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Traditional Architecture

The vernacular architecture of the UAE reflected the traditional lifestyles and customs of the people. Resources were limited and the environment invariably harsh. Building materials were simple but were superbly adapted to the demands of lifestyle and climate. Easily portable tents provided shelter during tribal wanderings in the winter season. During the summer months spent in the date-palm plantations, home was an airy ‘arish made of 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 trees leaves. Fossilized coral, cut in blocks, bonded with sarooj (a blend of Iranian 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 the houses.

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 nature 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.

The economic prosperity and population explosion that was was brought about by a massive injection of oil revenues 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, building materials and technology rapidly replaced vernacular architecture, which was soon confined to museums and heritage centres. In a very short space of time, sleek glass-fronted skyscrapers rapidly altered the urban landscape.

Some of the earlier structures have not stood the test of time. However, in recent years well-designed, technologically-innovative buildings have become a feature in the major cities. Nowadays a concern for cultural continuity can be seen 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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