Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 March 2018

History hides in a diamond that has long lost its sheen

The loss to Abu Dhabi’s urban architectural legacy was caused by the gradual fall into disrepair of many of the capital’s older, mixed-use buildings.

There were once more than a dozen of this type of mixed-use building in Abu Dhabi. This example, on Airport Road, now scheduled for demolition, is one of the last. Lee Hoagland / The National
There were once more than a dozen of this type of mixed-use building in Abu Dhabi. This example, on Airport Road, now scheduled for demolition, is one of the last. Lee Hoagland / The National

If deterioration and decay were reliable guides to a building’s age, the part-ruin, part-relic that stands crumbling near the junction of Al Saada Street and Airport Road would undoubtedly qualify as an ancient monument.

At first sight it appears to have suffered from some kind of bombardment. Many of its windows are boarded up, rusting steel reinforcement bars emerge from its pockmarked concrete and bands of burgundy paint peel from its facade.

Like a rotten tooth, the two-storey structure is dwarfed by its taller, shinier neighbours yet despite its dereliction the building still functions, just, as a residence and a place of work.

Up on the first floor, hidden from view, piles of shoes, pushchairs and cricket bats testify to the presence of the families who still call this building home while outside a small garden nestles on the shaded, cooler side of the building, a small oasis of tenderness on a plot that is otherwise devoid of tender loving care.

Three commercial tenants remain next to businesses that, in the case of Golden Eagle Decor, were vacated several years ago.

Kingdom’s Daughter is a dilapidated workshop run by a Bangladeshi tailor who specialises in alterations to shaylas and abayas. Ahmed Awad’s Agricultural Supplies is a surprisingly smart-looking purveyor of irrigation equipment and seeds while The Diamond is a one-woman, multilingual typing operation that specialises in the completion of bureaucratic forms and letters of no objection.

“The baladiya [municipality] have said that this building is no good for people,” said one tenant, who asked not to be named. “The owner told us. He said that maybe after three months, khalas, this building will be finished.”

Like so many of the old buildings in downtown Abu Dhabi the only certainty about this building is that its days are numbered, but other than that it resists inquiry, standing resolutely mute.

One of the main challenges facing anybody who tries to write the architectural history of Abu Dhabi is the absence of publicly accessible archives or papers that might record a building’s name, age, architect or builder and thanks to the transient nature of so much of the city’s population, occupiers rarely know very much about a building’s past.

Despite this anonymity, buildings such as The Diamond, to give our anonymous block a name, are rather more than just another of Abu Dhabi’s rapidly disappearing slums.

Like old photographs, they have the capacity to transport the interested observer to another time and place, as long as you are prepared to dig.

A whole host of The Diamond’s details suggest that the building may date from the mid- to late 1970s, a period when Abu Dhabi was being rapidly transformed by the country’s new oil wealth and the need to accommodate the waves of workers who were then flocking to the city.

At this time, planning restrictions limited the height of buildings and at some time in the late 60s or early 70s, more guidelines were issued that allowed buildings to cantilever out by 1.5 metres at their first floor to increase the available floor space beyond each building’s ground-floor footprint. The result was the curious step feature that defines so many of Abu Dhabi’s modern buildings, a feature that also defines The Diamond’s facade.

The other factor that suggests a relatively early date for our gem is the fact that it was once a much-replicated building type that was obviously built to meet pressing commercial, demographic and urban needs, the Abu Dhabi equivalent of the mixed-use shophouses that are now associated with old Singapore.

Until quite recently, at least a dozen identical “diamonds” could be found scattered along Airport Road, Al Falah, Salaam and Hazza bin Zayed streets and all followed the same pattern – tailors’ workshops, vehicle repair shops and groceries on the ground floor, homes on the first.

Exactly when they were built or whether they were all the product of the same owner, architect or builder we will probably never know, but their proven resilience and flexibility suggests that these diamonds deserve at least a minor footnote in Abu Dhabi’s urban history.

Whatever its age or lineage, The Diamond does something that many of its more illustrious and more cherished architectural neighbours cannot.

Not only does it testify to the lived experiences of Abu Dhabi’s expats and its poor, but it also speaks to a time when ordinary Emiratis became city dwellers, property owners and developers for the very first time.

It is a material memory of a profound social and cultural revolution whose repercussions are still playing out.

As part of their conservation, Qasr Al Hosn and the Cultural Foundation Building were recently subjected to internal and external laser scans that mapped their every detail, even capturing the undulations of the old fort’s coral walls.

Somebody should do something similar for The Diamond, and quickly, before yet another chapter in the city’s fragile memory is irretrievably lost.

Nick Leech is a features ­writer at The National.