Preservation and development are not mutually exclusive. The pace at which Abu Dhabi has risen into an international melting pot has brought about massive changes, but the frantic cycle of construction and demolition threatens to leave the nation without a memory. Today, we face the risk of forgetting how the great transformation of the city occurred.
Jean Nouvel, the architect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, recently lauded Abu Dhabi as being on the brink of a "golden age."  This statement is characteristic of the prevailing attitude toward Abu Dhabi’s progress. Nouvel and other "starchitects," although well versed in the history of architecture, tend to undervalue Abu Dhabi’s recent past, and forget that the display of one’s accomplishments lacks something if there is no record of the experience leading to them. This is not to say that the future should imitate the past, but rather, that it should not trample over it as if it had never existed.
This text is driven by the desires to cultivate the memory of the place and to promote architectural preservation. The architecture of the country’s independence, a modernist statement brought forth in the 1970s and 80s, is severely endangered. Its gradual extinction under the pressure of development led us to document it, and to promote it with the eagerness and urgency this mission deserves. This text will guide the reader through examples of Abu Dhabi’s modern architecture.
The history of the UAE is only forty-two years long, yet the country radically changed during this period. After oil was struck in 1958 and the economy boomed, Abu Dhabi was rebuilt entirely and attracted vast influxes of immigrants and visitors. This large foreign population impacted the city’s landscape and built environment. Modern architecture soon became a crucial part of Emirati history. Abu Dhabi’s main public buildings, including the Courthouse (Abdul Rahman Makhlouf 1977), the Cultural Foundation (TAC 1979), the Bus Terminal (Bulgarconsult A&E 1989), and the Municipality (Bulgarconsult A&E 1990) are prominent icons of modernism.
The majority of the city’s population has roots far outside the region—and so does modern architecture. The European and American precursors of modern architecture were influenced by the Industrial Revolution, whose methods they emulated to revolutionize building techniques. Modernism developed as an art movement, and as both an adaptation and a resistance to industrial capitalism. It became increasingly internationalized after WWII.
Central to modern architecture was Le Corbusier’s urge, against industrial hubris, "to study the house for the common man," and "to recover human foundations: the human scale, the typical need, the typical function, the typical emotion."  For him, "the house is a machine for living in." Modern architects valued functionality and considered ornamentation superfluous. They would "accept no predetermined solution to a problem," and would "go back to first principles in order to solve problems for which history had no precedents." They saw that "the needs of this age are in nearly every case totally different from the needs of the previous ages."  The tools of the age were also very different. Thanks to mechanization and prefabrication, modern architecture economized space, time, and money. With pragmatism, clean lines, open spaces, and the frank expression of structure, modern architects revolutionized design.
After dominating both the interwar and post-WWII period in the West, modern architecture fell victim to the energy and public spending crisis in the 1970s. By that time, it had already found a home in the oil-producing states of the Middle East, where architects and planners were invited in the 1950s and 1960s to build new cities that were needed by new nations. In Baghdad, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, modern architects thought they had found the blank slate they had theorized.
As postmodernism settled in the West after the 1973 energy crisis, modern architecture grew deeper roots in the Middle East. Abu Dhabi in particular, with its sparse population and its vast oil reserves, was experiencing an economic boom that allowed for large-scale development projects. Sheikh Zayed sought out architects to build large sports complexes, government buildings, and social housing. The architects enlisted to build the city were coming out of a time and place where modern architecture was the holy grail of design. Major municipal buildings were designed with modernist forms, and builders of Abu Dhabi’s common commercial and residential buildings followed suit. Today, modernism is the vernacular architecture of Abu Dhabi.
The city’s original built structures from the 1970s and 1980s have simple designs with right angles, circular forms, and minimal ornamentation. Crisp geometric forms signal what Le Corbusier called "geometric truths."  When one looks at Abu Dhabi’s modernist buildings, the eye does not have to interpret the structure; it quickly registers the neutral form, and understands the function of the building. By the 1980s, the city was filled with mid-rise concrete buildings, where shops and offices cohabited with residential spaces.
Far from being a foreign import to the UAE, modern architecture became a conduit for the expression of a new Emirati identity. By rationally addressing the unique problems of a region through a carefully designed built environment, modern architecture can become a "national architecture."  During the 1980s, however, architects operating in Abu Dhabi started to use Arab and Islamic ornaments. Rather than the simple and rational repertoire of the 1970s and early 1980s, they grasped on to anecdotal conceptions of the Arab built environment. The functionality of the building no longer guided design. Our guide focuses on Abu Dhabi’s modern architecture between 1968 and 1992, before this shift away from the Emirati modern toward a more post-modern, orientalist style.
Several modern architects settled in Abu Dhabi. There were the now unknown builders, invisible architects who designed many of the city’s most exciting mixed-use buildings while drawing their inspiration from international projects. There were those influential modern architects who briefly came to the city, and left. In 1975, Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, one of the major representatives of the Metabolist movement, submitted a proposal for a conference city in Abu Dhabi, but the project was not built. In 1988, Kurokawa designed the new university of Al-Ain with a proposal that incorporated structural regional elements.
Other modern architects stayed in town longer. The Architects Collaborative (TAC), an American architectural firm founded by Walter Gropius, was involved in the planning of the Abu Dhabi Public Library and Cultural Center (1979). Hisham N. Ashkouri, an Iraqi architect who trained at MIT, Harvard, and Tufts, submitted the winning entry for the design, incorporating regional design solutions into international architecture.
TAC had struck a chord. Jafar Tukan, a Jordanian-Palestinian architect born in 1938, worked as an architect and urban planner in Beirut, Dubai, and Amman. His work in Abu Dhabi can be seen in the stunning Ministry of Finance, erected in 1979. Rifat Chadirji, an Iraqi architect born in 1926, designed Abu Dhabi’s National Theater (1970). Like Kurokawa and Ashkouri, Chadirji successfully united modernism and regionalism. The Armed Forces Officers Club (1987), designed by French architect Roger Taillibert, born in 1926, is another exciting expression of Emirati modernism. Built in a way that evokes a Bedouin tent and a stingray, Taillibert’s structure is a manifestation of the innovative eclecticism that is now native to Abu Dhabi.
Both the sense of history and the aspiration toward modernism are grounded in the sufferings of the pre-oil era. Before the 1960s, living conditions were harsh; food and fresh water were scarce. There was only one school in the region and no hospitals at all: the sick had to wait for the doctor, who came from Dubai only once a week.  People lived in simply constructed buildings, while merchants could afford to build coral block buildings.
By the mid-20th century, the pearl trade, once a major industry in Abu Dhabi, had declined because of the 1930s economic crisis and the fashion of Japanese cultured pearls. Abu Dhabi’s urban development began as a result of the discovery of oil in 1958. Sheikh Shakhbut Al Nahyan commissioned the city’s first master plan, proposed by British architect John Harris. The 1962 plan integrated the old city with the new one, and was characterized by curved roads and organic shapes.  However, this plan was never implemented. In 1966, Sheikh Zayed came to power and called in new planners and engineers. After the Arabicon engineering firm and British architect John Elliott planned the utility networks, American planner Katsuhiko Takahashi designed a new master plan in 1967. He suggested that Abu Dhabi be built along the utility grid. The city would be easy to get around, and its infrastructure would be quick to access.  In 1968, Egyptian planner Abdul Rahman Makhlouf inherited the Elliott and Takahashi plans, which he amended and continued.
Elliott, Takahashi and Makhlouf’s modernist planning allowed for a swift transformation. Following modernism’s interest for social progress, large parks were created and public services were made widely available. The Officers’ Club and Zayed Sports City, with their monolithic volumes and their large scale, show the nascent state’s confidence in new beginnings. Large mosques were also built, in replacement of older structures and as an accessible and central feature of each neighborhood.
International modernism was a convenient vocabulary for a city with such a diverse and multicultural society. Abu Dhabi was quickly becoming a class society, where members of the working class have almost no access to public spaces, let alone to public forums.
The city’s aim has recently been to control and eliminate the kind of informal behavior that would hamper real estate development.  An example of this is the vast urban renewal operation conducted around the Central Market. The original market, a simple, modern structure built by Abdul Rahman Makhlouf and famous for its thriving multiethnic atmosphere, was demolished in 2005. It was replaced by a sleek shopping center designed by Sir Norman Foster.
To better study and preserve the city’s modernist landmarks, the Authority for Culture and Heritage (now part of the Tourism and Culture Authority, TCA) created the Modern Heritage Preservation Initiative in 2011. TCA’s goal is to provide citizens with a sense of continuity in time (modern architecture is the missing link between the pre-oil vernacular and current gleaming developments), as well as in space. Modern architecture in Abu Dhabi fits the modernist urban layout of the city.
Analogous to Brasilia, arterial roads created the image of the city, and their grid was meant to allow for swift traffic and easy navigation. This clear structure contrasts with Dubai’s sprawl and the webbed urban structure of other Gulf cities. The perceived uniformity of the city from the arterial roads belies the myriad of forms inside the blocks, where sikkas (alleys) between buildings allow for pedestrians to filter in and out. Two distinct urban forms coexist: the inhospitable but efficient road network, designed for the car, and the interior of the superblocks, designed on a more human scale.
The automobile played a significant role in shaping the urban landscape. When the first plans were drawn up in the 1960s, car transportation had become a global standard and was seen as an emblem of modernity. Today, car parks occupy much of the vacant space in the city, and the constant traffic flow becomes a natural crowd-shaper inside the superblocks. Superblocks are very heterogeneous. In some, mixed-use buildings are clumped together in incongruous clusters, while in others, Makhlouf’s vision for adjoining family compounds is still clear.
In the 1980s the Khalifa Committee was created to distribute plots of land to Emirati citizens. In 1988, a new master plan was drawn up by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council. The Council advised the expansion of the increasingly dense city onto neighboring islands (Saadiyat and Reem Islands).  The size of the plots and the demand for housing led to an increasingly vertical cityscape. Finally, in 2007, the government established the Urban Planning Council (UPC) to provide a vision for the future planning of the city: the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan. Sustainability is one of the plan’s main guidelines, and extends from the natural environment to economic development, social cohesion, and heritage preservation. The UPC is promoting the vision of a city with fewer cars, more public transportation options, more pedestrian spaces, and an overall use of passive design solutions. The preservation of modern buildings, which give a sense of space and time and have served as landmarks for several decades, is one of the natural consequences of this strategy.
Yet the demolition of modern buildings is under way. There are two reasons for this. First, real estate investments need more open spaces, and such modern landmarks as the Volcano Fountain on the Corniche or the Old Fish Market were in the way. Second, older structures that have fallen into disrepair leave their owners with few options besides demolition. The perspective of building higher and of attracting new constituencies downtown drives both public and private development, and threatens the modernist heritage.
Modern architecture was functionalist and therefore disposable (if the function disappears, the building has to follow suit). It was also self-referential, and its builders were partisans of the tabula rasa. In this sense, there is something undeniably modern about the demolition of modern buildings—it makes way for more modern structures and creates the blank slate needed for future development. The radical character of modern architecture is not the only argument for its preservation. Modern buildings also have social and communal significance.
Docomomo International, a nonprofit created in 1988 and devoted to the preservation and documentation of modernist buildings, listed social merit as one of the reasons why modern architecture has to be preserved. Other criteria include: the innovative value of a building, the use of new material in its construction, its aesthetic character, and its significance in relation to other modernist buildings.  The Central Market that was demolished in 2005 is a good case-in-point. Planned as a rigid grid of shops connected by narrow alleyways, it hosted more than the economic activities for which it was built. Social interaction, informal exchanges, and all sorts of gatherings flourished along its alleys. They created a value that reached far beyond the building’s engineering, architectural, or aesthetic features. In a city whose culture and history were shaped by modernism, emblematic modern buildings should be preserved.
How we wrote this guide
Each author documented several buildings, landmarks, and public spaces. The contributors selected both public sites and mixed-use buildings, the latter being typically used for commercial as well as residential purposes. We made sure that enough mixed-use buildings were documented because they are generally overlooked and are the most threatened by development. The majority of the sites examined in this guide are still standing. A few structures were about to be demolished at the time of publication. Alongside the Docomomo guidelines, our selection criteria included architectural interest, historic value, and the role of buildings in shaping Abu Dhabi’s urban experience. However, this guide does not seek to be the ultimate collection of Abu Dhabi’s architectural gems. It is more of an insight into what Abu Dhabi has to offer to whomever is willing to look at its modern built heritage.
We combined extensive fieldwork and archival research in our work. The documentation process often began by repeatedly visiting the buildings or structures in order to view and photograph them at different times of the day, get a sense of place, and interact with their residents and users. The idea was to understand the design’s logic in relation to its function, since this relationship is an essential aspect of modern architecture. We also looked into how the overall shape and planning of the building served its users, as well as how it interacted with its immediate environment.
In addition, we studied the history of each site. One of the problems that we faced was the dearth of archival and printed materials on the urban and architectural history of Abu Dhabi. The search for information often had to be creative and involved emailing the city’s architecture aficionados, whose help was invaluable in gathering information.
A main source of information is the group of people whom we identified as having a connection to the site, such as tenants, shopkeepers, buildings managers, landlords, doormen, cleaning staff, and even passersby. Each of the guide’s authors interviewed people about their personal stories and sought out factual information. We also asked people their opinions about the aesthetics and significance of the buildings. Many residents were surprised by our keen interest and enthusiasm for these often overlooked spaces.
The language barrier, distrust, and doubts about where to find information were some of the issues we encountered. Some tenants did not mind letting writers into their homes, at times even inviting them for lunch. Others limited the interaction to a brief interview at the threshold. Some doormen were suspicious of our interest, and did not allow the contributors to freely roam without obtaining permission from the manager. Hotels were even stricter in this regard, and monitored our photographs through the entire visit. When asking real estate agencies, we found that property managers were not allowed to disclose plans of the buildings, and that landlords were usually absent or unreachable.
When buildings were about to be demolished, writers had to find where the shops had relocated to inquire about the site. If a building had already been torn down, we were entirely reliant on archives, old photographs, and interviews with witnesses and architecture experts.
Construction dates and architect names often remained unknown. Realizing how difficult it was to track down information, our faith in the project’s relevance greatly increased. We hope that this guide will play a role to help locate information on projects built between 1968 and 1992, and draws the public’s attention to the importance of documentation and preservation. Above all, however, we wish to stimulate the appreciation for Abu Dhabi’s overlooked architectural and historic wealth.
How to use this guide
Thirty important buildings and landmarks are included in this guide. In addition to providing you with a general outlook on the history of the city, the guide aspires to advocate for a deeper understanding of the crucial fragments of Abu Dhabi’s history through the preservation of its modern architecture. The landmarks are presented based on their locations in the city, beginning with the center of town and tracing concentric circles around it. Modern architecture is best discovered on foot, even though a few sites will necessitate motorized transportation.
The images and sketches of the buildings are mostly (but not always) produced by the authors of the relevant articles. Except for the demolished landmarks, the photographs highlight the current state of the buildings. The authors are hugely grateful to the architects, urban planners, city officials, and the well-wishers who kindly shared their knowledge, pictures and documents. Their enthusiasm and support were instrumental in making this exploration of the capital’s modern architecture possible.
1. Emily Cleland, "Abu Dhabi on brink of ‘golden age’ as architecture legends hail Saadiyat," The National
, November 8, 2012. Web. January 17, 2014. link
2. Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007, p. 84.
3. J.M. Richards, An Introduction to Modern Architecture, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960, p.14, 26, 28.
4. Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007, p. 134.
5. Sibel Bozdogang, Modernism and Nation Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.
6. James Langton, "On the UAE’s 42nd National Day, Abu Dhabi celebrates its past, present and future," The National
, December 2, 2013. Web. January 18, 2014. link
7. Yasser Elsheshtawy, "Informal Encounters: Mapping Abu Dhabi’s Urban Public Spaces," Built Environment, vol. 37, n.1, 2011, p. 95-97.
8. Todd Reisz, "Plans the Earth Swallows: An Interview with Abdulrahman Makhlouf," Portal 9, 2, Spring 2013. Web. January 20, 2014. link
9. Yasser Elsheshtawy, "Informal Encounters," ibid.
10. See Dalil al-mabani al-tijariyyawa-l-khadamat al-‘amma: madinat AbuDhabi (Guide of Commercial Buildings and Public Services in Abu Dhabi), Abu Dhabi: Office of Social Services and Commercial Buildings, 1990. See also Sa‘id al-Mansuri and Muhammad al-Za‘farani, Mashru‘ Khalifa li-l-mabani al-tijariyya: dirasa ‘ilmiyya (Khalifa’s Commercial Building Project: A Scientific Study), Abu Dhabi: Information Ministry, 1994.
11. "Docomomo International International Register." www.docomomo.com. Web. January 20, 2014. link