Sandra Piesik aims to raise awareness of the potential modern applications of an ancient craft with her new coffee-table book.
Book reawakens interest in ancient palm-leaf architecture
It isn't the most prepossessing of images. The pit is rectangular and not terribly deep. A line of circular holes, roughly a metre apart, arcs across its base. There is a smattering of pale shards of plaster that look for all the world as if they need to be swept up and disposed of. No matter how long it is puzzled over there is little hope of making sense of the picture without expert guidance or some sort of key, because the significance of this image, of the pit and the holes and the shards, doesn't really lie in the scant offerings on view.
Archaeological site D11 on Delma Island is the location of the earliest evidence of the use of date palms in building in the history of south-east Arabia. The holes cut into the sediment once housed date trunks, packed round with plaster to fix them in place, while mats of tightly woven palm leaves - known as daan mats - were strung between these wooden anchors. This was where a community settled during that portion of the year when they cut pearls. These remnants are the architectural DNA they left behind, its traces still discernible 7,000 years on.
To all intents and purposes all that is visible is the negative image of a picture, and a life, long lost to history. But to Sandra Piesik this marks "the beginning of the story" that she has worked for years to tell. Truth be told, her effort has converted the subject into much more than a story. For this Polish-born architect it has become a cause to champion for which she has travelled across the seven emirates in a campaign that has lasted more than six years.
Last month saw the publication of Piesik's book on the subject, Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture. This month she will appear at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, discussing the work described by publishers Thames & Hudson as "the first comprehensive publication dedicated to recording the special place of date palm-leaf architecture in the UAE's cultural heritage".
Site D11 is central to the work. By Piesik's own admission the subject matter is "niche", yet she believes it touches on something fundamental and far reaching. To her it speaks of culture and heritage, history and identity and the transfer of knowledge key to maintaining a valuable - and ecologically sustainable - connection between human expansion and development and the environment.
"This is the core of the Emirati nation," she explains. "But it is in danger of being lost. A culture dies and becomes extinct if you fail to transfer learning from one generation to the next. This is the case with arish.
"The people who used to live in these houses are still alive but they are getting old and they are dying. The younger generation has maybe 10 years to learn the skills before it's too late. Because once it is gone that's it. It is gone forever. If you don't transfer the knowledge, and find a contemporary use for this material that is so bountiful here, then this will be extinct."
It is impossible to spend any time in Piesik's company and not be caught up by her enthusiasm, her sheer passion, for a subject that has turned this Royal Institute of British Architects-accredited professional into an accidental campaigner for a heritage not her own. Similarly, it is impossible to leaf through the pages of the beautiful book she has created and remain untouched by the series of images - historic and contemporary - of the emirates, and this particular craft in all its subtle variations, and remain unmoved. Part academic resource, part pictorial archive, part authorial crie-de-coeur, Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture, is Piesik's attempt to collate a disparate history and to pin an oral tradition to the page. For the sake of consistency the author has chosen the term and spelling "arish" to describe all the palm-leaf structures across the emirates, though they are known colloquially by different terms and the spelling of arish itself varies. The success of the book is in the extent to which it is a calm distillation of all the energy and knowledge that has taken Piesik across the years, across the emirates and across considerable obstacles.
It is a coffee-table tome, divided into five sections: a Photographic Overview, Palm-Leaf Architecture of the Emirates, Design Details, Contemporary Applications and finally Resources. Among the most fascinating - and certainly the most mesmerising - is the Photographic Overview of the emirates as they once were. Many of the photographs were taken by the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who was one of the first Europeans to explore the Empty Quarter, in 1948. Others were taken by oil companies, notably BP and Adco, and others come from among the hundreds taken by Dr Anne Coles. Now a geographer at the University of Oxford, she worked as a volunteer in a malarial unit in Ras Al Khaimah in the days before the union, when her husband, Sir John Coles, was a British Foreign Office official assisting in that process.
Page after page of bleached-out, black-and-white pictures show a world far removed from the skyscrapers and commerce of today. Donkeys laden with daan mats and pots of water, solitary figures crossing all but blank desertscapes, salukis dozing in the shade cast by resting camel caravans, dhows becalmed in Dubai Creek and entire cityscapes consisting only of low-rise coral houses and the palm-leaf structures that have so inspired Piesik. It all seems so unconnected to the thrusting architecture and skylines of today. Yet the captions reveal just how recent this "other world" is - these are pictures from the 1950s, '60s and even'70s.
According to Piesik, "Maybe 80 per cent of people in the UAE lived in these palm-leaf houses until the '70s. The last ones were here until the '80s when the roads were built across the deserts and the final houses torn down."
The very proximity of it all informs Piesik's sense of urgency - her awareness of the necessity to catch at least a few grains before the sand runs through the glass entirely.
Indeed, the purpose of these pictures is not to encourage whimsy or nostalgia. It is to serve as a pressing reminder of the value of vernacular architecture. It is to act as a counterbalance to the "copy and paste" approach to so much of today's building, where a western ideal, unrelated to the realities of the climate and the demands that it places on people and structures, is simply transposed onto the desert.
It is, Piesik says, "to offer alternatives", while the knowledge and the evidence of those alternatives remains. She asks, "What should we do? Should we erase history? Demolish buildings after 25 years and keep repeating the same building typology in London, Doha and Kuala Lumpur? Paradigms of indigenous architecture offer alternatives.
"Vernacular buildings have responded to climate and landscapes for thousands of years. Indeed, they both offer the best lessons for environmental sustainability and position architecture in the cultural context."
When Piesik and I first met, more than a year ago, she was in the midst of learning those lessons first hand. She had already gleaned much of the cultural context and the theory. Piesik moved to Dubai in 2005, working for an international firm of architects at the height of the emirate's expansion. At one stage, she realised, she was working on 33 different projects amounting to a budget of Dh40billion. Yet what struck her more than anything was the "disconnect" between the buildings being commissioned and the land on which they were being built.
"We were using lots of glass," she recalls. "That heats up, it gets covered in sand. So you get air conditioning, you pump water to clean it ... this is not sustainable. I felt there must be a space for a more thoughtful way of building for both climate and people."
The search for that more thoughtful way led her to arish, to the pictures of Wilfred Thesiger and to hours spent driving across the emirates – his photographs of Liwa Oasis in her bag – as she travelled around, pointing to the images and asking people what they could tell her about houses like this.
But while at least some of the theory was there, a practical understanding was lacking. Then came a chance meeting. At Liwa Date Festival in 2009 Piesik met Fatima Khamis Al Fendi Al Mazroueui. Fatima had lived on the edge of one of the largest deserts in the world all her life – a few kilometres beyond Liwa. Bedouin to the core, the childhood memories she shared with Piesik were of living in an arish house. She sketched the outline of such a house – in reality five or so separate palm-leaf huts, each with a unique purpose: kitchen, bathroom, family room and so on. Piesik describes that meeting, and that sketch, as “a turning point”. It led to the Liwa Arish House project – which saw the women and the local community construct one complete arish house in Mougab where a village of them stood as recently as the 1980s. At the time of our first meeting that project had just been completed and it seemed reasonable to assume Piesik’s campaign had come to an end. She had gathered a great amount of information – from the subtle variations in palm-leaf architecture as manifested across the emirates, to the delicate part the manufacture of it played in the social life of communities. Soaking the palm leaves, stripping fibres from the trunk to make rope and weaving the matting was predominantly women’s work and although it was hard it was also sociable. The location of the settlements was dictated by the seasons and their activities – pearl cutting and date farming. In every way these houses constituted the fabric of their inhabitants’ life. With the Liwa Arish House Project, Piesik had not only gathered this, she had also galvanised a municipality.
But, as far as Piesik was concerned, by the time that was complete her personal arish project had morphed into something much more. It had become about saving something that, once lost, is irreplaceable. To save it meant casting it wider and casting it forward. It meant finding a bigger audience and finding contemporary applications for the material beyond heritage villages and arts and crafts stalls.
Back then, Piesik had started talking about the possibility of compiling a book on the subject. But it seemed frankly far fetched, not least because of the niche-appeal factor. Then, a few months later, an email arrived in my inbox saying that she had a contract with Thames & Hudson. The book was really happening.
The appeal, for editor Lucas Deitrich, lay in “Sandra’s enthusiasm and expertise in the subject, at a time when there is a reawakening in architecture and the importance of applying vernacular building traditions to contemporary design”. The challenge for him was, he says, “three-fold”; how “to represent a serious body of research in an appealing way that would bring new interest to the subject across the region and around the world; distil an enormous and often difficult to identify body of work on a very focused subject into a large-format illustrated book that would have broad appeal; make the book attractive to contemporary designers and architects who are mainly preoccupied by glass, steel and concrete.”
Bit by bit, in the year or so since our first meeting, Piesik’s paid work has been squeezed out by the all-consuming project of arish research and her efforts to fund it. She has written letter after letter and had meeting after meeting. There have been significant breakthroughs. Engaging the interest of the Khalifa International Date Palm Award, whose director-general, Dr Zaid Abdelouahhab, was an early and, according to Piesik, constant supporter, was vital. For Zaid, who has worked in the field for more than 30 years and has been based for the past 12 in Al Ain, where he is director or the Date Palm Research Organisation, working under the umbrella of UAE University, “this work is important because nobody knew 30 years ago where the UAE would be, and without heritage and culture society would lose a lot”.
Zaid hopes that Piesik’s work will heighten a general awareness of “the risk that such culture and habits are disappearing ... to wake up the decision makers and say, ‘Hey, something is in the process of being lost. So let’s save it together’.” He says, “Sandra’s book was something we wanted to encourage because with it a lot of things have been saved and a lot of research done that could offer a huge opportunity for development.” Zaid hopes to establish a national museum of date palm as both a cultural touchstone and a resource for future research by ecologists and environmentalists looking for sustainable ways of living in an inhospitable climate.
Piesik says that without Zaid’s support the book could never have happened. Her own part in all of this, one might reasonably have assumed, would be all but over with the publication of that book. But somehow, by virtue of her sheer enthusiasm, Piesik’s gift is to convert each “end” to her story into simply another step along an ever-lengthening path. The publication of the book is no exception. This time last year that was a goal in itself. But before the first copies had gone to press she had embraced another “challenge”, by signing a contract with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London, committing herself – at considerable expense – to staging an exhibition of her work in their South Kensington headquarters.
Actor Michael Palin, who was made RGS president in 2009, is one of the many voices to have endorsed the book. He has described it as, “A rewarding and beautifully illustrated study of a little known, but remarkable, style of architecture. Adding, “The detail, of both its history and construction, is absorbing. Its sustainability is significant. There is much to be learnt here.”
Yet at our last meeting in January, that impressive book was literally pushed to one side by Piesik as she shared plans for her RGS exhibition in April. Daan mats were being manufactured in Al Ain and were ready to be shipped to the United Kingdom. There, on a manicured piece of lawn in South Kensington, before the RGS Headquarters – coincidentally just across the road from the UAE Embassy – a team of volunteers would construct an arish house. The images of Delma Island’s excavations would form the central history section of an exhibition which would to some extent dismantle the book that had only just been completed – picking apart the process once more and setting it out for all to see. The anthropological importance would be underlined – the work as a document of traditions under threat of extinction. The environmental potential would be laid bare and there would be an additional element, she explained. “There are 42 million palm trees in the Emirates. That’s approximately 420 million redundant palm leaves every year. The problem with this material is that it doesn’t have any mathematical property. So to be serious about finding contemporary applications you have to make it into a language that engineers will understand. I’ve been working with the most sophisticated structural engineers in the world – Wolf Mangelsdorf, who is the director of Buro Happold – these are the guys who can make it happen, who can take it to the next stage.”
Because with Piesik there is always a “next stage” and there is always a white-knuckle funding drive to get there. So perhaps it should have come as little surprise when, at our meeting at the turn of the year, over coffee and cake as serious talk about the project was interspersed with social chatter, Piesik suddenly announced: “All I need now is Dh1.5 million.” I’m sorry? “Dh1.5 million,” she repeated. “I need it by the end of the week.” At the time she had raised just Dh1,000 towards her target and there was, rather understandably, a fixed quality to the smile on her face as the possibility of defaulting on the contract, signed with the RGS some months earlier, loomed. But as Piesik put it back then, “There is no ‘can’t’.” The exhibition – like the book, and the Liwa Arish House project and the odyssey across the emirates that had preceded it – had simply gathered too much momentum to be stopped, or even diverted. It was happening. The money would be found. And found it was with the support of the UAE Ambassador and a string of meetings and persuasive pitches.
Of course, now that the exhibition funding has been secured, Piesik is thinking of the “next stage” in this ongoing saga. “With this exhibition I think the message can be accessible to one million people – the exhibition will have 7,000 visitors, the BBC website will feature it, the RGS magazine will feature it,” she says.
Piesik admits that this interest has eclipsed pretty much all others in her life. But that is, she says, the way it must be. Because however flexible and open to events Piesik may have proved herself over the years, on this one point there is no negotiation.
“I feel I need to finish this,” she says. “But the story is evolving all the time. Really, I sometimes think, ‘Will it ever be finished?’ I don’t know. But I have to do this.”
Sandra Piesik will be giving a talk entitled The Arish Revolution: Structures, Tradition and Cultural Identity in the UAE, as part of the Emirates Airline Literary Festival on Friday March 9 from 6pm–7.30pm at the new Heritage Venue, Dubai Festival City.
Laura Collins is a senior features writer at The National.