The UAE has long been associated with its quest for the new and its attitudes towards architecture are no different. However, recent projects in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are demonstrating a slight shift in perspective towards conservation, refurbishment and regeneration. It is also notable that many of these projects have been transformed into art and culture spaces, such as Dubai’s Al Serkaal Avenue in the industrial area of Al Quoz.
With three large-scale museums currently in the works on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi is turning its attention to reviving its heritage, a recent project seeing two existing warehouses located in the city’s main port, Mina Zayed, transformed into a functional culture and arts hub, Warehouse 421, commissioned by the Salma bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.
Part of a larger masterplan, Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) was brought in to kick start the works with this smaller-scale cultural project that aims to absorb the history of the port and its surrounding character.
“We wanted to see if we could turn this part of town into a neighbourhood with a different kind of character,” Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG, explained of the project.
He then went on to explain how the Foundation and his team looked at the entire neighbourhood and its contrasting scales, such as the large international ships and local fishing boats as well as the smaller aspects that brought character to the area including the small markets spices “and almost as a test, we picked out two existing warehouses to transform into a cultural space”.
Ingels said: “One way to turn the [warehouses] into a cultural space is by using the idea of an Islamic courtyard; bringing light, air, water and nature into the heart of the building. These will act as miniature oases in the middle of an otherwise hermetic architecture.
He continued: “So we basically took the outline of the two connected warehouses and as a way of organising the floor plan into different galleries, punched little holes of different oases that then created free-flowing but organised art gallery spaces within.”
The mini oases also feature terracotta tiles made with dry clay as well as indigenous plants that recreate the concept of a savvana inside the building, created by BIG’s landscape architects.
Speaking of the façade, Ingels said: “The basic idea is that we wrap the entire building in a perforated rusting steel skin out of Cor-Ten, reminiscent of ship port holes. This perforated skin also creates a veil that allows daylight and air to come into the exhibitions. We also have these industrial folding doors similar to something you would find in a garage that allows the building to open up and invite people to explore.”
He continues: “Out of concrete we created a plaza at the front, with cracks in the concrete that allow trees to grow and form benches.
“So essentially it is an extremely subtle arrival of culture nested in the iconography of the industrial heritage.
“I think it’s a very promising experiment on the different take on urban development where the Emirates could still be a place where the fantastical is possible but, maybe also a fantasty that is a natural extension of the existing heritage,” Ingels concluded.