Old Buildings of Abu Dhabi Offer Students a Window to the Past

When first-time visitors cast an eye over the modern skyline of Abu Dhabi today, few will know the history that brought this capital to where it is. The stories that the city's oldest buildings hold are often an afterthought, and the history and identity of old structures that stood before the discovery of oil are overshadowed by the gleaming glass and marble of modern skyscrapers.

Last month, I was part of a J-Term course Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi that sought to preserve some of the stories that the older buildings of this city hold.

At the beginning of the course, my classmates and I were expecting to learn about the tall skyscrapers and glass-buildings that have taken over Abu Dhabi's skyline in recent years. But our expectations were changed after our first class. NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Pascal Menoret explained to us that the aim of the course was to look at modern buildings that have been part of the development of the city. Our objective was to document these buildings, some of which will soon disappear under the pressure of real estate and development.

The main objective of the course was to write and produce a printed and online guide to these structures in just three weeks. The guide had to include buildings and monuments that were erected during the establishment of the city. We also had to visit and document the buildings built between the late 1950s and the early 1990s. We further strengthened our guide by exploring local archives, to gain an understanding of the trajectories of architects and architectural forms.

As I explored the city's modern architecture, I noticed how some of the buildings lacked visual and aesthetic appeal but were hives of activity, homes to expats for over 20 years. That's when I learnt the phrase "form follows function" and can relate building architectural elements to the theories behind great modern architectural philosophy, concepts perfected by architects such as Le Corbusier, Franck Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Constantinos Doxiadis.

As days went by, the class struggled to find resources and information for our research: there were limited books and articles on these buildings. So we went out to interview residents and employees to obtain firsthand information, and also met with several guest speakers who played a role in the preservation of the city's cultural and historical sites.

The first guest speaker for our class was Amel Chabbi, a graduate from University of Pennsylvania who currently works for Abu Dhabi's Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA). She lectured on the modern heritage and architectural preservation of Abu Dhabi and we were given opportunities to ask her questions on the future development plans of the city.

In addition, Rand Abbas, who has a background in architecture and urban planning, lectured on modern architecture. We were shown modern architecture around the world and compared them to the architecture locally. For instance, while comparing Abu Dhabi's Bus Terminal (built in 1989), to the Guggenheim in New York (built in 1959), I found it interesting to see the resemblance of the bus terminal's modern architectural structure to that of Guggenheim's form and shape.

We also got to meet Yasser Elsheshtawy, an associate professor at the United Arab Emirates University. He gave us a detailed outlook on the Cultural Foundation and the Central Market and discussed the political and economical influences behind the demolition of several landmarks in the city.

To conclude the J-Term class, Olivia Duncan, an associate urban designer at Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, gave us insight on the connection between Brasilia, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi. The wide-spaced city of Brasilia is divided into functional sectors where each residential block contains several facilities. This arrangement results in not having a clearly outlined or recognizable downtown area. We discussed how in many ways, Abu Dhabi is similar.

This course shifted my perspective on what development is. I believe development isn't necessarily about creating an infinite number of cookie-cutter buildings. Rather, it is about creating and maintaining an identity. Preservation is necessary in order to keep this city distinguished from other cities. As the late Sheikh Zayed once said, "A nation without a past is a nation without a present or a future." I couldn't agree more.

The Abu Dhabi Guide: Modern Architecture 1950s-1990s will be published online and in print by FIND at the end of the spring semester.