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The United Arab Emirates, A Place For Memories?

Katrina Kufer By Katrina Kufer Published on June 30, 2016

“Imagine if Dubai were buried in sand and discovered after hundreds of years – what would people think!” remarked one writer well versed in the region, glancing at the buildings lining Sheikh Zayed Road.

The UAE emerged in the late 1960s, with Dubai reaching a pivotal point in 1976 when it began simultaneously developing its various neighbourhoods – in many ways, literally rising out of the sand. With a glittering coastline of clustered megastructures that mingle with more modest buildings further inland, Dubai is defined by its amalgamation of internationally appropriated and traditional Emirati architectural styles. But the ratio is disproportionate, with many historical features replaced by iconic technical feats, redirecting perceptions towards a spectacular high-tech environment. However, Dubai may be more deeply rooted in nostalgia than it seems, with twin histories beneath its polished surface.

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The megastructures mingle with the more modest buildings further inland.

On one side, the UAE’s cultural output since autumn 2015 has heavily explored its origins through an influx of sources, from never-before-seen royal archives to European photographers. This includes exhibitions at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse 421 district, Sharjah Art Foundation’s Flying Saucer space, the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum International Photography Award’s showcase of images from the Crown Prince’s personal private collection, among others, or publications such as Inside Dubai, featuring photographs by Jalal Abuthina.

The revisitation has been comprehensive, but one of the most poignant displays was that of Dubai’s East Wing Gallery, whose exhibition of black-and-white photographs depicted the birth of the UAE in 1968, thanks to French photographer Raymond Depardon simply being in the right place at the right time. Floris de Bonneville, a reporter who went to the “Pirate Coast” (as the region was then known) with Depardon, recalled the environment as minimal and largely undeveloped, save for fishermen’s lodgings. When travelling from his first host, his highness Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi, to his second host, his highness Sheikh Rashid in Dubai, de Bonneville recounts the car journey along “the non-existent roads across the empty beach” with a touch of romanticism, not judgment. There is sentimentality to his memory, an experience of the first and last days of that UAE.

It is this history that the UAE engages for its most recent cultural step, its national pavilion at 15th Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition. Emirati vernacular architecture is being firmly highlighted and the exhibition builds upon the UAE’s first national pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in 2014, which was curated by Dr. Michele Bambling and featured an archive of the architectural growth in the area since 1914.

This year, the pavilion is curated by Yasser Elsheshtawy, Associate Professor of Architecture at the United Arab Emirates University, who also runs the Urban Research Lab focusing on the experience of city dwellers in the Middle East. Elsheshtawy wants to continue to move the perception of Dubai, and the UAE as a whole, away from the sensationalist architecture, anonymity, and transience it has become synonymous with, and to provide a counterpoint to the mass-generated view of Emirati urban development by focusing on the (now rare) national housing model Sha’abi from the 1970s.

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Sha’abi architecture consisted of courtyard-based houses that could be personalised to suit the needs of each inhabiting family and thus demonstrated organic architectural development reflective of the lifestyles and needs of the time. This hasn’t changed – contemporary Dubai still reflects the population’s lifestyle and habits – but it responds to the needs of a highly cosmopolitan people. Elsheshtawy describes the current demographic as “rooted in rootlessness”, a phenomenon he termed “Dubaization” – that is, urban development unhindered by longstanding tradition or ancient history, in direct contradiction with much of the Emirates’ recent cultural emphasis.

Given that Dubai is a young city, is reflecting so heavily on the past at such an early stage counter-productive? Nostalgia can “become an expression of dissatisfaction with the present,” says Elsheshtawy. “With the past you are selective with what you decide to see and it is usually more positive.”

In a city with a turnover as rapid as Dubai’s, where buildings are demolished and quickly replaced regardless of how long they have existed, this sense of nostalgia is intensified. However, in this situation, it proves a positive instead of a negative – Elsheshtawy cites Cairo as an example of a place that has taken its fixation too far and allowed parts of the city to turn into a museum. Instead, the visual jolts that the UAE is giving itself of a disappearing traditional vernacular architecture have the effect of putting the brakes on development projects and highlighting that some areas deserve preservation.

For instance, the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, now a key site in Dubai’s historical and cultural image projection, almost ceased to be after initial plans were made for it to be razed in the 1980s.

“Dubai is quite spectacular, with buildings that are technically superb, but the ethos is about profit and efficiency,” Elsheshtawy explains. “It is curious that Dubai is more developer-driven than experimental,” suggesting that the city is motivated by intent and contribution as opposed to pure design innovation or cultivating a cultural landscape.

Dubai is a forward-looking city, but from what foundation is it launching itself? Dubai has “no permanence, sense of having been there a long time, being lived in or possessing emotional and physical attachment,” Elsheshtawy elaborates. “Buildings come and go, Dubai is a city you feel changes very quickly but it also hasn’t had time yet to mature.” Yet. He asserts that there is room for Dubai to develop meaningful connections, and one way is to look to the past.

This is where we encounter Dubai's second historical perspective. Dubai is embroiled in retro-futurism – a term typically used within the arts to describe a fusion of depictions of the future from the past to create a final visual. The UAE may be considering its architectural past, but that has little bearing on its architectural future, because its contemporary landscape reflects the history of others.

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Even to the unqualified eye, the iconic structures clustered throughout the coastal locale are a pastiche, accumulations of architectural and urban practices of the 20th century, giving rise to an aesthetic tension between past and future. Rem Koolhaas, who headed the 2014 iteration of the Architecture Biennale, questioned what truly constitutes Emirati architectural history and whether the vernacular architecture informs contemporary practice, who tells this narrative, records it, remembers, and then interprets it? It depends on which perspective one views it from.

When asked to consider what legacy might be left if Dubai was discovered centuries from now, emerging from the sand yet again, Elsheshtawy replies, “A work in progress. A society that is trying to be forward-looking, international and make an impact – but there is a hidden side offering a contradictory message.” Dubai is a paradox; its rapid evolution and technical prowess keep the focus on its future, but due to this accelerated pace and youthfulness, it can only rely and draw upon its history and its borrowed past.

The 15th Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition runs until the 27th of November 2016. For more information visit, you can visit their website.

    Katrina is a contemporary arts editor/writer and TCK based in the Middle East with a special fondness for abject art, gourmet cheese and asking too many questions.

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