x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Abu Dhabi’s heritage as guide to future

A month-long journey from Abu Dhabi to the Venice Biennale started last night with a walk down Electra Street, an architectural memory lane.

Experts consider the Al Ibrahimi Building on Electra Street a rare and world-class example of a building of its kind, yet the architect is unknown. At least it survives unlike other structures. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
Experts consider the Al Ibrahimi Building on Electra Street a rare and world-class example of a building of its kind, yet the architect is unknown. At least it survives unlike other structures. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

A month-long journey from Abu Dhabi to Venice began last night with an architectural tour of Electra Street and an invitation to stroll down memory lane.

The aims of the tour were two-fold: to introduce the public to an overlooked and under-appreciated generation of buildings – described last night as Abu Dhabi’s hidden architectural gems – and to gather as many public memories about them as possible before they disappear.

One of the guides on this journey of architectural rediscovery was Deborah Bentley, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ assistant professor of architecture at Abu Dhabi University. She describes the talk, and the wider programme of events that are about to take place at the Qasr Al Hosn exhibition, as an attempt to make people in Abu Dhabi proud of the buildings it has.

“Abu Dhabi has a lot of really high-quality architecture,” says Prof Bentley. “It’s just that a lot of people don’t know about it and lots of it is hidden.”

On the subject of Electra Street, she waxes lyrical until she starts to consider the many issues that face the capital’s architectural record.

“The Ibrahami building on Electra Street is actually world-class,” she says. “It’s almost as if the concrete panels have been woven like a basket. There are very few examples of that anywhere in the world, but we don’t even know who the architect is. That’s one of the reasons for these events, we’re hoping that somebody out there can help us.”

By staging last night’s event, and the five workshops and talks that will follow at the Qasr Al Hosn exhibition between now and May 10, the programme’s organisers are engaging in something far more intellectually ambitious than an act of architectural trainspotting or an exercise in nostalgia.

They are offering the public the opportunity to help to create an archive that will be used to form the basis of the UAE’s national pavilion at the forthcoming Venice Biennale. It will also go towards a vernacular history of the country’s built heritage that will become a resource for generations of architects, academics and Abu Dhabi residents to come.

“We’re gathering Abu Dhabi’s collective memory and bringing the vernacular voice to the historical record,” explains Dr Michele Bambling, the motive force behind the programme and the curator of the national pavilion at this summer’s 14th international architecture exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

It’s title, Lest We Forget – Structures of Memory in the UAE, ably describes its lofty aims.

“I’m not an Emirati and I’m not an activist – I’m an art historian – but I have an interest in seeing how quickly this city is changing and how quickly so many of its modern buildings are being torn down,” Dr Bambling says.

“When I started to look at the history of the country’s architecture, what I realised was that we are in danger of losing an important layer of its history, the architecture that was built during the time of the unification and soon after.

“Not only are the buildings important architecturally, but they are important for the social fabric of society here as well.”

Dr Bambling and her colleagues are in a race against time to capture as much information as they can about buildings such as Abu Dhabi’s bus station, the taxi rank, older hotels and early malls while the buildings are still intact.

“I’m interested in the living memory of these buildings because they are on the verge of becoming intangible cultural heritage,” she explains. “This programme is a way of capturing them while people still remember living in them, and it may even be a way to make it clear that the public really cares about these buildings. It may help to encourage their preservation or adaptive reuse.”

In an unusual and fortunate move for Dr Bambling, the director of this year’s international architecture exhibition, the Dutch “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, asked that all national pavilions at the Biennale investigate the development of architecture in their countries during the past century.

The request fitted perfectly with a project that Dr Bambling has been working on for the past four years, Lest We Forget, a grassroots heritage initiative that aims to archive, preserve and share Emirati family photographs and the oral histories associated with them.

The aim of Koolhaas’s directive is to focus on the context of architecture, rather than architects and their histories. It is an approach that chimed perfectly with Dr Bambling’s interest in vernacular history, and inspired her to shift her focus to the architectural history of the UAE. When it came to selecting a curator for this year’s nation pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Dr Bambling was a perfect fit.

“Dr Bambling’s research on urban development in the UAE will prove to be of great value and benefit to this exhibition, in which the UAE will continue its successful journey as one of the pioneer Gulf nations in la Biennale di Venezia,” said Sheikha Mariam bint Mohammed, chairwoman of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, when Dr Bambling was appointed. Collaboration – with architects, academics, historians and the public – goes to the very heart of Dr Bambling’s approach.

The UAE national pavilion team includes Marco Sosa and Adina Hempel, architects and professors from Zayed University, who have led the design and the research of the pavilion, but who are also participating in the public programme at Qasr Al Hosn.

Another element that will help form the Biennale exhibit is Last Take, a workshop for photography and architecture buffs taking place this Saturday. It will be led by Mr Sosa, along with Aqeel Aqeel, a historic buildings conservator from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, and the architect Lina Ahmed, one of Sosa’s colleagues from the department of interior design at Zayed University. The aim is to produce a photographic record of the Qasr Al Hosn area, and to document the public’s reactions to the buildings as they accompany the experts on the walk. The results will form the content of an iBook that will be exhibited in Venice.

“We’re taking a walk around the vicinity of Qasr Al Hosn, looking at buildings that are decayed and look like they might soon be demolished,” Mr Sosa explains. “We’re trying to introduce people in the workshop to buildings that may not be considered to be conventionally beautiful, but which are important locally because they are part of an epoch that defined the nation. They’re also interesting globally as a local interpretation of Modernism.”

In a second workshop – The Cultural Foundation: Building a Community Model – Mr Sosa and Ms Ahmed will be joined by Prof Bentley for an event that invites members of the public to build a large-scale architectural model of the Cultural Foundation that will then go on public display.

“It’s a bit like baking a cake,” says Mr Sosa. “We hope that people will come and sit down with us, glue one or two pieces of the model and, in the course of doing that, share their memories and their stories about the building.”

Among the programme’s other events will be a workshop and a talk discussing two of Abu Dhabi’s most loved but lost landmarks, the Volcano Fountain and the city’s old souq.

The workshop will allow members of the public to build their own model of the fountain, while Dr Yasser Elsheshtawy, of UAE University, will tell the story of Abu Dhabi’s original souq and its replacement by the new World Trade Centre and Central Market.

Dr Elsheshtawy and a team of his students are contributing plans that will illustrate Abu Dhabi’s rapid urban development and be used to decorate the walls of the UAE pavilion in Venice.

The last public talk before the Biennale is also called Lest We Forget – Structures of Memory in the UAE, and will take place on May 7. It will feature Dr Bambling, Ms Hempel and Mr Sosa, the key members of the pavilion team. The idea is to introduce the public to the details of the exhibit that will have been made from the material gathered as part of the Qasr Al Hosn programme.

“The whole concept of the Biennale is that we’re building an archive with public access so that people can engage directly with the material. We want to make things accessible that are normally hidden for the purpose of engaging people and learning,” Dr Bambling explains.

When people enter the UAE pavilion, they will find themselves in the middle of an archive full of drawers that they’ll be invited to open.

“Unless they open the drawers, they’ll never know what’s inside. The idea is to encourage people to interact and to discover.”

Inside each drawer there will be primary material – newspaper articles, documents, family photographs, architect’s photographs, recordings of conversations and the voices of people from both the professional community and the general public who have experienced certain buildings and spaces.

Dr Bambling’s idea is to have the material unfold thematically as well as chronologically, creating a vernacular architectural history of the UAE from 1914 to now.

“This year and next we’re focusing solely on architecture because there are plans to build the Biennale exhibit and to bring it back to the UAE,” Dr Bambling explains.

“But this programme is not just a means of collating material for the Biennale. The idea is to facilitate the voice of the people in the exhibit and to start a meaningful dialogue between the public and the people who have created Abu Dhabi.”