What do you do with a 5 hour layover in Dubai? Whenever I fly with Emirates, I somehow find myself with a lengthy layover at the Dubai airport. The last time this happened I was lucky enough to have a friend in town to show me the infamous skyline by night. This time, however, my flight arrived in Dubai at about 6am. So after an hour or so nap on the fairly comfortable waiting lounge seat, I headed off to check out old town Dubai by Dubai Creek. The pink women and children-only taxi dropped me off in the Shindagha area, right beside the docking area for the abras, the commuter boats. I walked along the quiet and pristine port towards a cluster of traditional-looking buildings.
Low and behold, I stumbled upon a sign reading “Traditional Dubai House”. The place was deserted, but I was lured in by the cleverly-placed staircase that led me to a beautifully hand-carved door. Curiously, I pushed the door open to find an exhibition room displayed with educational signs, meaningful photography, historical artifacts, and even a human-sized model of a man chiseling a wall. The next thing I knew, the lights flickered on and Arabian music began to play. After the initial startle, I began to explore and read the signs on architectural conservation and traditional UAE architecture, including mud architecture! Needless to say, having worked on a mud structure for Panigram Resort, I was excited to learn about its use in the Middle East!
The layout of the beautifully-restored villa consisted of several exhibition rooms; topics ranged from traditional urban planning to design details of traditional doors and windows. I was fascinated to see how building materials and methods varied with the environment. The traditional urban planning section discussed the distinctive differences between urban coastal structures, which were architecturally sturdier and intricate than rural village architecture. Rural structures were mostly simple dwellings mad of stone, palm, or woven tent. To fight burning temperatures and the dreadful humidity, urban architecture had several distinctive features including open courtyards, wind-towers “Barjeels”, and gypsum-insulating walls. Small alleys, called “Sikeek” provide shade and encourage breezes; I noticed this later during my walk through the tight corridors of the spice market.
The traditional house held over eight exhibition rooms with architectural models on display and interactive tv monitors describing other projects going on in Dubai. I learned that this house was actually built in 1928 for Sheikh Juma Al-Maktoum and is one of a larger network of renovation and historical preservation efforts. Although I am entirely unsure of who commissioned the project, I suspect the municipality of Dubai’s Historical Building Section had some kind of relation to the project’s presence. Since 1984, the Historical Building Section has revived and preserved of over 150 traditional homes, mosques, and markets.
What is architectural conservation? Who knew I’d find the answer in a city known best for (in my opinion) its over-the-top globalized architecture. Traditional is the furthest term I’d associate with Dubai architecture, until now. The exhibition was keen to emphasize the importance of architectural conservation to “reinforce community identity and achieve cultural interaction between human generations”. So the next time you have a layover in Dubai, check out the Sheikh Juma Al-Maktoum House for a perfect blend of history, society, architecture, and preservation advocacy.