The astounding pace of current urban development in Abu Dhabi is obscuring the architecture of the preceding decades. But with a new book, and a panel discussion this week, NYU Abu Dhabi Professor Pascal Menoret and his students are documenting some of the city's built environment of the years from 1968 to 1992.
The buildings constructed during Abu Dhabi's "early oil era," as Menoret calls it, are already fading from view, some demolished and others eclipsed by the taller, shinier towers of the last few years.
Menoret, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at NYUAD, arrived in the UAE in 2011, and quickly realized, he says, that these older structures "were not being recognized as part of the heritage. People had no qualms about replacing them with all that unimaginative stuff with glass walls."
The city's original central market, for example, was knocked down in 2005. The Volcano Fountain, once a prime landmark at the foot of Muroor Road, was demolished in 2004, during redevelopment of the Corniche.
Those two structures are among 30 examined in a book produced by students in Menoret's Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi course. Most of the subjects, however, are still standing, and some remain important in the city's life: the Al-Maqta'a bridge, the central bus station, the municipality building, and the Sheraton and Intercontinental hotels among them.
Most of these are public buildings, he notes. "The 1970s were an era of state-centred development, with massive public-administration buildings and public institutions in the heart of the city." Now, he notes, many big projects involve quasi-state organizations working on the city's periphery — he mentions Masdar City and the new museums–and for-profit buildings.
Menoret, understanding how the earlier buildings had helped forge a sense of community in the city, set out to find "a way to advocate some preservation," he says. First he anticipated working with his peers, academics and urbanists. But then, he recounts, NYUAD Deputy Vice Chancellor Hilary Ballon made a suggestion that changed his plans. Ballon, herself a professor of architecture and urban studies at NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, urged Menoret to have his students work with him on such a project.
And so the Abu Dhabi Guide: Modern Architecture, 1968-1992, was born. "I took this wonderful idea and prepared a syllabus. The idea was to train students to look at architecture." The 15 students each had two buildings to study, and just three weeks to research and write a chapter on each.
The prototype version was simply designed and in English only, with a 10-page "collective introduction" that Menoret had the challenge of orchestrating.
Production of the more sophisticated volume being launched this week, Menoret says, was made possible after Mo Ogrodnik got involved. She is principal researcher at NYUAD's cultural laboratory FIND — short for Forming Intersections And Dialogues — and when she proposed to make the book a FIND publication, professional page design and a fully bilingual format became possible. Menoret, himself a fluent Arabic-speaker, raves about the translation, done by Nasser Isleem, senior Arabic language instructor at NYUAD: "He's a professional writer and his Arabic version is beautifully done."
The buildings covered in the book are the work of foreign architects, Menoret notes. The stadium at Zayed Sports City was designed by France's Henri Colboc and colleagues, for example, and the Officers Club by another French architect, Roger Taillibert. The city's 1989 bus station, designed by Bulgarconsult, a Bulgarian firm, is part of the "visual vocabulary of state-inspired Soviet-era architecture" of Eastern Europe, Menoret says. Just how a Bulgarian firm got a toehold in the UAE remains something of a mystery.
Numerous Arab architects also were active, he notes, mentioning Abdulrahman Makhlouf, an Egyptian who was a key figure in Abu Dhabi's urban planning in the 1970s and thereafter.
The Abu Dhabi of tomorrow will probably reveal more local influence: Today there are schools of architecture at both Zayed University and UAE University. Yasser Elsheshtawy, an associate professor of architectural engineering from the latter school, will take part in Sunday's panel discussion at NYUAD.
The book will have a sequel, Menoret says. "I'll teach the course again next January and we'll have 30 more buildings, in Volume Two."
Pascal Menoret is assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies, NYU Abu Dhabi. He will discuss the book, and its subject, in a panel discussion, Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi, 1968-1992, at the Conference Centre at NYUAD's Saadiyat Campus at 6:30pm on Sunday, December 7.