Now walk to the back of the building – where everything interesting usually happens. The dark porch is hidden from passersby, which creates intimacy for the building’s residents. Cross the threshold. There is an old, broken down chair, black tiles on the walls, and grey stones on the floor. Do not be discouraged by the cold, hostile atmosphere inside. Move on to the elevator, and be ready because the doors close fast. When you reach your floor, look at the doors with their elegant, rhombus shaped cutouts.
I was lucky enough to meet my guides downstairs. Two young professionals showed me where they live and shared a bit of history. The three-bedroom apartment, home to nine bachelors, was in poor condition. Flats are rented out for a low cost, and maintenance is shabby. Despite the circumstances, the beauty of the building was still pervasive. As I walked to the balcony, I immediately saw the ornaments that had caught my attention.
Through the cutouts, I could see roaring Hamdan Street, torrents of cars, people going back and forth, and the crowded shops lining the road. Life was at its peak. Come to the Al-Otaiba building and experience this magical, almost childish experience: looking through the door-lock. This is the revelation of Abu Dhabi’s teeming life, right in front of your eyes.
One of my guides told me that Al-Otaiba was the first building on Hamdan Street to be higher than one floor. Sheikh Zayed exclaimed that it was already too high – what would he say if he saw Burj Khalifa with its 163 floors? What would he say about the World Trade Center towers?
Al-Otaiba was not always surrounded by skyscrapers and glass towers. It was once a cheerful building, with nice and hospitable surroundings. The neighborhood around Al-Otaiba was one of the informal areas in Abu Dhabi where people would walk, talk, and spend time together. It has changed since the Central Market was demolished. The construction of the new Central Market and of the World Trade Center towers left no place for hanging out, playing, or chatting. If the office towers manage to attract other professionals to the area, Al-Otaiba could become a rendezvous and a hangout again, where people could take breaks and socialize with each other.
If the building is refurbished and renovated, it has the potential to regain its former liveliness, and to remind the people of Abu Dhabi of where they come from: a harmonious place where, not so long ago, modern architecture made everyday experience more captivating.