DUBAI: With the rise of modern cities across the Gulf, the region is taking vital steps to safeguard its culture and heritage.
Saudi Arabia made another move towards preservation this week with an agreement to protect intangible cultural heritage. The partnership, between the General Culture Authority and the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society in Riyadh, will document elements of heritage across the Kingdom to protect, enrich and promote its culture.
According to UNESCO, intangible heritage is made up of oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftsmanship knowledge and techniques. The region is also adding areas to the organization’s World Heritage list, which designates landmarks of cultural, historical or scientific significance.
Even while the more ancient aspects of Gulf countries’ heritage are being preserved, some are looking to a much shorter definition of history, as a wave of futuristic buildings in the GCC has put more recent buildings at risk of demolition. Last month, Dubai Municipality launched the “Modern Heritage Initiative” to preserve the emirate’s landmark buildings from the 1960s and 1970s, including one of the first skyscrapers, the Dubai World Trade Center, and the Clock Tower in Deira.
“The Gulf states need to recognize the value that the modern architecture holds in a historical context and for those of us who grew up between the 1960s and 1980s,” said Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, director’s fellow at MIT Media Lab and founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, a significant collection of Arab art based in Sharjah. “These buildings tell countless stories of the immigrants and the residents who made the UAE and the Gulf their homes.”
From the Al-Sawaber residential complex in Kuwait City, built in 1981 by Arthur Erickson, to the Al-Fahidi and Al-Shindagha Historical Neighborhoods in Dubai, as well as the historical Al-Balad district in Jeddah, protecting the old is becoming a priority.
“The structures with which we recognize major American cities like Miami, New York or Chicago gained more value as time passed and became tourist attractions,” Al-Qassemi said. “The same will happen with our 1960s and 1970s buildings if we only protect them.”
Last month, 90 buildings in Abu Dhabi were identified by the municipality for demolition. The buildings were said to either be abandoned or ageing, posing a threat to public health and safety.
But in a region as young as the Gulf, older buildings are viewed as precious gems to preserve. “It’s important for the Gulf and for the world to preserve historic buildings and traditional architecture because it is part of the countries’ history and civilization, much like the Pyramids in Egypt, the Wall of China and the Taj Mahal,” said Rashad Bukhash, chair of the Architectural Heritage Society in the UAE. “It’s the sign of architecture, people who lived in that area, and the economy. It also shows how they lived and the architecture, which coming generations can learn from.”
Bukhash, who has 30 years of experience in the field of managing and supervising modern architectural projects and conserving historic buildings, spoke of plans for green and sustainable architecture. “This is what we are now looking for,” he said. “But with the architecture we had in the 1950s, there was no use of energy and we used natural ventilation and sunlight, so it’s 100 per cent sustainable. We shouldn’t go back but we have to learn from that because people in the 1950s didn’t have electricity, so they innovated, using materials such as coral, stone, mud and gypsum.”
He called for increasing use of natural resources, including the sun and wind, to move towards a greener architecture. “With a lot of modern architecture coming up everywhere in Gulf cities, the situation today is much better than 10 or 20 years ago when we had a lot of buildings and districts being demolished,” Bukhash said. “Nowadays, in most Gulf cities, there are legislations for the protection of historic buildings, whether in the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Oman.”
Experts believe the trend is shifting towards preservation rather than demolition. “In Dubai, the municipality recently took the decision to start restoring 1960s buildings, which is a good sign,” Bukhash said. “We can’t compare historic Dubai from 1950 to the urban city of Dubai nowadays, which is less than 1 percent of the area, because it developed very quickly. The old part has been kept and protected with legislations and we are hopefully on the right track.”
Old architecture is defined by local materials, such as mud, wood and stone, while modern architecture focuses on concrete, steel and wood. “Protecting these fragile structures is a priority and is actually the biggest challenge facing urban planners and architects,” said Samir Saddi, founder and director of the Arab Research Center for Architecture and Design of the Environment. “The reason lies behind financial considerations since the huge developments, which are mostly speculative, rely on land acquisition and, most of the time, in historic sites or old neighborhoods. Hence, we witness this dilemma that owners of these old structures face today: to keep or to sell, in other words to continue living in old and ancestral buildings or to sell and move to modern facilities.”
He said preserving old urban settlements and structures can be done through creating legislation and bylaws that classify old cities, urban neighborhoods or structures, and prohibits their demolition. “Other ways include changing the usage of these buildings and transforming their interior spaces into new functions while keeping but renovating their elevations,” Saddi said. “Integrating these structures into contemporary developments that respect their scale and architectural dimensions is another approach that is mostly used in Europe nowadays.”
For Saddi, who devoted more than 45 years to documenting traditional and modern architecture in Africa and the Arab world, a city without its traditional urban neighborhoods or buildings is a city without soul. “We are building cities in the Arab world that have no soul and no reference to a past, no character or no continuity with what the ancestors have built,” he said. “This creates mediocre and uniform architecture that will look like any other in different places or countries. I documented a large number of historic buildings in the Arab word, mainly in Saudi Arabia, where I spent years taking photos of Old Jeddah’s amazing architecture.”
In 2000, he contacted the Saudi Ambassador in UNESCO, Paris, to ask that Old Jeddah be put on the World Heritage list. “It took 13 years for this to happen. In the meantime, a lot of historic buildings were lost. I did an exhibition in the Empty Quarter a couple of years back as a tribute to some of these buildings that I recorded but that physically disappeared.”
Jacqui Shaddock, design director and partner at H2R Design, said the Gulf region has changed rapidly over the past few decades. “The influx of people, cultures and commercial activities has been at much higher velocity than was the case in other cities, in Europe for instance,” she said.
“This means it is vital to act just as swiftly with the protection and preservation of the rich cultural heritage that is being swamped. As well as physically protecting existing buildings and historical sites, we see the importance of celebrating and teaching regional artisan craftsmanship, and exploring locally available materials, to ensure that even new builds retain a respectful nod to the heritage of the area rather than competing with it.”