Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Quarter, opened at the site of what was long the city's social and cultural heart, is unique in its integration of culture and space, and could serve as a model for urban regeneration.
On December 7, Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Quarter was finally opened to the public capping a 10-year wait. It comprises a full restoration of an 18th century fort (the original seat of Abu Dhabi’s government up until the 1960s), the Cultural Foundation dating from 1981, and the House of Artisans. The space in between these structures has been repurposed as grounds open to the public. The overall development, in addition to adding much-needed cultural spaces to the city, is quite remarkable due to a number of factors. The project came to fruition over a long period during which there was a change in direction, inspired to a large extent by a local grassroots movement that sought to preserve the city’s modernist heritage and respect its urban memory. Moreover, in contrast to many other initiatives in Abu Dhabi as well as the wider Gulf Arab region, it is not envisioned as a stand-alone object but integrates with the city, which has great potential in terms of urban regeneration.
Billboards began popping up around 2008 displaying aspects of Abu Dhabi’s history, but they effectively blocked access to the site of what would become the Cultural Quarter. Indeed, up until that point this block was Abu Dhabi’s social and cultural heart. The Cultural Foundation was a center for the dissemination of culture as well as a social hub for the city’s residents. The fort, Qasr Al Hosn, housed the National Archives for some time but was eventually closed for restoration. It did however remain a symbol of sorts signifying Abu Dhabi’s early origins. The Cultural Foundation was important architecturally as it was designed by the modernist architectural firm The Architects Collaborative founded in the United States by Walter Gropius, who headed the Bauhaus School in Germany in the 1940s. Hisham Ashkouri, an Iraqi architect, was lead architect of the project. Displaying strong modernist influences as well as elements from local heritage it offered an interesting example of a modernist adaptation to local conditions through decorative elements, the use of arches, and deep colonnades providing shade. Additionally, it incorporated urban gestures to the surrounding city through a passageway that bisects the building and frames the fort. In 2006 authorities decided to redevelop the site, spurred by the restoration efforts of the fort. The selected master plan, by a London-based consultancy, proposed the demolition of the Cultural Foundation, preserving the fort, and placing cultural functions below ground. These would be accessible through a series of ramps leading to underground, cavernous spaces. The justification for such an approach was to allow unimpeded visual access to the fort. The area above ground would in turn be used for a large ceremonial plaza.
As word of these developments filtered out, a group comprised of local citizens and longtime residents voiced their objections, arguing that the Cultural Foundation represents a significant part of the city’s heritage and should be preserved. Indeed, the Facebook group “Save the Cultural Foundation” was formed, allowing fans of the building to share their memories. For many, it was part of growing up in the city – a place to read books, watch performances, and meet friends. Initially these voices were ignored and as the project was about to break ground (the London office had set up an Abu Dhabi branch in 2011 to begin the construction process) the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, the official client, ordered a halt to the development and review of the master plan. Subsequently, a new competition took place with a view toward keeping the building intact and also to contextualize the overall site by incorporating foot paths, for example. The overall objective was to create a cultural center drawing together city residents and visitors. While this process was taking place, authorities decided to hold an annual heritage festival coinciding with the United Arab Emirates’ National Day. In 2013 the Cultural Foundation was opened for the first time, showing its potential for being repurposed as a new Cultural Center. In 2015, the back of the building, directly facing the high-rise surroundings, became accessible from the street for the duration of the festival. At the event’s conclusion, the site was closed again, billboards promptly returned, and work commenced on implementing a new master plan. The fort and the Cultural Foundation have now been fully restored and the spaces in between turned into a fully open and accessible plaza.
This openness and accessibility is significant for the UAE. Many recently opened cultural institutions have been outside the UAE’s city centers, which in many ways isolates them. While they may be successful in terms of metrics, such as number of visitors, they do not effectively engage with the city in terms of enhancing its urban fabric, spurring further urban development, and the like. Louvre Abu Dhabi, for example, is located on Saadiyat Island on a relatively isolated stretch of land. Similarly, Dubai’s recently opened Jameel Arts Centre is in the city’s Jaddaf neighborhood, surrounded by industrial structures, luxurious hotels, and upscale residences; while it is not far from the city center, it is not particularly accessible, for example, by foot. As such, these projects, while admirable in their own right in terms of architecture and programmatic content, are not part of each city’s everyday rhythm, an important component for any successful urban cultural development. Throughout the world there are examples of an alternative approach that emphasizes synthesis with the city, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London’s South Bank, Bilbao’s Guggenheim, and Hong Kong’s upcoming West Kowloon Cultural District.
Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Quarter development has great potential to transform its city center because of the way the master plan has taken the surrounding city into account. The plaza is fully open to surrounding streets and allows visitors and residents to walk the grounds, enjoy the shade under the palm trees, and sit on benches with friends, without necessarily entering any of the buildings. The Cultural Foundation and the House of Artisans are also accessible and free to the public, although the fort requires an entrance fee. The space is an extension of the city, a natural passageway that people can traverse, and pays homage to Abu Dhabi’s heritage and origins.
At the same time, the fact that the Cultural Quarter is embedded in the city center surrounded by high-density neighborhoods offers equal access to diverse groups of people and provides an opportunity for Abu Dhabi’s various social classes to come together. This crucial component for a healthy and accessible city fulfills an important aspect of social sustainability, one of the key ingredients of the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda. Furthermore, the Central Market is nearby and will allow for a continuation of sorts, a linkage, that will further spur development and foot traffic in that area. Indeed, shopkeepers have expressed great hope that the Cultural Quarter’s opening will increase the flow of people. All of these are vital ingredients for the proliferation of an urbanity that takes place in the city’s public streets, rather than in indoor privatized spaces.
Great urban centers are defined by their public settings and the extent to which they provide a space that is accessible for all of their citizens. Abu Dhabi has the potential to offer a model for the rest of the region showing how culture, urban regeneration, and a vibrant, active urbanity can be achieved – and sustained – in a Gulf Arab city.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He previously served as a visiting scholar at AGSIW and is the author of “Temporary Cities: Resisting Transience in Arabia” (Routledge, 2019).
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