Abu Dhabi’s Oldest Commercial Building Awaits the Wrecking Ball

What is Abu Dhabi’s oldest commercial building? It’s a question that I was curious about, though never knew where or how to find the answer.

Turns out, it’s the Bin Aweidah Building, a humble but handsome three-story concrete-and-glass Modernist building on Hamdan Street, next to the Crowne Plaza, according to The National.

Dating to 1968, the building originally housed Westinghouse on the ground floor, and the rooftop penthouse for Saadiyat Island’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands Research Station.

The  building could also reference Mies van der Rohe’s steel-and-glass masterpieces, and adds  geometric flourishes along the roof cornice, and foreshadows the glass-heavy architectural styles that would dominate Gulf architecture.

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The ground floor used to be a hive of activity — I counted signs for White-Westinghouse, Emirates Travel, and Arab Business Systems.

Nick Leech has a great article in The National about the building’s history:

As David Spearing remembers, the modest building took less than a year to complete, using architectural drawings flown in from England – there was no way of producing or reproducing architectural plans in Abu Dhabi at the time – and the services of the Dubai Contracting Company.

Now the Bin Aweidah Building presumably awaits demolition for a condo or office tower, and one of Abu Dhabi’s gems will be lost forever.

Abu Dhabi could still save it with a Landmarks Preservation Committee type organization to preserve Modern architectural gems, like Mina’s Bayt Al Jenaibi.

Post updated with more insights on the building.



End Credits for Abu Dhabi’s El Dorado Cinema

End credits for Abu Dhabi’s El Dorado Cinema this week, a sad closing for the capital’s oldest indoor cinema and its wonderful neon signs.

While I wish I had been inside, I paid my respects this past week, and was saddened and alarmed to see workers already taking down the neon sign facing Electra Street.

el dorado closing

The El Dorado Cinema’s neon sign facing Electra Street being removed in November 2017.  / Steve Baron

Though the site dates to the 1960s, the current cinema was built in 1985. Founded by Jerusalem-born Jordanian Ferdinand Lama and the Beiruti Atef Karam, El Dorado originally screened English and Arabic films, and later switched to Bollywood, according to a fantastic article in The National.

What is to become of the cinema is up in the air. The most frequent re-use for cinemas in the United States are mega-churches, but converting into a house of worship is not feasible here in Abu Dhabi. It seems like a challenge to tear down the cinema, and as it’s wedged between two towers.

Casablanca’s Cosmopolitanism in Focus at Dubai Design Week 2017

One of my favorite cities, Casablanca, Morocco, took the pride position of “Iconic City” under the theme “Loading…Casa” at the recent Dubai Design Week 2017.

The city, designed by French planners from the 1920s, is the faded Art Deco gem of the French colonial empire, and also a bustling, diverse, and tough metropolis.

Wrapped within a “graphic mural landscape”, the small but powerful exhibition highlights include the wonderful Red Balloon-style city symphony film “Casa One Day”, a boy who holds up a mirror to Casablanca’s fading architecture and residents.

Amnesiac memory: Not a single commemorative plaque, no inscriptions nor steles exist to inform visitors about the people who created this city. Casablanca cultivates the obligation of oblivion: a tomb without an epitaph.

Intriguing postcards and old photos show the Art Deco Casablanca — Africa’s largest cinema and swimming pool — and grand buildings that were tragically demolished in the 1970s. Plus audio soundscapes of the city, photos comparing Casablanca to Dubai, and a traditional tapestry.

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Documenting the Old Sharjah Planetarium with the Sharjah Art Foundation

Planetariums are special places — taking you on a journey through the universe, and immortalized in films “Rebel Without a Cause” with the Griffith Observatory.

So I eagerly joined the “Architectural Photography Workshop at the Old Sharjah Planetarium” by the Sharjah Art Foundation, where we snapped photos mostly of the exterior of the building. In this gallery, I’ve highlighted the stark geometric lines while also placing the building in the context of the human body.

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One step inside, with some immersive Sharjah Biennal audio-visual installations, and you realize that it was never a real planetarium — somehow the ceiling would light up with stars.

There’s surprisingly little information on the building’s history. Organizers told us it was a coast guard building in Egypt, and then transferred here sometime after the Camp David Accords in 1978. It was later converted into a planetarium.

Now in a desolate parking lot, the Old Sharjah Planetarium faces an uncertain future due to road widening and the recent opening of a stunning new planetarium in University City of Sharjah.

NYU Abu Dhabi’s Stunning Urbanist Saadiyat Island Campus

The National has wonderful pieces today on the new NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campusstunningly urbanist, and designed by New Yorks’ Rafael Viñoly Architects.

While I’ll miss the Down Town Campus, whose site on the Old Fish Market seemed more aligned to NYU New York’s goal of being “in and of the city”, the Saadiyat Island campus is open and quad-like to encourage cross-discipline interaction.

It’s also sized to scale up – totaling 4.7 million square feet (!), and hosting a 21st-century IT network infrastructure to support Connected Learning.

Earliest Sketch of Abu Dhabi Includes Watchtowers

Cool to see the earliest-known map of Abu Dhabi — discovered in London’s National Maritime Museum! The map, which dates from 1859 and was sketched by Lt. RW Wish in the East India Company’s Indian Navy, shows watchtowers, which I’ve heard were across Abu Dhabi Island and Saadiyat Island, rather than just at Al Maqtaa Fort.

How and when were those additional towers destroyed?

Sketch titled ‘Aboothubbi’ by R W Whish 145 years ago.

Sketch titled ‘Aboothubbi’ by R W Whish 145 years ago. Courtesy National Maritime Museum via The National

“We know that the mid-19th century was a very turbulent time for the Baniyas and this image shows that Abu Dhabi was larger and better protected than we may have considered. This sketch documents not just Abu Dhabi’s emergence as a pearling centre in the Gulf but as a player on the world stage.” -Eric Langham, Co-Founder, Barker Langham.

Urban Compass Predicts UAE’s Urban Trends for 2014

Re-launching Urban Fabric with a new annual feature called “Urban Compass.” Like a compass, these five  trends will guide the UAE’s urban development in 2014:

1. World Expo 2020 — Rising rents, metro expansion, “tourism dirham” hotel tax, Dubai World Central’s continued development, and maritime developments are all being driven by World Expo 2020.

A masterplan for the 438-hectare site is coming in Q3 2015. USD 24 billion in spending. 25 million visitors. 300,000 jobs. And it’s only six years away.

2. Rise of Smart CitiesDubai Smart City, announced by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (UAE Vice President and Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai), will drive the city’s advancement into a global “Smart City” leader. Self-driving cars, advanced utilities monitoring, and integrated healthcare are all in the fast lane.

But it’s not all Jetsons-type fantasies. GCC cities are also ramping up Smart City initiatives to become more globally competitive. Don’t count out Abu Dhabi, Doha, or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s six Economic Cities!

3. More Mass Transit — Extending Dubai Metro’s Red and Green lines and the tram is a modest plan for World Expo 2020, considering that metro daily ridership has tripled since 2010, now standing room only at 366,000. Abu Dhabi’s 131 km metro and tram lines and Etihad Rail’s commuter rail projects are fast-approaching.

Now is the time for Dubai to think big and develop a mass transit plan on par with New York’s never-finished “Second System“. If Sheikh Zayed Road is double-decked, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have trains or BRT on the lower deck?

Transit oriented development at Union Square.

Artistic impression of the new multi-facility Transit Oriented Development to be built at Union Square. / Courtesy RTA via Gulf News.

4. Transit-Oriented Development — Considering Abu Dhabi only has bus lines, the capital gets transit-oriented development: dense, walkable, mixed-use development on corners and mass transit lines. Dubai’s moving ahead with a massive development at Union Station. Ibn Batuta seems ripe for development.

5. Mobile Technology — Dubai’s RTA has a several mobile apps, the ability to pay metro fare via NFC-enabled smartphones, and recently launched Nol card bus fare payment to Abu Dhabi. In Abu Dhabi, NYU AD students have created a version of the Dérive app to become a flâneur in the capital. Expect more tech and transit integration. GPS-tracked buses should be next.

City to Watch: Sharjah. The Islamic Capital of Culture for 2014 has kicked off with the Sharjah Light Festival, and has a wide range of activities for the year.

Darkhorse City to Watch: Fujairah. This East Coast town is flush with oil money, and developing fast. In 10 years, it could be the next Abu Dhabi.

David Chipperfield: Doha’s Msheireb is ‘Optimistic’ Model for Urban Regeneration

Part of Behind the Blueprints series of interviews with architects and urban influencers.

DOHA — Doha’s forthcoming Msheireb neighbourhood is an “optimistic” example of how cities can learn from their past, proclaimed prominent British architect David Chipperfield.

David Chipperfield is a fan of Doha’s Msheireb neighbourhood. / Image via Doha Architecture Forum.

“The reason we love cities is for their complexity, for the collision of different values and different things, that organic quality,” Chipperfield said at a Doha Architecture Forum talk at the Museum of Islamic Art in mid-June. “How do we learn from the historic and organic city?” Msheireb, he said, “is a real step in planning areas of the city here, it’s a very optimistic development direction.”

Chipperfield also focussed on urban organic development as director of the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012, with the theme “Common Ground”. (Interview with Dezeen below.)

“We confuse public space for retail space, which (public space) isn’t all to do with eating or shopping,” he told the packed auditorium. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t have retail space or luxury housing, but how do we make sure the city is rich in diversity in ways that are real, not monolithic?”

Al Shaqab Hotel

Artist’s rendering of Chipperfield’s Al Shaqab Hotel in Doha. / Image via Astad.

Chipperfield’s career has been largely outside of his native England. He’s in Doha to work with Qatar Foundation on the Al Shaqab Hotel, previously collaborating on a museum-like space in the ancient ruins of Naqa/Naga’a, Sudan.

Chipperfield studied architecture at Kingston University’s Art School, and trained under Modern architects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, who changed the “gentlemanly” and isolated profession, he said. But with work hard to find at home, Chipperfield wound up overseas designing shops in Japan.

“Given our contemporary condition that we are inevitably globalised, what’s important is that it forces you to think what you could do in that place, the possibilities and context of what that place could be,” Chipperfield said on working abroad. “I wasn’t an established architect with a certain style, I had to work out what was appropriate and what might be a clue or a way in from the physical or social context that might start that process.

Neues Museum

The Neues Museum in Berlin had been a bombed-out ruin before Chipperfield’s restoration. / Image via Arch Daily, Flickr’s stijn.

“It’s always been in someone else’s city, and you have to be a bit sensitive that you’re playing with someone else’s place.” He added: “As an outsider, you can identify qualities that others can’t see, and concentrate that experience.”

Perhaps his best known work is the restoration of the bombed-out Neues Museum in Berlin, housing ancient artifacts, and won the Mies van der Rohe 2011 Award.

Chipperfield’s also acclaimed for Turner Contemporary, his first public building in England. Located in Margate, it pairs historical work of landscape artist JMW Turner with contemporary artists.

Turner Contemporary

Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK, optimises the northern light. / Image via de zeen.

“[Turner] said: ‘These are the most beautiful skies in all of Europe,'” Chipperfield beamed. “The light comes off the water, and the galleries get their light from the north. The idea is to make these rooms like small studios, as if the artist had just gone out to lunch.”

Chipperfield also designed BBC Scotland HQ, with a walkway on top of studios, and in my home of Philadelphia, he did the Penn Museum Masterplan.

“We have to find ways to find a bridge between the viewer, experiencer and architecture, and that can’t just be a sort of amazement,” Chipperfield said. “It’s a difficult one, especially at a large scale, in a place like Doha where we can be tempted into being a bit too literal. The use of recogniseable forms like silhouette and shapes, the visceral quality of materials, are ways by which we might befriend occupants.” -30-

Massimiliano Fuksas: Focus on Cinematic Architecture

How do you translate the visual language of iconic films into striking architecture?

By the dynamic interplay of light and water, according to Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas, who presented on his wide-ranging work at the Doha Architecture Forum, with an opening by Msheireb’s Architectural Language Advisor Tim Makower, at the Msheireb Enrichment Centre in mid-May.

Ferrari HQ

Fuksas’ Ferrari’s HQ in Italy, partially inspired by directors Hitchcock and Kubrick, by Maurizio Marcato via Architecture Lab.

“If a building is dancing with the light, it’s a nice building,” Fuksas continued. “If it does not have vibration or emotion, it cannot work. It’s not enough to do only function, there are a lot of buildings that do only function. They ask for us something else — passion, emotion.”

Perhaps Fuksas’ best-known work is the Ferrari Operational Headquarters and Research Centre in Maranello, Italy (2004).

“When you see water, and the ceiling, and the reflection — the ceiling becomes dynamic,” he said excitedly. “Inside, it’s inspired by Hitchcock. You see a quiet Japanese garden, you can do a theatrical promenade, you can see, watch and arrive in an area with water. [One of the meeting rooms] looks like a Kubrick movie, with a void and red glass.”

Similarly inspiring is the Nardini Grappa Distillery (2004). Confined to an area walled in by trees, Fuksas was tasked to design an auditorium and research centres.

“At lunch, I did a project on the dish,” he said. “We put two wine bubbles, and we built. This is a typical Italian magical mystery!”

Fuksas designed two UFO-like glass pods, each with 365 glass panels, for research labs, and one doubles as an exhibition space, with a below-ground auditorium. Fuksas employed local artisans to construct the whole site.

“These stairways are coming into the water and come down, and there are some bubbles that take the light during the day and light up at night,” Fuksas said. “That’s what I love — the tension.”

During the wide-ranging talk, he also touched on the serpentine glass-covered New Milan Trade Fair in Italy, the wonderfully organic flower-shaped civic buildings in Tbilisi, Georgia, and the engineering marvel honeycombed Shenzhen International Airport’s Terminal 3 in China to open in 2015.

Fuksas says Doha can test future urbansim. / Giorgio Muratore via Wikimedia Commons.

Fuksas was excited about the possibilities for a booming Doha. “Here, you’re in the beginning of an urban explosion, especially with globalisation,” he said.

Architects can test different urbanist approaches in Doha. “Test is a bad word, it has positive and negative connotations,” Fuksas said. “But we have to test how 7 billion people will be living in the future.”

One aspiring architect asked about developing an architectural canon. Fuksas disagreed.

“Take inspiration from nature, from love, from books. Go around the world, see everything. Everything can be an inspiration. Architecture is not a language — it’s many languages into one. That’s why I love architecture: one symbol for many languages.” -30-

Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar, Architecture of Light and Emotion

Jean Nouvel, the Pritzker Prize-winning French starchitect, is designing several important buildings in the Arabian Gulf — including the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island and the signature skyscraper Doha Tower, with an outer skin resembling the Arabian latticework called mashrabiya.

In May 2013, Nouvel presented on his projects in dialogue with architect Todd Reisz, with a particular focus on the striking new National Museum of Qatar, slated to open in December 2014, according to the Qatar Museums Authority.

Originally Nouvel had proposed the National Museum of Qatar to be underground, but re-designed it with a “desert rose” pattern.

“It’s now more symbolic in direct view with the desert, with a crystallisation pattern that creates orthography of scale,” he said. “The walls become a symbol of modernity, with the whole building monochrome as if it’s in and out of the sand, and belongs to the ground.”

“My creations give geometry of light printed on the ground, with a tower like the minaret, and shadows on gliders [that] are part of the Arabian soul.” -Jean Nouvel, via DAF.

The centrepiece of the site is the former Qatar National Museum, which before being opened in 1975 was the Amiri Palace. It was built in 1918 by Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, and the restoration led to an Agha Khan Award in 1980.

“It’s necessary to keep its nobleness,” Nouvel said of the former Amiri Palace. “All around there is an homage of a territory and strong contrast. There’s a caravanserai all around. Dive into the ground, and the desert rose frames the Royal Palace.”

Inside, visitors will discover a unique experience on exhibits about the desert, sea and the current global site of Qatar with ethnographic artifacts.

Doha Tower

Jean Nouvel’s Doha Tower, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“It’s not only showing pieces of fabric, pots and camel saddles,” Nouvel quipped. “Here you arrive at a stream, and move like water in a torrent, with a dynamic visit and a new way to experience spaces and the structure. I want people to go to places — from the museum they can take a boat, car or helicopter trips to the desert, islands and all places in Qatar.”

Nouvel emphasised that his designs use technology to create emotion, from the Institute of the Arab World in Paris to Doha Tower.

“My creations give geometry of light printed on the ground,” Nouvel said, “with a tower like the minaret, and shadows on gliders [that] are part of the Arabian soul.”

Playing off his Torre Agbar in Barcelona, Doha Tower has an outer skin, and a helmet that resembles a 10th century Arabian book, he said. The Council on Tall Building and Urban Habitat named it the “Best Tall Building Worldwide” in 2012.

“A tower has to be seen from very far, it’s not something to be cloned,” Nouvel said. “It has to have a strong character, and a key is to reflect the history and geography. You see this (Doha Tower) alone, it could be an Arabian country — the permanent protection here couldn’t be in London.” -30-