The Domus guide to Abu Dhabi

A journey through the capital of the Emirates, among the congested roads of downtown and the dusty streets of Mina Zayed, in the sparkling Corniche, among the cultural stages of Al Saadiyat and in the middle of the desert, in the zero-emission “new city” of Masdar.

by Chiara Testoni

In Abu Dhabi the history is recent and rapidly changing. Over the last fifty years the country has transformed from a pearl fishing village into a leading capital on the world geopolitical scene; from a Bedouin center into a melting pot in which flows of people from all over the world intertwine; from a provincial place buried in the desert (while Dubai was already becoming noticed) into an artistic-cultural stage of international appeal.

The structure of the city was shaped by the vision of the “founding father” Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan who established the Federation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, presiding over it first and establishing its capital in Abu Dhabi. Fascinated by rapid and massive expansion, the Sheikh soon rejects the “measured” solutions (on the model of European garden cities) of the first designers in charge of the Abu Dhabi masterplan (Harris, Halcrow & Partners, 1961) and entrusts the project to the Japanese Katsuhiko Takahashi. Referring to the Metabolist model of a city in constant evolution, Takahashi establishes the rigorous orthogonal road network of the city starting from two east-west and north-south axes (Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street and Zayed The First Street), interpreting the demand of the Sheik of unlimited and non-hierarchical expansion, and optimization of travel times.

At the end of the 1960s, Takahashi was replaced by the Egyptian architect Abdelrahman Makhlouf who, in his colleague's orthogonal road scheme, implanted the repeatable settlement model of the “super block”: a square district composed on the borders by a tight curtain of multifunctional vertical buildings and, on the interior, by a more rarefied fabric with public spaces, services and residences separated by small lanes (sikkak), where neighborhood relationships are recomposed.

The years following the Sheikh’s death (2004) witnessed a period of lasseiz-faire and sprawling construction, which produced the disappearance of some particularly vivid traces in the collective memory, such as the old fish market and the “historic” souk.

Today Abu Dhabi is finding its own identity between the bustling and flashy Dubai and the introverted and intellectual Sharjah, beyond that apparent desertification of urban sense that can be perceived behind the tinted windows of fast-moving cars, or from the reflections of the city on the glass curtain walls of the office towers, which give the capital of the Emirates the appearance of a metropolis that can be replicated anywhere. An identity that can be grasped in the dense and vibrant urban fabric of downtown, in the dynamic and pervasive socio-cultural scene of Al Saadiyat and Mina Zayed, in the sparkling Corniche and among the desert dunes, where Masdar City projects a city born on oil into a fossil fuel-free future.


Downtown: superblock and Brutalism

The search for urban sense in Abu Dhabi can only start from downtown, the part of the city resulting from the design of Takahashi and Makhlouf. Here, as the architect and designer Sultan Al Ramahi tells Domus, the current settlement typology is that of the superblock. If the buildings within the disctrict have a minute and rarefied fabric, along the main roads the fronts are composed of a tight curtain of “mushroom” multi-storey buildings (narrow base set back from the road front to facilitate transit and reduce the volume on the street), with shops on the ground floor, a mezzanine, offices and apartments on the upper floors. The architectural language is varied and ranges from the aseptic curtain walls in aluminum and glass of the 90s to the Brutalist buildings of the 60s and 80s, sometimes contaminated by Islamic suggestions. Many of these buildings are now listed.


Downtown: since the origins to today

The route in downtown continues in search of the earliest traces of urban settlement, to explore works that have reshaped the landscape and local identity in recent times.

The “fortress” of Qasr Al Hosn: it all started here. Legend tells that during a hunting session, some nomads of the Bani Yas tribe, thirsty from the desert heat, glimpsed a gazelle and, chasing it, suddenly stumbled upon a spring of fresh water. It was here that they decided to settle, laying the foundations of the first fortified nucleus from which, since the 18th century, the city of Abu Dhabi would develop: a toponym which, in homage to the serendipity of its origin, means “Father of the Gazelle”.

But Qasr al Hosn is not only a monument to the memory of the country; it is also an epicentre propelling lively urban energy, starting from the adjacent complex of The Cultural Foundation (the region's first artistic-cultural centre and today a renowned exhibition and social centre), to the redevelopment of the public areas of the district (by Cebra) that reconnects the fabric of the most representative monuments of the historic city through a contemporary lexicon.

Finally, a look at the contemporary reinterpretation of the ancient souk, now demolished, which revives in the dense and vibrant spirit (typical of places of exchange and relations in Arabic culture) of the World Trade Centre, by Norman Foster.


The Corniche

The Corniche is an extremely popular place for the city’s inhabitants, who spend their leisure time on the beach, jogging in the well-kept parks or stopping at the many cafes and restaurants. Here there are some iconic works rooted in the city’s collective memory and in the common imagination that regards Abu Dhabi as an international capital of towering and glittering representative architecture.


Al Saadiyat and Mina Zayed: the stages of culture

For some years now, the Abu Dhabi government has been investing substantially in Al Saadiyat, a candidate to become one of the most important cultural districts on the planet. It is here where the most renowned international archistars converge (from Jean Nouvel with the Louvre Abu Dhabi, to Frank Gehry with the Guggenheim under construction, to Norman Foster and Mecanoo with the future Zayed National Museum and Natural History Museum respectively). In the Mina Zayed district, further away from the spotlight but no less bustling with activity, a massive process of urban regeneration is transforming the area of the old commercial port, whose main activities were relocated in 2012, into a dynamic multifunctional district where the spirit of the place lives on in the industrial buildings renovated to house spaces and services for the community.

Regardless of the specific characteristics of the locations, in both contexts Emirati pride can be seen not only in the desire to turn the spotlight on a lively and high-quality cultural scene but also on an increasingly dense and cohesive social fabric, thanks to programmes that bring the community closer to artistic and cultural practice.


Infrastructure and sustainability

We finally explore the urban and territorial infrastructures that make the Emirate a place of ceaseless engineering, technological and scientific innovation.

The city of Abu Dhabi is literally an island, located less than 250 metres from the coast and joined to the continent by the Maqta and Mussafa bridges and by the Sheikh Zayed bridge, designed by Zaha Hadid: for those arriving by car, this sculptural and dramatically lit bridge acts as a visiting card to the dynamic and bustling city to which it leads.

Some thirty kilometres away in the middle of the desert, Masdar City, on a masterplan by Norman Foster, is the realised utopia of a city with zero waste and zero carbon emissions, in a country that has always built its fortune on oil and that looks to the future with a new perspective.

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