Architecture, Sharjah, Sharjah architecture, Sharjah Architecture Triennial, UAE

How events like the Sharjah Architecture Triennial lay a foundation for the emirate’s rapidly changing urban makeup

Sharjah, like many cities in the Middle East and North Africa, has an incredibly rich architectural and cultural history. Some of its momentous buildings include the Radisson Blu Resort on the corniche, King Faisal Mosque, the Holiday International Hotel in Al Buhaira, and the Al Majaz Twin Buildings, also in Al Buhaira.

And while last issue, Middle East Architect explored Bait Al Naboodah, a Sharjah-based restoration project spearheaded by Sheikh Khalid Al Qasimi, chairman of Sharjah Urban Planning Council, the government entity supporting the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, this issue looks at the triennial itself and what it means for the industry in the Middle East.

The first of its kind across the region, the triennial – which will launch at the end of 2019 – will offer various exhibitions, architectural interventions across the city, seminars and panel discussions. Planned to occur every three years, each triennial will be directed by a curator, in coordination with the team and partners.

King Faisal Mosque, King Abdul Aziz Street, Sharjah, Office of Technical & Architectural Engineering & Consultancy, 1987. Image by Paul Gorra

In an interview with Mona El Mousfy, architect and advisor to the triennial, she noted the renewed interest in the architectural and historical value of buildings across Sharjah from the 1960s through to the 80s, and how that interest is curtailing their demolition. In recognising the richness of its history, individuals and authorities are empowering the foundation for Sharjah’s future development.

“If you look at our Instagram page, we have begun spotting and posting images of buildings from the 1960s, 70s and 80s that we think have architectural value or historical value, or both,” El Mousfy said, “and we are mapping them to help visitors identify them, as well as understand who the architect was, when it was built and what its history is.

“The Sharjah Art Foundation has also started doing that. And when we identify buildings with important historical and architectural value, we try to send red flags against their demolition.”

According to El Mousfy, most of the architecture from the 1960s, 70s and 80s was not considered very valuable until recently, with coral structures found in the Heart of Sharjah taking precedent among government initiatives.

Al Saud Co. Building, near Al Arouba Street, Sharjah, Architects Alistair McCowan & Associates, 1978-1980. Image by Ieva Saudargaitė

“We are creating this awareness now about the buildings from those times and we are hearing similar ambitions happening in other emirates as well. So this will become a mechanism – maybe even a federal mechanism — where some of these buildings get preserved,” she added.

According to El Mousfy, the Sharjah Art Foundation has already done this with several buildings across the city, including a kindergarten in Kaalba, which stands as a prototype of kindergartens found in the emirates designed by Ja’afar Touqan and George Rayes.

“It’s difficult to say from what direction the triennial will affect the city, but it’s important that there is awareness,” said El Mousfy. “At our first event, people were shown a comparative study on how some countries in the Gulf have begun to re-question the idea of land distribution, like Oman for example, where alternatives include more low-density neighourhoods for young couples, instead of continuing this sprawl into the desert…Comparing urban strategies of various cities can help [Sharjah] think more broadly about different strategies.”