x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A new urgency to save the old

Urban skylines in the Emirates are now dominated by spectacular towers and the rush to modernisation has led to the destruction of much of the nation's built heritage.

DUBAI // The Dubai of today may look nothing like it did 30 years ago, but its accelerated development is inspiring a renewed interest in the city's architectural heritage - a vital component of a strong civic identity in the future.

"I'm concerned about keeping the history of this city for future generations," says Rashad Bukhash, the director of the architectural heritage department at Dubai Municipality and chairman of the Architectural Heritage Society.

His office, in the Bastekiya area, is in one of the oldest buildings in the city. Built from 1925 to 1930, the two-storey structure was originally a private home with all its rooms and windows looking into a central courtyard - a typical architectural element in a society in which the most important requirement in a home was that it provided privacy, especially for women.

The building stands between Deira on one side and Dubai Creek on the other. Across the creek, skyscrapers occupied by HSBC, Rolex and property firms line the shore. Dhows glide through the water while aircraft begin their descent into Dubai International Airport.

The juxtaposition of old and new is not lost on Mr Bukhash, who says that the city's ambitious modernisation has played a role in adding a sense of urgency to the need to conserve architectural heritage. For many of Dubai's older buildings, the recognition of their worth has come too late.

"After production of oil started, lots of projects came," he says. They created an immediate need for basic infrastructure and housing resulting in "lots of old buildings being demolished".

Some of the first restoration projects began in the early 1980s and, says Mr Bukhash, the ethos behind heritage conservation since has changed. The priority now is to explain to the public what buildings are important and why and how the architectural elements that make them unique can be integrated into modern construction.

Over the past 18 years, 140 buildings in Dubai have been restored. It was an impressive effort, but they amount to less than one per cent of the built landscape. Mr Bukhash would like to do more in the next few years.

The municipality's heritage department is responsible for all restoration projects, though Mr Bukhash says a private company is to be schooled in the architectural and structural elements of traditional Emirati buildings so it can help. The department is also working to find out how much students from grade schools to universities know about heritage buildings, so it can tailor education programmes.

International conferences held every two years in Dubai - the next is in 2010 - focus on traditional national architecture. The heritage department also publishes books for the public as well as for architects and historians, which Mr Bukhash says have begun to inspire design in the Gulf. Madinat Jumeirah, for example, is a modern building modelled on a traditional Emirati villa.

Although examples of architecture from the boom years are important in telling the story of the emirates, truly old buildings are few and far between. The oldest in Dubai is Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1799. From 1896 it was the home of Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher al Maktoum and now is the Dubai Museum. The architectural style of the building dates back 3,000 years. The complex is larger than the average family home would have been at that time, but the same materials were used in its construction - shellstone, coral stone, mortar and gypsum for the walls and palm-tree trunks for the roof. In the early 20th century, Dubai began importing chandal wood from Zanzibar and more solid roofs were built.

The fort had typical defensive features. It was surrounded by a high, solid wall in which three types of openings allowed defenders to see and strike back at attackers.

"The architecture of the fort is like most in the region, like Bahrain, Qatar," says Mr Bukhash. "The small holes were for looking out of, the thin rectangular holes were for shooting arrows out of - that was mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries - and the big holes were for cannons."

The fort was restored in 1994 and the following year an underground extension was built, providing space for exhibits showing scenes of traditional life.

Such defensive buildings are the largest of the heritage structures. The walls of these buildings were made with coral stone and gypsum and stood about four metres high. Other buildings restored by the heritage department include houses and villas, schools, mosques and souqs.

Traditional architecture in the emirate is a function of climate, locally available materials and Islamic values. Heritage residences fall into two categories: palm frond or, for more affluent families, large courtyard houses. Until Dubai became an important port of trade most houses had only one storey, but as more merchants settled along the banks of Dubai Creek, two-storey homes started to appear and neighbourhoods began to emerge. Built close together, the houses were small and separated by narrow alleys or "sikkas". Wind towers and toilets were not added until the 1920s.

The walls of mosques, in which privacy was not an issue, were lined with windows to maximise air circulation. Public buildings, such as schools and post offices, had the simplest designs, with the architecture focused more on function than aesthetics.

Souqs and most other commercial areas were built up around a main alley, covered to afford some protection from sunlight. The doorways of the small shops that lined the alley were often made with large leaves. Larger and grander commercial areas began to employ wind towers during the 1950s. Although intact examples of such neighbourhoods can no longer be found, echoes of the way the street patterns evolved can be found in parts of Deira.

Young people are the primary audience for Mr Bukhash's message about the importance of heritage buildings and the way of life they represent.

"Students from the UAE and outside come here," he says. "We offer them courses in things like gypsum work and cultural awareness. These things are important. If more people know, we will be able to maintain a local taste in the city."

Abu Dhabi is also taking steps to preserve its built heritage, primarily in Al Ain but also in the capital. The historic buildings department at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) recently began an emergency conservation programme that has given the government authority to order the restoration of heritage buildings, even if they are privately owned. So far 25 properties have benefited.

Aqil Ahmed Aqil, an architect who works in the historic buildings department at Adach, says recognition of the importance of heritage buildings has some way to go in Abu Dhabi and that conservation efforts have been more widely embraced in Dubai.

"The oases here are part of the urban fabric and part of the identity of Al Ain," he says. Yet "awareness has not caught on in Al Ain among inhabitants".

The preservation of historic buildings "is important for so many reasons, mostly because it contributes to defining an identity for UAE culture".

Mr Aqil says it is important to him that historical evidence of the UAE's social development is around for his children as they grow up.

It is for the same reason that many of Mr Bukhash's education programmes are developed. As much as the new buildings in Dubai are exciting to people living here, it is his hope that the surviving heritage buildings will be able to excite and influence the next generation of builders and designers.

"Preservation needs to be part of government policy, part of a strategic plan," he says. "This is the history of place. If it goes, it's gone and you can't bring it back."