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Traditional Architecture

Vernacular architecture in the UAE was deeply influenced by traditional lifestyles, tribal customs, an invariably harsh environment and limited resources. Building materials were simple but were superbly adapted to the demands of lifestyle and climate. Easily portable camel or goat-hair tents provided shelter during tribal wanderings in the winter season. During the summer months spent in date palm plantations, home was an airy ‘arish woven from palm fronds. ‘Arish were also common in the coastal fishing, pearling and trading settlements. Inland more permanent houses were built of stone guss (mud mixture made into blocks) and were roofed with palm fronds. Fossilised coral, cut in blocks, bonded with sarooj (a blend of red clay and manure), or a lime mixture derived from seashells, and plastered with chalk and water paste, was used extensively in coastal regions. These materials have very low thermal conductivity and were therefore ideally suited for the hot and arid climate.

Privacy and ventilation were important influences in the layout of domestic dwellings. A central interior courtyard onto which all the rooms opened was restricted to family use. Cooking facilities were located at one end of the courtyard, which also functioned as an eating and sleeping area in the hot summer months. The majilis or meeting rooms where the male members of the family entertained male guests were separate from the family quarters.

Although layout and natural materials helped in providing cool interiors, in many cases additional features such as windtowers were also used to improve ventilation. Decorative detail was confined to colourful floor rugs, intricate wooden lattice work on windows and ornate wooden outer doors. Decorative patterns were modelled on traditional Islamic designs.

Public buildings were largely confined to forts, which were seats of local government, and mosques where the public congregated for prayer.

Economic prosperity and the significant increase in population that followed the discovery and export of oil had a huge social and cultural impact, not least of which was an immediate and urgent demand for public buildings and private housing. Modern designs and building materials rapidly replaced vernacular architecture, which was soon confined to museums and heritage centres. In a very short space of time, sleek glass-fronted skyscrapers altered the urban landscape.

This new architecture paid scant attention to the social and cultural needs of the local community. As a result, urbanisation and modernisation impacted significantly on tribal and family structures

Some of the earlier buildings have not stood the test of time from a structural point of view. However, in recent years well-designed, technologically innovative buildings have become a feature in major cities. Nowadays a concern for cultural continuity is also evident in the more recent urban development plans and in the use of elements of traditional architecture in the design of new buildings, as well as renewed efforts to preserve and maintain traditional buildings.


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