Maryam Mudhaffar Ahli is an architect and architectural historian, currently with Dubai Culture & Arts. Her research focuses on the evolving concepts of tangible/intangible heritage in the UAE; she worked for the Dubai Municipality on Al Shindagha Museum, and to define their preservation criteria for modernist buildings. One of the 50 portraits of 50U is dedicated to her.
I’m not into the shiny glass and steel structures we see today
Maybe we can start with your involvement in the Dubai 2040 development plan. I was struck that heritage is a component in this plan. Your involvement relates to that specific aspect, right?
I previously worked for Dubai Municipality and now I work for Dubai Culture and Arts authority – all governmental entities are involved in the 2040 Urban Master Plan. So, all the projects we work on are directed towards the strategic vision of that master plan. Now, I am not directly part of the 2040 plan, but I do work on projects that respond to one of its main pillars, which is the safeguarding of cultural and urban heritage in the UAE, especially in old neighborhoods.
Can you give us an example?
Our current focus is the rehabilitation of old neighborhoods and historical houses, introducing adaptive reuse to them, both to revive the cultural identity and to bring back life to those places. The evolution of downtown Dubai also changed the demographics within the areas; the residents of the 60s and 70s now live elsewhere in Dubai. We want to bring back Emiratis there, they are important areas for local heritage. For instance, as a combined effort between the municipality, Dubai Culture, and Dubai Tourism, we are currently working on Al Shindagha Museum, an open-air museum in the historic neighborhood of Al Shindagha, one of the three neighborhoods around the Dubai Creek where the royal family used to reside. We have transformed those houses into thematic pavilions that discuss the heritage and culture of Dubai and the wider Emirates. On the other hand, in Al Fahidi area we are working on the overarching strategy to highlight the district’s cultural and artistic identity, hosting art fairs, exhibitions, and other exciting programmes. We have also recently announced a new project, the rehabilitation of Al Fahidi fort, the oldest surviving building in Dubai – I am currently overlooking that project. It actually went through different phases in history: it was a defensive fortress, then it housed royal residents, and later on it became a prison. And then in 1971, with the announcement of the union of the Emirates, it was the first museum in Dubai. This year, since we had to close down during the pandemic, we decided that this was the time for us to maintain the facilities and introduce new content and exhibition features. And again, all of these projects, feed into the strategic roadmap of Dubai Culture and the 2040 Dubai Urban Master Plan in terms of safeguarding our cultural and urban heritage, because everything in the old center of Dubai grew around these neighborhoods and around the fort – that’s where life happened. They say the Creek is the heart pumping blood through Dubai. So it is where everything started, and we wanted to focus on the cultural richness and traditional features of that neighborhood, because if you walk there, you feel you’re in Dubai, but if you don’t know Dubai, you may think you are somewhere else. It is a very interesting combination.
As a historian, how have you seen the concept of heritage evolve from the very start of the UAE?
The nomadic nature of this region meant that our built environment might not be as old as other parts of the world, because people here were setting up tents and moving around looking for sustenance. I think our understanding of heritage changed with time. Personally – as an architect – I’m not into the shiny glass and steel structures we see today; I’d rather take an older building and adapt it, re-introduce uses into them, make them livable again. Since my master’s thesis, my research focuses on modern heritage in the UAE – the buildings that emerged after the discovery of oil in the late 60s, 70s, and 80s; what I always refer to as the arrival of late modernism in Dubai (compared to the rest of the world with the International Style). When you look at those buildings, you start understanding that these are also part of our heritage: just because it does not have a wind tower on top, or it’s not built out of coral stones, does not mean that it is not heritage. This to me became essential in bridging the gap between what was in the past and what is happening in the present. Some buildings from the 70s and 80s show almost a perfect combination between solidity, style, and also critical responses to the context, to the region, to the climate. For my generation of young architects and historians it’s important to understand that the heritage definition changes after the 50s. It has to be inclusive of what has happened after that, who came here, and all of the foreign impact and influence on the city’s growth and urban fabric.
You feel you have a mission to create an awareness of the value of that period?
Yes, definitely – I try to do that through talks, seminars and different publications. When I was part of Dubai Municipality I worked on creating the criteria for the preservation of modern heritage, in addition to working on the preservation of what has already been classified and graded as a historical building. There is a bit of a misunderstanding here: people assume that a historical building is absolutely untouchable, it can be of no use, but a museum. That’s not the case: the entire purpose here is to preserve the memory of place, to bring life back into those places and to celebrate what this place once was – architecturally and culturally. Whether it’s the first hospital, the first school, the first bank, each one inspired the cultural context and the societal impact far beyond just the built form.
You just mentioned that the nomadic lifestyle of the region didn’t naturally produce what we would call heritage. But that there definitely is heritage. So how can you relate to that intangible cultural heritage?
I think a lot of it comes back to also what we’re trying to do with our museological projects: we try to document a lot of the oral histories, lives, and cultural expressions that surround that lifestyle. A lot of it has not been documented before, and as people get old they might be losing their memories, so they might be gone forever. From my personal experience working on Al Shindagha Museum, in the last 5 years we have interviewed many people that today are no longer with us, so documenting the intangible part is essential. Once it is, a whole portrait of what urban life was like can form in someone’s head and you can finally imagine how it was when someone tells you, “It took us four months to do a Hajj pilgrimage from the UAE to Saudi Arabia” – today it takes two hours by plane. In the context of the UAE and this entire region, heritage needs to be understood both as tangible and intangible – it cannot be seen independent of one another.
In the context of the UAE and this entire region, heritage needs to be understood both as tangible and intangible – it cannot be seen independent of one another.
Let’s extend your fascinating comparison to the western way to deal with tangible and intangible heritage. By UNESCO standards, tangible heritage is something to be protected and archived (sometimes to the extreme extent of musealization), whereas the intangible component goes in a diametrically opposite direction: their rule importantly warns that if it’s not allowed to adapt the item to the present, then you might risk losing the intangible heritage recognition of UNESCO. So, the particularly curious thing you imply is that the nomadic history of the UAE might propose an alternative: its tangible heritage – the built environment – is actually very open to repurpose, while the need for traditions and customs should not be centered on its adaptation, but really about the archival and the preservation of such cultural practices. Am I completely off-path?
I think you’re very close to what we are doing: essentially, tangible and intangible are not separate or independent of one another. The use of materials, the place of settlements and so on, are all dependent on both factors. For instance, why were some settlements on the coast while others were much more inwards? Well, because the climate kept changing, so during the hot season people would move to cooler places inwards, and during fishing and pearl-diving seasons they would move back to the coast. Both the tangible and intangible create a unified image of cultural heritage; we cannot speak of one without the other. This also came as a surprise to me, because I wasn’t aware of this while studying architecture. Everyone was excited to design new projects, but then I wanted to focus on the theoretical background, and once I chose Dubai as a case study and dived deep into its history, I realized: hold on, there’s so much more to this than I even knew!
About this approach, do you see Dubai as a spokesperson for the region, or did you notice alternative approaches in the other Emirates that might have had a comparable history but different developments?
The safeguarding of cultural and urban heritage is very much evident across all the Emirates. It’s not only specific to Dubai. In the project called ‘Heart of Sharjah’, they’ve intervened differently with modern structures in their historic neighborhood. That is slightly different than Dubai’s approach, which mainly focused on restoring traditional neighborhoods to their former state using the same traditional building methods and materials. They chose to combine modern interventions with a historic neighborhood in a very site-sensitive manner. And I do believe the Heart of Sharjah project is also a very successful example of a balanced integration bringing life back to that neighborhood, in a re-adaptive way. Also, Abu Dhabi has many interesting projects similar in context and scope. They recently opened Qasr Al Hosn which was the royal residence, as a museum hosting a variety of activities. They also have started their city-wide project of documenting their modern heritage buildings and actually saving a few of them from being demolished or misused. So I think the effort towards preserving and safeguarding this kind of culture and urban heritage, that awareness is now Emirates wide, not just Dubai specific.
Do you think that the challenges are comparable for each Emirate?
I think all the Emirates do face the challenge of raising awareness about buildings – specifically those of modern heritage – that might not read as important to others or to, let’s say, clients. How do you educate an owner that the building’s contribution to the urban fabric is much more important than the land value? That is a very important thing to do, educating people instead of building new every time – and I believe the country’s leadership genuinely supports cultural heritage projects and have voiced that through numerous initiatives.
Was there a moment when you perceived this shift from the fascination for architectural novelties, to the next phase which you also promote?
The dichotomy between old and new, global and local, is always interesting. I feel that the more globalized you become, the more you want a sense of locality to balance it out; the newer you become, the more you want something familiar and old to relate to. Younger generations can completely associate with the shiny glass and steel structures because that’s where they hang out etc. And then if I speak to my grandparents, they tend to relate to the coral stone neighborhoods and traditional buildings, because that’s where they grew up. But modern heritage bridges such a generational gap: that old generation witnessed the erection of the first modernist skyscrapers in Dubai, while my generation went ice-skating in modernist malls, and the first wedding we attended was in a modernist hotel built in the 70s. Both them and us have our own memories of it. So there’s this sense of a collective memory, where life continues to happen through storytelling and through place-based memories. When I interview a family who owns a building from that era, I ask the same question to three different generations: what does this building mean to you? And to each one, it’s completely different. And I think that becomes very interesting.
Often, when people start realizing the importance of preserving and safeguarding, a lot of it has gone. The more so when it comes to vernacular. So, is there still a vernacular heritage to preserve?
I believe that there is a lot of it, and we have to re-educate people about it. When you look back at education, it went from just being taught the holy book, to being taught the holy book and the alphabet. And next, it went from being taught at the mosque, to being taught in school, etc. Then, introducing a formal education system meant you needed to design schools, and in an Islamic society that meant you would develop prototypes for girls- and boys- only schools. And that’s interesting, because today those prototypes are still being used, updated, and built: the core idea of what that prototype represents still exists. So, I do believe there is a vernacular heritage there, but as you said, we are at risk of losing it. The awareness is low on why to preserve their contribution to the urban fabric of Dubai, but the importance is very, very significant. I also struggle with this personally, because it’s impossible to oversee every single building; because we do not have jurisdiction on what an owner wants to do, if it’s a privately-owned building or privately-owned land, but I do feel it is our job – through research, through talks, through regulations, through even a publication like this – to raise awareness on the importance of this vernacular heritage and its impact on our understandings, definitions and thought process.
We started our conversation with the 2040 plan; who are you planning for is an issue: does that include the expat community? Or is it focusing on ‘residents’?
I do believe Dubai, with its history, has been a cultural metropolis since its inception. Especially because of the Creek and its geographical location on the trade routes between East & West. A lot of cultures settled here, each demographically very different. So, there is a general acceptance of different cultures and demographics in Dubai that might be very unique to this Emirate. I can never imagine Dubai’s population to be only its citizens or only Emiratis, because that is not Dubai as we know it. We cater to everyone, and we hope that everyone does come to stay.`
What would be for you, as an architectural historian and architect, the next challenge, the next step, after convincing the people that the legacy of modernism is worth preserving? What will you be focusing on next?
I think I would love to create a catalog of modernist structures across the entire region, not just the UAE. Because once you look at foreign architects, or foreign firms or Arab architects that practiced in the region at that time, you will see that they did not just build in the UAE, they built in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, and so on. I hope one day my dream to work collectively on building a regional archive of modernism can come true.
We ask every interviewee to pick an object that is representative, or maybe indicative of her relationship with the country, something that is somehow personal and characteristic. What would be yours?
I actually went through my storage back home and I found a coral stone I had, very special to me because it started my passion for architectural heritage.
When I began studying architecture in 2007 I developed a fascination with building materials; their versatility, agility, adaptability. I would walk around touching surfaces often with my eyes closed, getting a sense of the different textures, in cohesion or juxtaposition, whether they felt smooth, rough, warm, or cool – a practice that I still continue today. It was an exploration of the vernacular materials used in the old Dubai, traditional buildings characterized by their simplicity, functionality, durability and climatic suitability.
During this journey I came across coral stone: it was something I always saw growing up, but I never fully understood its nature, or why it was the chosen building block – along with palm leaves and fronds – across this region’s coastal settlements. In the past there was an abundance of coral stone from the sea; it was taken from nearby reefs and left to dry to reduce their salt content. Later, they were used to build traditional walls and structures like houses, mosques and watchtowers. They were a preferred construction material for the locals, due to their porous and permeable nature that contributed to the passive cooling and heating of buildings – attracting and retaining heat during the day, and releasing warmth at night.
Coarse in texture, unique in pattern, sponge-like in shape, heavy in weight – these were some of my blindfolded observations of coral stone as a building material. In my research focused on traditional and modern architectural heritage, I was lucky enough to own one of these stones, which are now rarely found here; it is an object that reminds me of home wherever I am, and a material that has contributed to the socio-cultural scene and urban fabric of Dubai in both tangible and intangible ways.
50U is a book about the United Arab Emirates, the UAE. It was published on the occasion of the UAE’s golden jubilee: 50 years ago – December 2, 1971 – the confederation of seven Gulf states was officially declared. It tells the story of the UAE in 50 portraits of people, plants and places, painting an intimate picture of life in the Emirates, with the memories and expectations of its inhabitants.