Abu Dhabi: A Question of Architectural Heritage


When my aunt came in 1985 , Abu Dhabi was nothing but a small town with modest architecture and an incomplete grid plan. The only places to go out were the government-owned hypermarket ‘Co-op’, a couple of gardens, and of course, the Corniche.  Long after she’s gone in 1990, my family moved to the very same city in 2000. The first shopping malls opened up a couple of years later and the Corniche was entirely rebuilt a couple of times since then.

“They’ve demolished the city and rebuild it again.” was the expression of my Aunt when she came to Abu Dhabi in summer 2013.

Indeed, a building here would last for a  maximum of twenty years. Then, it’s already too old for the ever-changing city.


A building awaiting its fate in Khalidiya neighborhood.

Ten-story cladded buildings and interesting architectural details particularly inspired by Islamic architectural elements (Arches, Mashrabiyas..etc.) are being torn down and replaced with, of course, glossy skyscrapers piercing the sky.

The site of a building being torn down is quiet common in this city.

John Henzell, a journalist in the National, the English speaking newspaper of the Abu Dhabi government, explained the Phenomenon, “In a growing city like Abu Dhabi, what makes a building worth keeping?” :

 “..the modern heritage faces an additional threat represented in the usual demand for modernisation in order to keep up with the latest, cleanest and smartest designs and tastes.”

The real threat of Modern Heritage in Abu Dhabi, he argues, is the lack of awareness and appreciation. Many people get to see some of the older buildings as a disease that must be got rid of.

ibrahimi building

Iconic round building in Zayed Street.

One of the recent examples is the ADNOC corporate headquarters on the corniche, were three interlocked curved buildings dating from the 1990s once stood. Today, One of them is demolished and replaced with a 340-metre tower.

Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) which later merged with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and the Tourism Development Investment Corporation to form Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) identified the complex as ‘heritage buildings worth preserving’.


ADNOC connected buildings before demolishing one of them.

Some of the other iconic buildings of the post-oil era are the Abu Dhabi Bus station which has a unique architectural form painted in mint green. Along with Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Zayed’s Sports City, the Bateen Mall, Maqta Bridge, the Armed Forces Officers’ Club, the Intercontinental, Le Meridien and Hilton hotels.

On a bright side, 2011 saw the launching of  the Modern Heritage Preservation Initiative which was concerned with the protection of modern buildings heritage and understanding the architectural heritage in Abu Dhabi in the post-oil era.

I am worried about the identity of this city. This city which I have spent ten years of my life, and three years as a regular visitor. I am afraid I would come later, like my aunt, and not recognize the city.



One comment

  1. Mohamed Ali · September 17, 2014

    brilliant writing….. remember the beautiful architecture of the Cultural Foundation …GONE !

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