Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

In the city of the future, what's worth protecting?

What should be protected of Abu Dhabi's architectural heritage? Brett Debritz says we need to be able to tell the story of the capital's development.
What value should be placed on older buildings, such as Abu Dhabi's main bus station? Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
What value should be placed on older buildings, such as Abu Dhabi's main bus station? Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

Buildings say a lot about people. In fact, you can trace human history through the things we have built, from crude shelters made from found materials to huge glass towers.

Palaces, museums, stadiums and houses all say something about the way we live – or the way we used to live. Architectural styles have changed over the years, at first dictated by what materials were available and the state of our engineering knowledge, and more recently by the vagaries of fashion.

And it’s fashion that often dictates whether a building survives. Across the world, city administrations have the tough task of assessing old structures for their heritage value. Buildings that occupy prime real estate are, quite naturally, targets for developers. A hotel or apartment building that can bring in millions of dollars is more attractive to them than, say, a disused cinema.

But the old cinema may be a masterpiece of neo-gothic architecture or have a unique connection to an historical event. It may also have a special place in the streetscape, complementing other period buildings.

Around the world, town planners have to decide whether these considerations outweigh the desire of the developers and the needs of the times.

The process is necessarily different here from how it is in, say, Rome or Istanbul, which are thousands of years old.

The city we recognise as Abu Dhabi barely existed half a century ago. But just because everything – with obvious exceptions such as Qasr Al Hosn, which dates from1793 – is relatively new, is no reason to think there is nothing with heritage value.

Some buildings must be allowed to get old, and it’s the responsibility of the authorities to decide which ones. But there is no “correct” answer to that dilemma.

A rule of thumb would be to protect buildings that are unique or representative of their times in terms of architectural style.

Other buildings might be protected because they have some historical or cultural significance. But this can be debatable.

For example, the authorities in Liverpool, England, have spent more than three years deciding whether to protect from demolition the house where Beatles drummer Ringo Starr was born. Sentiment has certainly played a part in that discussion, but we imagine it had no role in Pakistan’s decision to raze the compound in Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden was killed.

Back to Abu Dhabi, should we go out of our way to preserve at least something from each of the past five or six decades?

A few years ago, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority nominated the Abu Dhabi bus and taxi station near Al Wahda Mall as a building it “intends to protect”. Other favourites among heritage lovers are Al Bateen Mall and the City Terminal in Al Zahiyah.

If it were up to me, I’d nominate Al Zahiyah Shopping Centre, which was the original Tourist Club Co-Op.

It’s not particularly pretty, and it can’t compete in terms of utility with the huge malls, but it suggests an earlier time and remains functional.

I’d also protect the Sheraton hotel and resort on the Corniche. Its distinctive shape evokes a sense of place among the desert dunes. There’s also something nice and “old worldy” about Al Ain Palace hotel, although its position close to the Corniche would presumably make it a prime candidate for redevelopment.

Of the more modern recent additions to the cityscape, I’d choose Al Bahr Towers, known to some as the “pineapple buildings”, the Aldar HQ building next to the Raha Beach hotel and the grand Emirates Palace complex. They are all very different in concept and design, but they all tell a story.

Going forward, I’d also make sure that some of the original 1970s villas and apartment buildings are earmarked for preservation so wherever or however future generations live they will have some understanding of how we live today.


On Twitter: @debritz

Updated: November 2, 2015 04:00 AM