Old buildings are an integral part of the capital’s history and should be documented in detail before they disappear
How Abu Dhabi's old buildings are a record of the past
Talking about his latest movie, Dunkirk, which opens on Thursday , film director Christopher Nolan described the skill of storytelling as the ability to look for “gaps in the record” and of being able to identify, in an absence, something meaningful and positive.
In Nolan’s case, those gaps provide the ideas for his films, but when it comes to Abu Dhabi, cityscape absences often represent something negative, disappearances from the city’s historic urban fabric and from its memory.
The capital is riddled with such spaces, seemingly empty plots that appear and disappear between the high-rises, providing Abu Dhabi with a peculiarly moth-eaten quality that can only be appreciated up-close and by those with a mind to remember.
Now overlooked by a multi-storey car park, the long, sunken plot on the Corniche near the ADMA-OPCO headquarters is just such a place, which has stood empty since 2014.
For 50 years this was the site of the rambling Gray-Mackenzie building, the Abu Dhabi headquarters of one of the Arabian Gulf’s oldest trading companies, established in 1883 and still operating throughout the city.
An ambassadorial-looking compound that was once surrounded by traditional arise, or palm frond homes, the building enjoyed uninterrupted views out to sea, an ideal location for an entrepôt in the days before the construction of Mina Zayed, when cargo was often transported directly to the shoreline.
Further inland, there are several plots on Airport Road, Salam, Al Falah and Hazza bin Zayed Streets that were once architecturally connected because they all housed two-storey buildings that were constructed to the same essential design.
Modestly decorated with arches and patterned tiling, these buildings supported typing offices, tailors, garages and groceries on their ground floor and were topped with modest homes on the first.
The Airport Road example was the last survivor of its type. Home to The Diamond, a pristine one-woman typing operation, a dilapidated women’s tailoring business and Ahmed Awad’s Agricultural Supplies, a purveyor of irrigation pipe and seeds, the building was earmarked for demolition back in 201,5 but hung on until just a few weeks ago when it was finally demolished.
Built to a scale that spoke of a very different life, in a very different city at a time when Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth was yet to produce the buildings and living patterns that define it today, such buildings raise issues about conservation, heritage and the memories and histories we cherish and those we decide to forget.
The former Bait Al Sayegh is a case in point. Tucked behind the Fotouh Al Khair Centre - Marks & Spencer - in the heart of downtown Abu Dhabi, the rambling compound, complete with its own wing of apartments and shops, once stood in stark contrast with the steel and glass towers that surrounded it.
But what had once been a substantial and clearly important family compound complete with palm trees, inner courtyards, apartments and majlises, had become an overlooked and overcrowded slum in the very heart of the city by the time The National reported on it in 2012.
Research among local residents and shopkeepers, most of whom are transitory, revealed nothing about the compound’s history and the best guess among local historians, long-term expats and merchants who had their businesses in the neighbourhood was that the building had once been used as an embassy.
That was the line that ran, incorrectly, in The National in article about the city’s uneven patterns of remembering and forgetting but less than a year later memory, so often an unreliable guide to the capital’s history, came to the rescue when Munira Al Sayegh produced a short photographic project based on the property.
Now a curator and the programme officer at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Al Sayegh was working as an assistant producer with New York University Abu Dhabi’s Forming Intersections and Dialogues (Find) programme at the time and the project can still be found on their website.
Rather than a diplomatic compound, the house had belonged to her grandfather and when she returned to it after a seven year absence, Al Sayegh found the experience both inspiring and challenging and, like Nolan, she used that absence as the basis for something positive.
“I walked through the halls and doors that occupied my memories. Suddenly, sounds and smells, familiar faces and distant memories all came back to life. Things I forgot, people who are no longer here, all came back to me instantly,” she wrote at the time.
When the British urbanist Ian Sinclair wrote a book about the many ways in which London’s past was being steadily eroded, a reviewer described the work as the summation of “the lost worlds of a white man's city, filtered through rose-tinted nostalgia”.
Al Sayegh’s experience, and the enthusiasm of the many visitors who took part in the recent "My Old House" tours that were organised in Al Ain, show that a concern with built heritage is not only a matter of historical importance, but that it has a resonance that crosses generations and communities.
Buildings such as the Gray Mackenzie compound may now exist only in photographs and memories, but if the capital’s older buildings have to be lost, perhaps they can be recorded, like the Bayt Al Sayegh, before they are incorrectly identified or forgotten completely.