Protecting the Middle East’s Architectural Heritage

Nick Ames looks at ways the Middle East is conserving the architecture of the past for future generations to admire and learn from

Moves are underway across the Middle East to protect and celebrate the area’s unique architectural heritage – from prehistoric ruins to city centres.

Historically important sites across the UAE are currently under the spotlight as United Nations officials and local archaeologists work to preserve them for future generations, while plans are underway to celebrate the legacy of old Doha – but with a 21st century slant.

Meanwhile, a national campaign is calling for Lebanon’s traditional buildings to be preserved and Turkey wants to reconstruct lost and forgotten mosques.

Across the emirates are some of the most important examples of lives lived before the birth of recorded history – vital for those who wish to understand the very origins of humanity’s moves from a hunter-gatherer existence to farming and town dwelling.

Homes, tombs, forts, temples, irrigation systems and gardens are all among the legacy left to the 21st century from builders and engineers of previous centuries.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has recognised the value of four cultural sites in the Al Ain area of Abu Dhabi, including Hafeet, Hili, Bida Bint Saud and six date palm oases, by enlisting them in the World Heritage List.

Experts say Al Ain has a unique archaeological status. A UNESCO spokesperson said: “Al Ain constitutes a serial property that testifies to sedentary human occupation of a desert region since the Neolithic period with vestiges of many prehistoric cultures.”

And a total of six more UAE sites are on its “possible” list including Dubai Creek, Al Bidya Mosque in Fujairah, the structures at Ed Dur in Umm Al Quwain, the buildings and cemetery of Umm Al Nar Island in Abu Dhabi, Sir Bu Nair Island in Sharjah, and the “cultural landscape” of the central region of Sharjah.

These historic areas are currently protected by the authorities who now are bidding to win international recognition to ratify the work.

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The Architectural Heritage Department at Dubai Municipality says a full-scale effort to obtain classification is underway and UNESCO’s decision for Dubai is expected sometime in June 2014.

And it’s not just the remote past which is being explored.

Architects from Qatar and Britain  are set to join forces to take part in a competition aimed at looking how best to develop the changing landscape of Old Doha – while at the same time preserving and building on its traditional look.

The collaboration is part of the Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture and is backed by the British Council, Royal Institute for British Architects, the Doha Architecture Centre and Msheireb Properties.

It will take the form of a week-long design residency in November where five teams consisting of architects from both countries will explore the best ways to bring forward the old parts of the city, while preserving the area’s heritage.

Chief focus will be on the areas of Al Asmakh and Najada.

Organisers say the competition will be founded on the principal of Al Turath Al Hai, or “living heritage”. This is the concept that heritage is not something purely associated with the past – instead it is something that continually evolves, but remains rooted in the traditional designs and values.

Tim Makower, the man behind the Old Doha Prize and principal of Makower Architects operating in both Doha and London, explained the thinking behind the plan.

He said: “It is an opportunity to raise awareness about the character-rich fabric of the old city, which could become the foundation of a ‘Qatari Renaissance’.

“It is also a chance to celebrate and explore how young design talent from Qatar and the UK can work together and push the boundaries of what it means to respond to the identity of a place and explore how ‘heritage’ can be a springboard into the future as well as being a deep root in the past.”

Graham Sheffield is the director responsible for arts at the British Council. He said: “The Old Doha Prize is exactly the kind of cultural exchange we want to promote as part of the year.”

Aisha Ghanem al-Attiya, spokesperson for Qatar UK 2013, added: “With this competition, we bring together one of the world’s largest and one of the world’s fastest growing design sectors, the UK and Qatar, while providing opportunities for ambitious architects and designers in both nations.”

The winning team will receive the Old Doha Prize and a grant of $20,000 to further explore the ideas set out in its successful design residency. This could take the form of an exhibition, research project, installation, presentation or film.

Further recognition of the importance of the value of the designs of previous centuries has come in the form of a nationwide campaign which is calling for more action to be taken to preserve the architectural heritage of Lebanon.

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The Beruit-based Rashya Plastic Arts Workshop said that due to the decline in the number of traditional homes over the last decade, the drive would focus on photographing traditional architecture across the country and holding exhibitions as well as showing documentaries.

It is intended that every town will have its own exhibition so residents can learn about the importance of their traditional building design. “Our heritage today is being destroyed across the country, whether deliberately or not, and especially our cultural heritage, which includes many homes,” said Marwa Alwan who is leading the project.

The campaign, entitled Stop – Bring Me Back, will be carried out alongside local and municipal authorities and the governmental tourism and culture ministries.

It will also provide lessons about restoration in each municipality and work closely with architects and design engineers.

Literature specific to each town will be distributed following the exhibitions and will also be presented to municipalities, in order to promote funding for restoration.

The booklets will also be presented to urban planners to encourage laws to curb what restorers feel is a prevalence of building permits.

The campaign is also intended to raise awareness about architectural heritage preservation through tourist publications and by working with the country’s Foreign Ministry and various Lebanese embassies across the world it is also aimed at both expatriates and tourists.

And turning the attention to sacred buildings, Turkey is set to return to their former glory a number of the 150 mosques across the country which have been lost to new construction and building development in recent years.

Around 130 of the sites are in Istanbul, but many have been replaced by buildings or other construction development.

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Oman’s Architectural Journey
A book of photographs linking the past and present architecture of Oman has just been published.

Corporate leader Mohammad Al Zubair is the man behind “Oman’s Architectural Journey” which features structures from the remote past alongside contemporary designs.

The sultanate’s building heritage includes forts and castles dating from the pre-Islamic era, oasis and mountaintop settlements first inhabited in prehistory, centuries-old merchant houses and ancient mosques.

Contemporary buildings featured include the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the Royal Opera House Muscat and the Barr Al Jissa Resort and Spa which is owned by the author’s corporation.

Al Zubair is a keen architectural photographer as well as being one of the most prominent members of his country’s business community.

“I’ve always been involved in architecture in my own way,” he said. “Even when I was young I helped the masons build our house in Salahah and here (Muscat).”

The idea for the book came after Al Zubair noticed older buildings were deteriorating over the years he had been photographing them.

“I’ve been working on it for seven years,” he said. “I wanted to record buildings that I think will disappear in a few years.”

The book contains 800 photographs which reflect the development of the Sultanate showing how many traditional building styles have been maintained over centuries.

Al Zubair’s own glass house is featured in the work.

“I wanted to include the architecture of the future,” he said.

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