Bahrain’s new cultural centres by Belgian architects OFFICE lead country’s urban renewal
The restoration and extension of old buildings in Bahrain’s Muharraq district by Belgian architecture firm OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen (OFFICE) includes two buildings: Dar Al Jinaa and Dar Al Riffa, and comes as part of a larger urban renewal initiative led by Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture.
Once used by the local pearl divers to perform private music performances, the two buildings will serve as music centres upon their completion this September, providing the public with access to the musical and cultural traditions of the historic community.
“It was kind of a coincidence,” said David Van Severen, co-founder of OFFICE. “We were at the Venice Biennale in 2010. Bahrain won the Golden Lion and we won the Silver Lion, and one thing lead to another and we started talking, and the Ministry of Culture asked us to look into this small project.”
“The brief was quite open,” he added. “There were two buildings, or dars, that were centres or houses for pearl divers to play their music. We were asked to think of how to transform them into more public performance spaces, as well as how to add outdoor spaces and educational functions.”
Each project consists of the renovation of the existing dar and the addition of a majlis space, to be used as the communal spaces. According to Van Severen, the extensions are not directly connected to the original structures – rather they are just a stone’s throw away.
“It was the first decision we made – to make the extensions as separate buildings. So we didn’t extend the houses physically, but we put them in close contact with the extensions. Dar Al Jinaa wasn’t really a monument and it didn’t really have historic value. It was built only 30 years ago, so we decided to renovate it as such and its extension is as high as the neighbouring buildings (about three floors). We simply stacked rooms on top of each other.”
He added, “For Dar Al Riffa, the original house was 120 years old, and it was made of coral and limestone. The surrounding neighbourhood, though, had lost its tissue really – the Arabic maze has almost completely disappeared.”
The buildings, which house public performance spaces, educational spaces, office spaces and residencies, consist of simple structures with round concrete columns and platforms. Rectangular folding glass facades, equipped with perforated wooden shutters, create intimate interior spaces on the platforms.
Stairs, sanitary boxes and technical installations populate the exterior platforms, forming the furniture.
The entire structures are covered by a seamless steel mesh, which provides cover from the sun and transforms the buildings into enigmatic, veiled objects, protruding from the dense urban maze within which they sit. When the buildings are in use, the veil is lifted to allow passers-by a glimpse of the performances inside.
“We added the steel mesh to give the buildings an urban silhouette,” said Van Severen. “It can be solid, or opaque, as the surrounding buildings, and at the same time, it’s extremely light and transparent. So it can be very solid depending on different lighting conditions, but also light in other cases. It protects from the sun and offers shade in the tempered zones around the rooms, and lastly, it provides a certain level of privacy, which was very important.”
“It’s a sustainable element,” he added. “And it’s also sustainable that we worked with the existing situation, rather than started from scratch – and that’s really an important step. The projects aren’t made with glass, and the mesh is a very down-to-earth way of managing the temperature of the space.”