Development or Lost Heritage?
A recent trip took me to Istanbul for work, then to Dubai to visit family, Abu Dhabi to attend a friend’s wedding and Khartoum for a cousin’s wedding. A whirlwind of a trip in 7 days! And highly educational – as all travel is. It was my first trip to beautiful Istanbul and the unique and strategic location, the rich Muslim history and the historical centre intrigued me. As did the Bosphorous, the seagulls, the sounds of the muuazin – calling out the azaan – reverberating through the city.
But the thing that stands out the most for me from my trip, is a conversation I had with a young architect, of Iraqi origin, who happened to sit next to me at my friend’s wedding in Abu Dhabi. The way that she spoke about the Abu Dhabi was an eye opener for me. A little bit of background before I tell that particular story...
I have visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) several times before and the rootless character of the cities, the “pop up” nature of the massive edifices, the reliance on exorbitant amounts of energy to run the cities and the buildings (“Climate is an awkwardness, to be banished by air-conditioning” Rowan Moore, in his book ‘Why We Build’), the consumer lifestyle both repulse and fascinate me. It is after all the incredibly clever visions by the rulers, the property developers, the politicians, financiers that have made the Emirates cities hubs of economic activity, destinations for tourism and trade. The transformation of the desert bedouin lifestyle into the spectacle of skyscrapers of glass, steel, lights, massive infrastructure has created a major world attraction. I personally find Dubai – and especially Sheikh Zayid Road – eerie and disturbing. Traveling at high speed past the massive, shiny buildings, with cars whizzing past, no humans in sight feels like traveling through the set of a horror movie.
In the case of close-by Qatar, this clever transformation and visionary thinking has led to the establishment of the country as a major political role player through media. The Jezeera network as well as the role Qatar plays as an intermediary and as a negotiator has set them up as a political force to be reckoned with – despite the small size of the country – and much to the unhappiness of neighboring countries (Saudi Arabia and the Emirates). This has recently been demonstrated by diplomatic tensions between these countries. Qatar’s apparent support for Muslim Brotherhoods in the Arab world is despised by many, yet all of this has ensured that they are not excluded/neglected/dismissed as a small/insignificant country and has ensured them a role beyond the oil and gas industries.
So these were my perceptions of that region of the world. Nothing more than clever marketing, artificial cities and synthetic lifestyles. Yet, the young architect of Iraqi origins, who has grown up all of her life in Abu Dhabi, speaks of the city as home and tells of memories of places where she was taken to play as a child, of public gathering space, of community. She spoke with passion about the heritage of the 70s and 80s which she dreads will be eradicated as previous heritage was eradicated in the transformation of the city during its building boom. This architect dreams of working in the city’s planning department to influence the future development of the city and to protect the spaces of her childhood memories.
The tragedy of this generation of people in the the UAE who have been born and raised in the country yet are not entitled to become Emirates is another story all together. What this conversation alerted me to, is that there is more the the UAE than meets the eye. There is a lost heritage that needs to be reclaimed, there is existing heritage that needs to be protected, and there are passionate and highly educated young professionals that have taken on the cause. This conversation “humanized” these cities for me. It helped me look beyond the “horror movie set” to genuine concerns of people, memory, heritage, space and design.
And as I made my way from UAE to my home town, Khartoum, I compared how the oil money that flooded the city a few years ago had also started eradicating built heritage, old neighborhoods and natural ecosystems. The Sunut project – a massive development of glass and steel skyscrapers – located at the strategic meeting point of the Blue and White Niles and bordering on an urban forest of Acacia nilotica, Sunut trees (my mother laments the fact that many areas in Khartoum are named after the type of trees that were destroyed to make way for rapidly expanding residential neighborhoods), a portion of which was to become a golf course. Khartoum’s oil boom started in about 2005 and some of these projects were actually built – supported by various infrastructure projects. At the time that this boom, Khartoum was in a state of euphoria as people aspired to the affluent lifestyles they saw in the UAE. When I spoke of the risks of losing our heritage and destroying fragile ecosystems along the Nile, this was frowned upon. I was perceived as someone that wanted to hold Khartoum back from “development”.
Since that time, the secession of the South Sudan (many of the oil wells fall south of the new border) and the political unrest that has followed have halted these projects. Perhaps next time round, when we are offered an opportunity at development, we will do so more wisely and without the risks of losing forever the valuable heritage that Khartoum has to offer.
Amira Osman is an associate professor in architecture at the University of Johannesburg. She is currently working full time on preparations for UIA 2014 Durban. She has a PhD from the University of Pretoria. She also worked as an architect in Khartoum from 1988 to 1997 and as a United Nations Volunteer (UNV) in Maseru, Lesotho between 1997 and 1998. Connect with her on Archh here
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