x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Out-of-use factory in Kalba to become creative hub

As part of an outreach programme by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), an out-of-use factory in Kalba will soon be revitalised into an arts centre to serve the growing cultural demands of the surrounding community.

The Kalba factory that will become Kalba Art Centre.
The Kalba factory that will become Kalba Art Centre.

Stepping gingerly over a layer of broken egg shells and encrusted feathers, it's hard to imagine that this will, over the next three years, become a creative hub.

That's the vision for an out-of-use factory on the banks of a protected mangrove swamp in Kalba, Sharjah's east coast fringe.

Once a facility for producing fish-based fertiliser, this 2,000 square metre space has long stood unused and become a nesting home to a menagerie of birds. But as part of an outreach programme by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), under the direction of its president Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, it will soon be revitalised into an arts centre to serve the growing cultural demands of the surrounding community.

"It will create space for workshops, touring exhibitions and a cafeteria," says Mona El-Mousfy, a Lebanese professor of architecture at the American University of Sharjah who heads up a team advising and conceptualising the project before the architecture firm GAJ get to work.

"These buildings from the 1970s can also be a layer of memory," she continues. "They were the beginnings of the oil boom. You don't necessarily have to look to heritage to find history."

With the angular, wave-like façade of the building intact, phase two of this former factory's refit will see the creation of a cinema and performance space and, according to Lana Al Samman, the interior design co-ordinator, small sea-view apartments to host visiting artists. It is one of three ambitious projects by SAF that looks at how existing buildings can be revitalised to accommodate Sharjah's increasingly robust cultural programme.

Designs for the Kalba project are being finalised, as is the rethink of an old marketplace in the town of Al Hamriya, wedged between Ajman and Umm Al Quwain, which will create studio space to accommodate eight artists.

Back in Sharjah central, just off Bank Street, we're taken to see how another of these projects has already advanced significantly.

"In this part of town, you have the city's earliest traces of inhabitation, some dating from the end of the 19th century," says El Mousfy, about the network of crumbling houses and ruins that sit behind Souq Al Arsa. "They were short-lived as houses, with people living there only from about 1900 to 1960. After the oil boom, people simply left and because the buildings were made from coral they quickly dilapidated."

SAF has taken the remains of this heritage area as a canvas to create six exhibition buildings and three open-air spaces in time for the next Sharjah Biennial in 2013

El Mousfy and Sharmeen Syed, an architect and researcher at SAF, show us around the narrow coral alleyways and explain that it's an extensive process of "re-use" rather than "renovation". Instead of restoring the houses to an imagined former glory, it's about drawing out their essence and exploring how certain structural flourishes can be translated into the contemporary.

The foundations of the old houses – which El-Mousfy calls their "traces" – have been used as guidelines from which to evolve suitable spaces. One cavernous building, for instance, uses the outline of three amalgamated housing plots to create a vast courtyard bordered by retractable glass walls.

Slits in the ceiling were common features in houses of the area as a means of ventilation. These have been incorporated into the new buildings but covered with glass, so as to naturally illuminate corridors and rooms.

But the most striking part of the project is the roof: using an efficient, chilled water-cooling system, rather than rooftop air conditioning units, has kept the elevation bare and perfect ground for discussions, performance and drinking tea under the stars. Bridges and walkways connect the buildings to create a public promenade through the area, and the surrounding creek, and blue tiled dome of a nearby mosque immediately comes into view. "These characteristics of the area become framed by the architecture," says Syed.

These older parts of Sharjah had previous government renovation in the 1990s. "It was based in part on aerial photographs," El Mousfy tells us. "Although they interviewed people who used to live there, it was very hard to get a true sense for what the buildings originally looked like.

"The restorers were afraid to move too far from the original buildings. This often meant that many of the restored buildings weren't properly ventilated, making them difficult spaces to use for exhibitions."

This recent approach to the area has been quite different. Coral is a limited resource, and one that quickly degrades without maintenance. So rather than trying to recreate these buildings by imitating old construction techniques, SAF's strategy has been to use more concrete but be more intuitive. "Often during restoration, there's an emphasis on the decorative, but we went for something more experiential," says Syed, as we inspect a meticulous model of the area's future. The suggestion is that it's more about suggesting and being inspired by the traces of what once was rather than trying to freeze it and create an illusion of age.

The project should be finished in time for next year's biennial in March. A lack of space during previous iterations of the growing event have seen curators scouring around the area for places to exhibit art, and this new art district will address that primarily.

But Sharjah Art Foundation also wants these to have a greater presence beyond biennial season. It has been showing that in the past 12 months with more exhibitions of new commissioned work throughout the year. With more space to play with, that can only grow.

Claudia Pestana is a curator at the foundation and has previously worked on a number of exhibitions in the city including the current group show What Should I Do to Live in Your Life? "If you look at the exhibitions that we've had, as well as the residency programme, you can see that this has been built on an idea of exchange," she says. "I would look at these new developments in light of the potential that you can see right now."