Museums of the UAE: Contrasting cultural design

Cristiano Luchetti, assistant professor of the College of Architecture, Art and Design at the American University of Sharjah and architecture critic, writes about the contrasting roles of museums in the various emirates of the UAE. 

For quite a few years now museums have no longer been considered just as buildings to house objects which are of an artistic, historical, or scientific importance to society.

They have become spaces designed for a variety of uses and are rapidly becoming cultural incubators providing opportunities beyond their original functional scope.

Museums are now places to conduct educational activities, meetings and places where community meets culture in all its forms. Moreover, they have an impact on the scale of the city where they are located.

Cristiano Luchetti.

They can epitomise an important addition to urban contexts – in some cases even replacing the role of civil monuments or spaces for worship as landmarks.

When I decided to propose the design of a museum in Dubai for my architectural design course last spring, I wondered what would be the driving forces that would determine a correct design methodology. Therefore, I started to research the characters of some museums already built or planned for the future and see how their context influences and contributes to their design.

Sharjah as a centre for culture

Sharjah is considered the cultural capital of the UAE. The emirate endorses its character through the work of cultural institutions, some related to the promotion of art such as Sharjah Art Foundation and Maraya Art Center. At the moment there are 16 active museums in Sharjah alone.

Al Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah feature ‘caligraffiti’ by Tunisian/French artist El Seed on its facade.

They are located in strategic zones of the city, including the heritage area. They successfully bring new meaning and function to an urban fabric that, losing its dwelling potential (liveability), would have been abandoned.

The architecture of these spaces shows a bond between local stylistic features with a series of different approaches, spanning from sophisticated regionalism to orientalist postmodernism. There is a clear intent to differentiate these areas from the general sameness of the surrounding modern “instant” city.

Mleiha Archaeological Centre by Dabbagh Architects.

The historical urban fabric of Sharjah is suitable to be a museum itself. Existing open areas as well as more volumetrically defined courtyards and sikkas (alleyways) become venues for exhibitions and performances.

Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah, designed by X Architects.

Recently, the same strategy has been adopted to identify exhibition potential outside the city centre in more suburban or natural contexts. The new museum for the Mleiha Archaeological Centre, the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre, and the Wasit Wetland Center were either shortlisted or won at the last Middle East Architect Awards.

The Flying Saucer building in Sharjah has been converted into an arts exhibition space. The image depicts an art exhibition by artist Hassan Khan. © Photo: Haupt & Binder.

They are good examples of how Sharjah is pursuing a re-development policy through an institutional cultural offer which explicates itself through the construction of high quality museum and educational spaces within the frame of a specific social identity or natural landscape.

Abu Dhabi’s “Bilbao Effect

Abu Dhabi chooses a different strategy. The focus is on catalysing the worldwide interest in cultural tourism in order to set a recognisable identity to developing areas of the city.

The plan is to focus on the modern globalisation of the arts through the creation of a dedicated district located on Saadiyat Island. Here the most famous contemporary “archistars” have been invited to design museums in order to replicate the “Bilbao Effect” to the nth degree. The Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry was able to generate a global interest in Bilbao which until then was a peripheral industrial city in the north of Spain.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by American architect Frank Gehry, set for Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.

Its effect (the ability of a single building to change the nature and perception of a district, if not of a whole town) has been implemented around the world when urban renewal seemed unachievable.

Abu Dhabi’s vision is ambitious. The most recognisable architects (Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Lord Norman Foster, the late Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, etc.) were invited to propose their contributions for a series of facilities to characterise the development of the island, targeting specific culturally-oriented users and tourists.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel is nearing completion in Abu Dhabi.

The masterplan of the whole area suffered many revisions throughout recent years, mostly caused by global economic issues with a reduction of the total floor area, but also with the loss of interesting urban features.

The “cultural canal” which would have linked some of the museums has been replaced in the renderings by a, surely more, profitable shopping mall. The new Louvre Abu Dhabi designed by Jean Nouvel is nearing completion and is certainly an architectural wonder. The design of the water village mounted by the magnificent dome, pays tribute to local heritage and at the same time uses sophisticated environmental strategies to overcome a mere perceptual “iconism”.

There is no doubt that it will be one of the most important destinations for cultural tourism in 2017. Whether it will be able to initiate the desired investment remains a question that will be only answered through time.

Dubai: In between two worlds

Having examined Sharjah and Abu Dhabi and their specific approaches to cultural/exhibition venues, it is legitimate, at this point, to wonder if Dubai is a city for museums and if it is, then how they should be designed.

With a handful of, sometimes extremely small, active institutional exhibition spaces mostly related to the history of the city, Dubai seems a peculiar location for museums.

Cultural project rendering by students from theAmerican University of Sharjah, where Luchetti lectures. Work by Reem Yousuf + Farah Al Khoury.

The overwhelmingly commercial character appears to prevail and prevent important urban intervention oriented towards a cultural approach. Yet, one finds a surprising artistic scene and the spaces necessary are numerous in the city.

Most of them are not really related to public institutions and the majority are promoted and managed by private enterprises. One example is Alserkal Avenue. Started as an alternative destination for art galleries occupying converted industrial warehouses, in a few years it has achieved the status of one of the most interesting public spaces in town. Its total floor space has been doubled with the construction of new exhibition spaces and OMA is completing its first built project in UAE within an extension of the area.

In some cases, recent urban development projects in Dubai, embraced the “Bilbao Effect”, at least in their initial masterplans.

Museums or other types of cultural venues were conceived as generators of investment by increasing the perceived value of the area through their function and through their design which is required to be always “spectacular”.

Etihad Museum in Dubai opened last weekend to the public. The building is designed by Canadian Moriyana & Teshima Architects.

The aim of this strategy is to enhance the potential value of the property through the presence of a cultural artifact that can be advertised beyond the boundaries of the real estate market. For instance, the Museum of Design, part of the Design District masterplan, and the Middle East Museum of Modern Art planned within the Culture Village were part of these initial proposals.

Both projects, overlooking the water, were clearly referenced to the museums planned in Abu Dhabi, but their fading away from the final projects reveals, once again, the difficulty of creating a cultural facility in Dubai.

The Museum of the Future by Killa Design.

If these private initiatives are not able to cross the conceptual stage, two government funded projects are ongoing and they seems to portray their own unambiguous design strategy.

Well visible from Jumeirah road is the new Etihad Museum which celebrates the story of the founding of the UAE, conveying a manifest symbolism through its “manuscript” shape.

A more abstract shape, yet still somehow conceptually linked to its function is designed for the “Museum Of The Future by Killa Design. The formal clarity of the ring shaped building which, in the proposed scheme, dominates the urban scene along Sheikh Zayed Road, is a statement of perfection.

The museum represents the ambition of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum to nurture the technological advancement of society. The design celebrates this vision with its presence near the World Trade Centre, theoretically linking past and future, since the tower designed by John Harris is considered the first building of the modern era of Dubai.

As it often happens, the answers to the question can Dubai be a “city for museums” and how they should be designed does not have easy answers.

Certainly, the attempt to connect a new museum to its existing surroundings (a strategy that can be identified in every Renzo Piano exhibition space project) seems to be more appropriated if conceived beyond the “physical” dimension, in order to embrace the “perceptual” one.

This is due to the peculiar scale of the urban density of Dubai. Distance between buildings caused by “leapfrog” developments and the resulting left-over spaces seems hard to define and be included in a coherent design strategy.

In a city of “architectural objects” mostly perceived “dromospherically”  (the combination of space and speed)  through the window of a car the choice of an iconic solution remains the favorite one.