Step into the past to preserve the future

In amongst the high-rises of modern day Dubai, there lies a quieter, more historical side to the city. Christopher Sell wanders through Bastakia and Al Shindagah to see how Dubai Municipality is restoring traditional buildings to their former glory.

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By  Christopher Sell Published  December 23, 2006

|~|151proj200.gif|~|Dubai Municipality has an annual budget in place for the project and employs 400 staff, from masons and electricians to carpenters and architects, to work with traditional materials such as teak, sandstone, gypsum and coral.|~|When asked to summon thoughts on Dubai, a visitor will usually comment that it is a modern, progressive city; one where development has gone on unchecked for decades. But while urbanisation is a clear indicator of economic growth, it is clear that it has come at a cost. From a small trading port, Dubai has undergone a massive transformation over the last 50 years, with urban growth extending the city far past its original boundaries both east and west of the Creek. In a city where sand, wood and gypsum predominated, they have been replaced by concrete, steel and glass to turn Dubai into a bustling megalopolis that shows no signs of slowing down. Inevitably there is a price for this progress; there has been little or no comment made on the impact of such construction from a conservation perspective, and consequently very little, if any, of Dubai’s unique heritage has survived the city’s expansion. Instead, to capitalise on rising real-estate demands and prices, site owners of historically significant land have not passed up an opportunity to make significant returns. Such a cost is surmountable but not without some extensive work. The construction industry has a responsibility to look back as well as forwards, employing modern techniques to preserve what is left of Dubai’s heritage. A city’s fabric cannot be created overnight and to ignore or lose what is left would be a grave error. Despite a numbber of buildings being lost, there is evidence, through the efforts of Dubai Municipality’s Historical Buildings Section, that efforts are being made to put a halt on the loss and to ensure that Dubai’s future isn’t without a sense of past as well. Work is being carried out in a number of sites around Dubai, explains Ahmed Mahmood, head of the historical buildings section, Dubai Municipality. “The last 50 years has brought a huge change to Dubai – it is not an old city like Cairo, it is a developing city and the materials being used are changing. The old buildings are more valuable and we must conserve them, we must have planning to keep them.” Mahmood adds, however, that the nature of heritage construction utilises skilled labourers and resources that are not in abundant supply and brings acute demands. Such techniques, which need to incorporate unique patterns and designs, require a skilled labourer who is technically minded and who can work with traditional materials such as gypsum and wood. “We have no trees in the UAE,” Mahmood points out, adding that the wood for the preservation is sourced from Africa, before adding that access to materials to replicate or preserve such historical buildings is not confined purely to access. “You cannot just find these materials in the souk anymore and the coral we use comes from the sea [in Yemen], so there are environmental limitations to using it,” he says. Without doubt, building in this way is time-consuming and access to materials is far more costly than modern builds. “There are only one or two suppliers in Dubai who do this, so prices are higher,” says Mahmood. However, Dubai Municipality has an annual budget in place for such work and employs 400 staff, from masons and electricians to carpenters and architects, to work with traditional materials such as teak, sandstone, gypsum and coral. The key challenge Mahmood highlights is the fundamental difference in technique between construction methods for old buildings, which have an emphasis on stone, mortar and plaster and are more difficult and costly to source, and modern, steel-based buildings, which contain minimal creativity. “Its not a big difference in construction management, but in techniques yes,” he says. Al Shindagah area, which dates back to 1861, has become one of the most important historical areas in Dubai with numerous mosques, defensive watch towers and buildings exhibiting traditional materials and designs such as the ‘barjeels’, wind towers, gypsum decorations and arches. Planning to preserve the whole area was started in 2003 and will be completed in 2009. Al Shindagah now holds a central workshop where labourers work with gypsum to fashion the more ornate pieces that adorn the traditional designs inherent in historical buildings. In the Bastakia area, where construction dates to 1890, 58 buildings covering 38,000m2 have been restored from those which were saved from demolition in 1990. Work started in 1996 and is due to finish at the end of the year. So successful has the project been that, according to Mahmood, it is being considered for World Heritage Site status by UNESCO early next year. If it is successful, it will be the first of its type in the UAE. And this is obviously one of the challenges; endorsing the work done by giving the buildings a purpose. “The main thing is how to do something with it and trying to make the area active again,” says Mahmood. Ahmed Abdelaty Oda, restoration engineer for the historical buildings section at Dubai Municipality is equivocal why their work has pertinence in Dubai. “To restore buildings to their original state is a challenge, but it is important to show where we have come from, and this is a link between the future and past. This is why we are clear about this area, but you need the skills and the experts.” Oda adds that extensive historical studies combined with photographic evidence were carried out to establish accurate building styles and finishes were adhered to. The Second International Conference and Exhibition On Architectural Conservation, which is being held on 11-13 February 2007, is going some way to establishing a more formal base for future conservation work. As Hussein Nasser Lootah, acting director general, Dubai Municipality says, architectural conservation in the shadow of modernity poses a big challenge to the world and those entrusted with preserving heritage worldwide. Mahmood says that some of the topics to be discussed in the second conference will include policies of architectural conservation, concepts of sustainable development, problems of architectural heritage in the modern environment, formulating strategic objectives for development and the importance of historic areas in the formation of modern economies and social communities. There will also be discussion on strategies for heritage protection, level of participation in the architectural conservation policies, use of advanced technologies in preserving historical buildings and historical building preservations projects in the centres of historical cities. Undoubtedly, Dubai announced itself on the world map through iconic and modern building projects that will stand the test of time, but it should not be at the expense of the past, where historical context provides an essence of place and living history that no modern building can replicate.||**||

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