By TBY | UAE | Aug 21, 2014
The Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority has undertaken the restoration of the capital's most celebrated, and oldest, building.
Qasr Al Hosn has much in common with the architecture of other Gulf buildings from the 1700s. This style of defensive, fortified design became a clear trend after the Portuguese lost their control over the Indian Sea trade routes and Arab traders began to strengthen their position in the region. The old wall of Dubai, constructed in 1800, and the sturdy fortress of Al Faheidi dating from 1799, are similar in their hardwearing design.
The structure itself was constructed out of fossilized coral stone bricks fused together using sarooj, a mortar made from crushed seashells. Robust mangrove trees, common in saline coastal sediment habitats, were then used to complete the building. This skillful utilization of materials on hand from the nearby shore is characteristic of coastal Emirati architecture. Such masonry demonstrates the Emirate’s time-honored and ongoing connection with the sea, and offers a clear insight into the country’s past. Other traditional Emirati materials are mud brick, dry stone, wood and thatch, and palm trunks. Locally available construction materials and a hot and humid climate influenced the vernacular construction model. Additionally, Islamic architecture inspired a tendency toward simplicity, durability, and functionality in design.
The structure also incorporates a traditional desert construction technology that the UAE is famous for: air-conditioning. Wind towers have been traditionally used in Middle Eastern architecture for centuries. They work by trapping wind blowing at high speeds and forcing it down the center of the building to cool the interior. The Qasr Al Hosn watchtower was built with an effective barjeel ventilation system, similar to those used in other major structures in the region. Recessed curves on the outer walls redirected wind from the coast into an airway system, removing CO2 and freshening the inside of the building.
The fort became the residence for the Sheikhs of the Al Nahyan family and took on a further role as the seat of government. Over time, many additional fortifications and annexes were added to the original edifice to suit its shifting functions. Following the accession of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the fort went on to accommodate the Abu Dhabi police and also a Center for Documentation and Research.
This unique heritage is consequently of great importance to the Emirate, but the effects of weather and poor conservation decisions in the 1980s have begun to cause structural damage to the building. Specifically, the air conditioning system generates humidity, which needs to be dissipated to a greater degree. The thick white coating of cement added to the exterior during those renovations is trapping damaging moisture in the walls, which have kept the structure standing for so long. In response to this, the ADTCA is engaged in a lengthy project to strengthen and restore the structure. The removal of this outer layer will also, arguably, be an aesthetic improvement, restoring the façade to its original appearance.
The ADTCA undertook this project as part of its commitment to “conserving, promoting, and leveraging the heritage, culture, and traditions of Abu Dhabi Emirate.” In keeping with this vision, great care was taken to understand the order in which the building was assembled so no misjudgments would later cause problems. A full six years were spent researching and assessing the structure. The entire process is being carried out to admirably high standards, as the archeologists and technicians are acutely aware of the significance of the construction. A crucial aspect of the project is to learn from original building methods to create a catalog of traditional building designs in the UAE.
The meaning of the building is not lost on the public either, but showcased at the now annual Qasr Al Hosn Festival, which takes place in February and March. It invites locals and expatriates to visit and experience both the physical site and the impalpable cultural heritage of the Emirate. There are discussions and showcases of art and music, artisanal workshops, dancing, tours, and informative exhibitions to reinvigorate the sense of national identity for Emiratis. At the 2014 event, the tower itself will open up for tours during which guests will be able to observe the progress being made on the restoration. The events culminate in the much-awaited “Cavalia” show, a combination of acrobatics, dancing, and horses coordinated by Normand Latourelle of Cirque de Soleil fame. Visitors will be encouraged to recount and retell poems, songs, and stories that have been passed down to them from older generations, along with memories of the past, in order to preserve the capital’s involved oral history.
By fusing this tradition with the restoration, Abu Dhabi is deftly embracing its past. The tower represents the Emirate in many ways; it is resilient, built on indigenous resources, and has stood the test of time. As the project develops, citizens may hope that the responsible engineers listen to the sage advice being imparted during the festival; it won’t be easy to live up to the standards set by their expert ancestors.