surrounded and overlooked as it now is by ostentatious buildings such as the 73-storey Landmark Tower, Harris’ residence appears to be a relatively unremarkable villa by UAE standards, but from the inside, the building’s restrained elegance and subtle strengths are self-evident.
Arranged over two floors with a wraparound balcony shaded by traditional screens, or mashrabiya, the residence is organised around an atrium with design that echoes the traditional courtyard houses of the region.
As Marco Sosa, an architect and assistant professor at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University explained at the time of the Venice Biennale, the residence uses a layering technique to achieve the sense of calm and privacy that pervades the interior.
These begin at the perimeter of the embassy compound and proceed through the garden, the mashrabiya and the outer rooms, which envelop the private rooms and inner core of the house.
Other than a small downstairs study, the whole lower floor of the residence is described by the building’s current occupant, Philip Parham, British ambassador to the UAE, as a “representational area” that requires only three people to keep the residence running: a housekeeper, a chef and a butler.
“It’s an interesting oasis amongst the increasingly dense forest of high-rise buildings that surround us,” says Parham, who has lived in the residence since 2014.
“It’s not huge and it’s not lavish, but it serves its service pretty well because it’s such a flexible space.
“We had an event last week where the living room was set up like an auditorium, but we were able to receive guests in the hall before moving outside for supper.”
If some of the house’s subtler details are easy to miss – the reception hall is lit with natural, indirect daylight thanks to an ingenious, octagonal skylight, for example, and the banister features a winding grip that is carved into its rail – the artwork on display in the residence immediately grabs guest’s attention.
Owned and curated by the Government Art Collection in the UK, the residence boasts one of the best small collections of modern and contemporary art in the capital, including photographic works by Bill Culbert, Hamish Fulton and David Bailey, prints by Cornelia Parker, an etching by Dame Elisabeth Frink and concrete poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Looking at an eerie mauve and purple hologram of Queen Elizabeth II, a gift from the governor of Jersey, Parham admits that not all of the works are to his liking, but he and his wife have offset some of the more challenging pieces with family photographs and bold canvases painted by one of their sons.
“It’s a great part of diplomacy to have your family involved and it can have many positive impacts,” the ambassador explains, diplomatically. “It makes people who are invited here feel that they’ve received a personal rather than institutional invitation.”
Updated: July 16, 2017 12:25 PM