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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

House hunting Abu Dhabi style - the good life through the keyhole

I have a habit. A form of urban rambling that some people might find alarming, but that I like to think of as pre-emptive house hunting.

The Abela building in Khalidiyah, Abu Dhabi, a little bit of Miami Beach on Abu Dhabi's Corniche.
The Abela building in Khalidiyah, Abu Dhabi, a little bit of Miami Beach on Abu Dhabi's Corniche.

Whenever people come to my house, they often comment on the absence of the kind of toys that one might expect to belong to a man of my age.

There is no sports car in the drive, no panoramic television in my living room and no fetid sportswear to clog my washing machine.

As a result, people often tell me that I need a hobby, but that’s only because they don’t realise I already have one all of my own – a form of urban rambling that some people might find alarming, but that I like to think of as pre-emptive house hunting.

Requiring no special equipment or expensive purchases – wearing sportswear actually puts one at a distinct disadvantage – my particular brand of property parkour relies on the foibles of Abu Dhabi’s real-estate market: namely the ability to walk into almost any building in the city and, once you have handed over your ID, to be welcomed in.

I’m aware that doing such a thing in any other city might attract suspicion, but if you’re looking for somewhere to live in Abu Dhabi, the best way to find it is by asking the security guard on duty if he has any vacancies.

Nine times out of 10, a bunch of keys will soon appear, and guided or otherwise, you will soon have access to all of the units that are vacant.

For anyone like me who is interested in architecture, or even if you’re just nosey, engaging in this live action version of the TV show Through the Keyhole not only beats online house hunting, but it also takes all of the stress and panic out of moving.

After nine years in this city, I now know all the neighbourhoods and the even the precise buildings that I would like to live in and that I can afford, so when I do have to move, my shortlist is drawn up and ready.

Drifting through the city like this is also enormous fun, not least because of the disparities between the facades of Abu Dhabi’s buildings and their interiors, which are often cavernous and delightfully outrageous. Apartment blocks from the late 1990s and early 2000s are best, built as they were at a time when budgets were more generous and building ownership was a matter of one-upmanship and personal prestige.

Often sporting acres of travertine, intricate tiling and penthouses with rooms and views that would put a Bond villain to shame, these older properties are imbued with a somewhat faded, Sunset Boulevard sense of glamour, something that’s certainly the case with the Abela supermarket building near Abu Dhabi’s Corniche.

A pistachio-and-custard-coloured alp, the building’s massed balconies are pure Miami, and the whole development – apartments above, shops and restaurants below – looks like a vast ocean liner that has been moored on the wrong side of the beach.

If the outside of the Abela building charms, its internal spaces pack a punch that’s breathtaking and entirely unexpected, featuring walkways and landings that are reminiscent of the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 building near Barcelona.

Bofill’s project took its name from a novel, Walden Two, which was written in 1948 by a behavioural psychologist, B F Skinner, about an experimental community founded on the ideas of the American writer and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

Now famous for his ideas about what constitutes a life well-lived, Thoreau retreated to a rustic cabin for two years and two days on the shores of Walden Pond in rural Massachusetts in search of the wisdom that comes with simplicity.

It’s a long way from Walden to Abu Dhabi, but in designing something remarkable the architect of the Abela building was obviously thinking of something more than dirhams per square metre. Like all of us, he was also in search of the good life.