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1950 – 1980: Modern Architecture For The People

Among the reasons of the growing interest on Modern Architecture in the UAE, as it is shown by scholarly researches dedicated to this subject, there is a shared understanding that modernity has emerged in the region under unique circumstances. At the beginning of the 1950’s the country’s economy was still based upon fishing and pearl diving, and its major urban settlements reflected their economic and societal patterns by means of clusters of family houses spread along the shores of their coastal creeks.

Dubai Creek 1950's - photo©Dubai Municipality

With the discover of oil, that happened at different times across the Emirates, a rise of new complexity started pushing new forms of spatial organization both at the architectural and at the urban scales. Decent housing, better organized network of roads, marketplaces, mosques, hubs of public transport, institutional buildings, were not just a practical answer to the rising needs of the society, but also symbols of prosperity and wellbeing for communities that had undergone until then quite extreme living conditions.

Modern architecture offered a new repertoire of forms and a symbolic narrative to the representation of change; its application however required a process of disaggregation and re-aggregation of its structure and meanings. While “modern” in western countries emerged within secular societies and was associated to dynamic family structures and with possibilities for its members to advance by merit rather than by birth status (Chabbi and Mahdi, 2011), in the Emirates it came across a conservative society.

Central Market, Abu Dhabi, 1968 - photo©Abdul Rahman Hassanein Makhlouf

The implications of this adaptation, stigmatised as a specular processes of emiratisation of the modern and modernisation of Emiratis (Ibid), have much in common with what happened in neighbour countries that faced the same challenge: how to adapt the existing set of vernacular buildings organically intertwined within cohesive urban fabrics, to the new societal needs? 

When all the fundamental challenges of a newborn nation were at stake, modern architecture offered tools for shaping its future; although change was coming at unprecedented speed, it was possible to cope with it thanks to the size of the interventions, which were soon framed by master plans.


The architectural achievements and urban developments of the period comprised between the 1950’s and the 1980’s owe their significance, more than to outstanding artifacts, to the uniqueness of the architectural language and the experimentation of building typologies that derive from this process of adaptation and hybridisation.

Marine, Dubai - author unnown

Moreover, since the budgets available for the building industry increased at the same slow pace of that of economic prosperity, the initial limited use of mechanical systems - that lately took over on building comfort – was counterbalanced by passive cooling strategies. Building envelopes were protected from overheating and glare by canopies, awnings, overhangs, fins and egg-crates; mashrabiyas were commonly used for shading and to adorn openings.

Bur Dubai, Dubai - ©Devanshi Jakyia

Fahidi Street, Dubai 1980s - ©Massimo Imparato

Al-Otaiba Building Abu Dhabi, 1970s - ©Daria Badakova

Shading and cross ventilation have been for long the main tools of passive cooling and have facilitated the accomplishment of the users’ tasks in their daily routines. Building sizes and typologies, particularly in low-income districts, haven’t been barrier to the establishment of social relationships and the spread of street life.

From these early stages of transition from vernacular architecture, mainstream buildings have progressively dissociated their performance from people’s routines and technology has taken the lead, often at very high costs. At the urban scale things have changed to an extent that it is difficult sometimes to assess projects for the transformation of urban areas by keeping the public sphere of actions separated from that driven by private stakeholders. Lack in the separation of roles is particularly critical when at stake there is the decision whether to keep or discontinue existing buildings or districts. What differentiates public from private purpose? How to assess value that goes beyond its mere financial meaning?


Important initiatives have been launched in the region, with the support and commitment of institutional bodies, for mapping and documenting modern architecture heritage. Once that a building is identified, surveyed and documented - according to the standards and the guidelines by the DoCoMoMo - it comes the challenging part of drafting rules, principles and strategies for addressing its significance, which can go far beyond its architectural expression, and can make the assessment task much more complex. It is thanks to scholarly researches that were made to trace the geographies of resilience and to diverge the attention from the mainstream to the hidden urban spaces where communities self-express, develop a stronger sense of belonging and the bond with places is still strong (Elsheshtawy, 2008 and 2010) that voices and sounds from the background have been made audible, making hidden places visible again.

Fahidi Street, Dubai 1980s - ©Massimo Imparato

The presence of immaterial values unfortunately was not deemed worthy of consideration when the financial pressure of real estate programs decided for the replacement of entire Dubai areas, such as the Rashid Colony in Al Karama and the housing district for “Police officers” in Satwa. Nothing has arrested the demolition of the Cinema Plaza, a symbol of expats life dating the early seventies to which the artist Ammar Al Attar has dedicated a research aiming at reflecting on the cultural impact of its demolition. Although there are episodes that symbolize resistance, such as the call to preserve Safa park modernist domed pavilion, an advanced and ambitious country such as the UAE cannot leave the responsibility to groups of citizens to take actions for rescuing buildings. What is worth notice in this latter case, is that the voices for its protection were raised both from Emiratis and expatriates, which means that time has come for the recognition of shared legacies.

How to make, then, a comprehensive reflection over modern architecture heritage in the Region? Understanding how it has been able to contribute to forging the country new identity and to spreading trust in the establishment of a political union, in parallel with being a practical tool for giving to nomadic groups more permanent settlings, for building transportation hubs and road networks, can be useful for understanding the present and for addressing future challenges.


There are in fact cycles in the history of nations, and by looking at the achievements of modern architecture in the UAE and their neighbor countries we can identify signs and meanings that can help us coping with the challenges that are in front of us. Firstly, we can explore new ways to reconcile buildings with the climate and with the concept of place, and foster a more profound integration between architecture and technology (Cucinella, 2016). Then, we can look at “Modernist Arabia” as to a legacy of experimentation that can offer tools for an advanced integration of Arab culture in the architectural discourse.

Plaza Cinema, Dubai - ©Ammar Al Attar

All in all, we must reflect on the impact of modernism on the development of new social relationships and on the shaping of the Nation: people’s awareness of the role played by institutions in establishing a common ground has in fact greatly contributed to the emergence of a modern urban society. Conservation and reuse of modern architecture in a country that has undergone a fast process of disconnection between people and places are extraordinary tools for promoting its social cohesiveness, identity and foster new forms of societal cohesion.

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