Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Norman Foster tour of Abu Dhabi: part 1

Living in Abu Dhabi has brought the unexpected benefit of witnessing the city’s nascent rise as a cultural center of the region, with perhaps the strongest innovations being in the area of architecture. “Surely sir, you jest!” might be the incredulous reply of those of us who are accustomed to seeing ubiquitous, god-awful amalgams of cement and glass around Abu Dhabi, testaments to the worst dehumanizing tendencies of modern Western architecture.

On our way to work or play, we drive past block after block of lifeless rows of buildings which look as if they were produced from the same mold, manufactured like so many widgets on an assembly line. Much of this type of construction was likely encouraged by an initial impulse of the UAE government back in the 1970s and 80s to hastily create an image of “sophistication” and “modernity” so as to be taken seriously on the global stage on which they were just beginning to find their footing. As a consequence, many structures were built without much thought for longevity, as they now stand in various states of decay.

Things began to change in the 90s with a realization that if the rapid pace of development continued, the Emirati cultural heritage would be in danger of being utterly lost. Consequently, an interest emerged in “vernacular architecture” which was basically an attempt to preserve indigenous architectural styles through the construction (or reconstruction) of historic buildings using past materials and methods, while also incorporating modern technologies like track lighting and air conditioning. Some examples of this can be found in Sharjah’s Old Quarter and in Dubai’s Bastakiya district.

While these attempts at preserving the past are both commendable and necessary, it seems to me that Emiratis in general are far more interested in looking toward the future. This is plainly evident in a number of architectural projects under development by Foster + Partners, led by one of the architectural trend setters of the world, Sir Norman Foster himself.

When my little sister, Ann, visited us in March, we set out to see two of Foster’s most recent projects, The Souk at Central Market, near the intersection of Airport Road and the Corniche, and Masdar City, out by the airport. I am by no means a trained architectural critic and so my thoughts on these structures are obviously only those of an interested layman. I suppose my main objective in even writing on these topics is to raise awareness about their existence and thus hopefully encourage others to visit them and form their own opinions.

Okay, on to the Central Market! Basically, this is a modern interpretation of the traditional souk, and it is a welcomed change from the seemingly endless proliferation of malls in Abu Dhabi. Ann and I went there one weekday afternoon shortly before its official opening, so most of the structure had been completed.

My first thought was, “Wow, this is super cool...but what an awful location!” As you can see from the photos, it is surrounded by some of those monstrosities alluded to earlier in the post, a number of which are extremely dilapidated at that! More importantly, no one side of it is exposed to any major public thoroughfare. As a result, its visibility is greatly reduced. I’m sure an argument can be made (and perhaps is made) that this is both an example of the way in which souks seamlessly fit into the communities of which they were a part as well as an attempt at urban renewal. If so, then the best of luck!

The exterior and interior façades are composed of a lattice work design mixed with the occasional mashrabiya that are certainly traditional in concept. This, coupled with the use of synthetic wood-like materials, give the building a warmth that is quite inviting. Once inside, one immediately notices the narrow passageway surrounded by high walls, a technique historically employed to provide shade in outdoor settings, yet we find it being deployed in an indoor one here. It seems then the objective here was to create the ethos of a traditional outdoor souk. For the most part, I think Foster succeeds.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the building is the exquisite natural light which permeates every corner of the souk, also a direct consequence of the structure and design. I don’t think my photos do it justice so you’ll just have to go and see for yourself!

If we had driven there, I might instead be singing the praises of its parking. Yes, that’s right; finally a building in Abu Dhabi has been constructed with parking as more than an afterthought! While the souk itself has three levels of shops and restaurants, I was told that there would be five (count them five) levels of underground parking! The website claims that this is enough to accommodate 1300 cars. Bravo, Sir Foster, bravo.

In addition to ample underground parking, a multi-tiered roof creates a social space where one can grab a bite to eat, enjoy some sheesha, or just be outdoors when the weather complies. The experience there is mixed, however. While it’s well designed and pleasantly landscaped with greenery, the only view is of surrounding buildings, a few of which have paint-chipped facades and balconies crowded with clothes hung out to dry. Of course, the landscaping also serves a functional purpose in providing a sort of natural air-conditioning that minimizes the roof’s (and thus the building’s) temperature. This eye towards “green building” and sustainability is characteristic of Foster's.

To date though, Foster’s most concentrated attempt to merge architecture with sustainability perhaps has been Masdar City. After spending some time exploring the Souk at Central Market, Ann and I decided to make the drive out there to see for ourselves why Masdar City has received so much publicity.

No comments:

Post a Comment