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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Al Bateen Mall: the hidden history of an Abu Dhabi landmark

Visit Al Bateen Mall now and you will find only a supermarket and a handful of shops. But like all old buildings in Abu Dhabi, it has a story to tell

Al Bateen Mall, with its dramatic flying canopies, is one of Abu Dhabi's iconic structures. Reem Mohammed / The National
Al Bateen Mall, with its dramatic flying canopies, is one of Abu Dhabi's iconic structures. Reem Mohammed / The National

Its parking bays are the site of long-departed buses. Its floors echo with the footsteps of bus drivers past, while its concrete canopies once shaded weary passengers from the summer heat.

Visit Al Bateen Mall now and you will find only a supermarket and a handful of shops. But like all old buildings in Abu Dhabi, it has a story to tell.

The small shopping mall in the historic neighbourhood of Al Bateen was once a bus station, built more than three decades ago in concert with another in Al Zahiyah (Tourist Club) and the still operational main terminal on Muroor Road.

The story begins in the 1980s — a time when Abu Dhabi was on the move. More and more people were coming to the city as oil money spurred massive expansion.

New bus routes were being announced and more buses ordered. In 1985, for example, there were 40 routes in Abu Dhabi — up from four in 1969 — and plans were being formed to increase the number of air-conditioned buses from just 19.

By the mid-80s it was clear that the bus station on Airport Road near what is now the World Trade Centre could not cope. Tourist Club station opened in late 1985 and Al Bateen station a few months later in 1986. Longer services to the mainland operated from Tourist Club, while shorter journeys mainly departed from Al Bateen. These routes serviced areas including Mafraq, Mussaffah and Bani Yas. The new Dh37 million central bus terminal finally opened on March 13, 1989 and the two Dh10m sub-stations then also began to operate as feeder services for the central station.

The central station was built by Zakum and the two substations by Shaheen but the three buildings were designed by Bulgaria's Technoexportstroy. It was a state-owned design, engineering and construction firm that was established in 1964 and completed hundreds of projects in the Middle East and Africa. In the late 80s, when Bulgaria was under

Soviet sway, about 200 architects and engineers worked there. It was behind projects such as the “Gold Mohur” hotel in Aden, Yemen; a 35,000 capacity stadium in Benghazi, Libya; and the Rastan Bridge in Homs, Syria. It was also behind the Abu Dhabi Municipality Building on Salam Street.

In a local news report from the 1980s, the main station was perhaps, rather ambitiously, compared to Sydney Opera House’s shell roof. But the building is striking: all sweeping concrete and curves, sitting under a roof that comes together via two ramps. An airport-style control tower sits at one side, while four prongs — two at either side — extend out providing space and shelter for buses and passengers.

The central Bus station in Abu Dhabi. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
The central Bus station in Abu Dhabi. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

Al Bateen station was built with an central arch and two concrete canopies on either side.

"The Al Bateen Mall represents a period in history when transportation was celebrated. The parabolic main structure with the sweeping cantilevered canopies, not only resemble a bird in flight but also show the influence to the early structures of the Italian architect and engineer, Peir Luiji Nervi [known for his work with reinforced concrete],” said Deborah Bentley, who was Abu Dhabi representative for the Royal Institute of British Architects from 2011 to 2014.

“The celebration of space and the combination of the environmental awareness, by providing shaded canopies when boarding the bus, create a beautiful symphony in architecture that is rarely seen for ancillary bus terminals anywhere in the world."

One of the architects who worked on the Abu Dhabi bus project was Georgi Kolarov. Then a young architect in Bulgaria, he spent about seven years at Technoexportstroy before establishing his own company, Bulgarconsult.

The chief architect for the bus project has since died but more than three decades on, Mr Kolarav recalls the project fondly.

“I did not go there [Abu Dhabi] at that time. It was homework for us. But this was our vision," he says.

"We wanted to integrate these two parts, one in another and to make a specific silhouette of the structure that would be different from the others," he said of the unique roof design.

Mr Kolarov was not personally involved in the Al Bateen and Tourist Club stations but he can confirm Technoexportstroy’s role. For the Bulgarian, it was a statement of modernism. “We very much liked this project because it was different, simple. It was one of the early developments in Abu Dhabi — after that it became a big wave.”

Both Al Bateen and Tourist Club were still operating as stations until the mid-1990s. But here the picture becomes foggier. At some point between 1995 and 1998, Al Bateen was converted into a small shopping centre now known as Al Bateen Mall.

Al Bateen Mall was previously a bus station. Reem Mohammed / The National
Al Bateen Mall was previously a bus station. Reem Mohammed / The National

Thabet Al Qaissieh attended a school nearby in the late 1990s when he was about 14 or 15. “There was a cafe, and grocery store beside the building,” he said. Mr Al Qaissieh, who is from Abu Dhabi, recalls his family speaking of a bus station that operated until about 1996 and 1997 but closed shortly after.

“I remember a supermarket opening around 1998. I believe the other buildings were gone then. And it was renamed a mall later than that.”

The Tourist Club station, meanwhile, was repurposed as City Terminal — an airport check-in facility that opened in June, 1999. While City Terminal still runs bus services to the airport, Al Bateen is a different story. The Al Fathima supermarket now occupies most of the building along with a cafeteria, Baskin-Robbins and a money exchange. The supermarket takes up two floors but if you walk around, you can still get a sense of the arches and architectural ambition of the structure. The concrete canopies are still intact.

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Some workers at the cafeteria can faintly recall a bus station but no clear date can be discerned. This is a familiar story in the city.

Buildings are demolished or repurposed and no one is ever quite sure when or why they were built.

“These unique buildings illustrate how important public transportation was for the emerging nation of the UAE and the importance of ensuring that those without cars could move across the city,” said Ms Bentley, who urges more awareness about these buildings.

“The architecture of the majority of Abu Dhabi's transportation buildings have celebrated the experience of travel. It would be lovely to raise awareness of these unique buildings that combine architecture and engineering. There could be an exhibition of the work of architect engineers in Abu Dhabi. For instance BuroHappold, the engineers of the new Louvre [Abu Dhabi] were key to the success of that building.”

During the 2000s, taxis and private buses operated much of the city routes in Abu Dhabi. A new public network was established in 2008. But outside one of the entrances Al Bateen Mall is a bus ticket machine — a residual link to its forgotten history as an Abu Dhabi transport hub.