x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Dream of restoring lost jewel of Jazirat al Hamra

A Norwegian architect who spent his childhood in Ras al Khaimah hopes to restore the deserted coastal village of Jazirat al Hamra with the help of its original inhabitants.

A Norwegian architect who spent his childhood in Ras Al Khaimah hopes to restore the deserted coastal village of Jazirat al Hamra with the help of its original inhabitants.
A Norwegian architect who spent his childhood in Ras Al Khaimah hopes to restore the deserted coastal village of Jazirat al Hamra with the help of its original inhabitants.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The abandoned coastal village of Jazirat al Hamra has stood for more than 40 years as a crumbling legacy of the pearl divers and fishermen who once filled its streets. However, the mariners' village may still hold a bright future. 

Goran Johansen, a Norwegian architect who spent his childhood in RAK, was so haunted by the village and its history that he made its restoration and revival the subject of his masters thesis at the Bergen School of Architecture. He spent Christmas visits documenting every building in the village and its 300 courtyards in the hopes that it could be preserved.

"It became very important for me to at least come up with a proposal for what could be done here because I know if nothing is being done then the whole village will disappear," Mr Johansen said. "It just became a calling for me." 

The abandonment of the ruined village has, ironically, helped preserve it as an architectural jewel of the Gulf. The ghost town includes three distinct styles of architecture, making it an important treasure.

Jazirat al Hamra contains coral stone buildings from the first half of the last century, sand brick buildings dating from about 1955 and buildings made of concrete breeze block from the 1960s. However, encroachment by luxury developments has caused the village to become a haven for labourers seeking the cheapest possible accommodation. Each building is still privately owned by its original family, which has prevented developers from changing the site but also kept people from reviving the village as a whole. The buildings have been used as movie sets as well as lodgings, though many of the structures have crumbled into piles of sand and shells over time.

The effort to preserve what remains has taken a novel twist. Mr Johansen has proposed a co-op ownership structure where the Zaabi tribe that originally inhabited the village shares responsibility for its development. 

"For me this village is too important to privatise," he said. "Then the culture and history and architecture will disappear. If they founded a co-op then the village will always be a part of the tribe. You will never be able to own your own house, but the village will still be a part of you.

"For me it is important that the Zaabi tribe still owns the village because it's their history, it's their context. The next thing is to introduce it as a place to live again." 

To this end, Mr Johansen devised a system for everything from electricity to sewage treatment. The system is centred around each of the town's 13 mosques, allowing each section to be developed and run autonomously. 

While some owners may be reluctant to invest in new homes when they are given modern and larger, housing by the Government, former residents are adamant that the village be preserved in some form. 

"Any time old people go back there they start to cry because they love this history," said Aisha al Zaabi, a middle-aged woman born in the town. "That is my home in my heart but now I don't have a house there. My house is rented to a company and my old house inside belongs to my brother."

She said her brothers would likely greet the proposal favourably but would not want to live there permanently. However, she is not sure how her growing family would divide time in her original family home where she was born.

"We're six sons and four daughters. How will we share it?" she asked. "This is a house for all the family and all the family must agree." 

Archaeologists said the mix of styles practically required the village be preserved.

"There is no other place in the Gulf area which has such a preserved mid-20th century settlement that has not been really changed after 1970," said Christian Velde, a RAK resident archaeologist. "Probably on this side of the Gulf it is the last small town which is preserved." 

Though the land is marked for preservation under the orders of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, the Crown Prince of RAK, Mr Johansen is concerned Jazirat al Hamra's time is running out. He will return next year to begin work with the Zaabi tribe and the RAK Government.

"I would be glad if just some of my ideas were brought further on," he said. 

 

THE SPINE OF A NEW VILLAGE

 

The proposal for the renewal of Jazirat al Hamra is focused on low-cost, low-maintenance development.

Buildings would be positioned within or along the town’s 300 courtyard walls, and would not exceed the height of existing structures. Ideally, reconstruction would be done using traditional materials, including palm products and sand bricks.

The central area of the village, which contains the remains of coral stone buildings, would be kept as a reminder of the past “to tell the story of what has been there”, said Goran Johansen, who is proposing to preserve Jazirat al Hamra.

The village would be closed to cars to retain the character created by its narrow roads and alleyways. Sea water would be desalinated through condensation, helped along by the sun’s heat. And solar panels, in addition to generating electricity, would shade alleyways and walkways.

All water would be recycled for use in greenhouses and as toilet water. It would be filtered and cleaned through the roots of vegetation, mainly reeds. Under the master plan, new shops in the village could play a role in its resurrection, instead of being part of its demise.

“I’ve seen that shops are moving closer and closer to the village,” Mr Johansen said. “You can develop it through the core of the village or you can develop a souq area in the centre of the village, so if there’s need for new restaurants, new coffee shops, you have a place.

“Then the souq becomes a spinal cord for the village. It’s connecting the village together.”

 

* Anna Zacharias

azacharias@thenational.ae