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Paper Presented for the Iaps 16th Conference
METROPOLIS 21st Century: Which perspectives
Cities, Social life & Sustainable Development
4-7 July, 2000,
Paris, France.
Author, Mr. Djamel Boussaa,
Associate Faculty
Department of Architecture,
Faculty of Engineering,
UAE University,
Po.Box 17555, Al Ain, UAE
Tel: (03)7051 686
Fax: (03)636 925
Dubai: The Search for
One way of rediscovering the cultural
identity of the city is to go back to its roots
and try to preserve and sustain them. This
paper will try to highlight the importance
of dealing with the urban conservation
issue. The main question to be raised
here is: How can urban conservation be
a catalyst for regenerating the cultural
identity of the city of Dubai? The
Bastakia historical district at the heart of
the city will be a case study of sustainable
urban conservation and a way of saving the
local character of the city, and this might
create an approach for reconciling the past
with the present and future of Dubai and
other cities of the UAE.
Key words: Urban, Conservation, Identity,
Sustainability, and Development.
Meiss (1991) defines identity as follows;
“(Public) identity as a member of a group
with which one shares and discusses values;
the family, political party, club, etc. (And
private) identity as an individual who
maintains a margin of liberty and personal
responsibility, distinct from the group and
from all others; each person is unique.”
In fast growing cities such as Dubai, the
issue of identity and its implications are
increasingly complex and multi-
dimensional. Traditionally, people were
able to maintain a strong identity in their
urban environment because everything was
locally influenced, created and managed.
This is not the case of today, where the
world has become like a small village,
through global trade, media, economic
connections and free exchange of people,
ideas and money. In dealing with the
question of identity in urban areas, several
important concepts are raised; conservation
of the urban heritage is one such important
Dealing with the conservation of heritage
resources is not an easy task. Generally, in
conservation, we think of built artifacts,
architectural and urbanistic structures, the
townscape, the landscape and the urban
environment. This concept can also be
enlarged to encompass the urban culture
and lifestyles of the people, the uses of
spaces, the technical procedures, and the
building construction techniques, among
other cultural subjects, that can enhance
and sustain the identity of a group within
their setting. (Zanchethi, Jokilehto, 1997)
Enlarging the conservation approach to
encompass the existing social life system
allows us to say that conservation is now
associated with the preservation of the
historical integrity of cultures within a
given urban entity. Therefore, conservation
seeks to maintain the urban environment,
together with the cultural practice of its
use. It is therefore a process involving the
conservation of the material elements -the
built and natural environment- along with
the cultural processes that together
comprise the urban structure. Therefore,
conservation is a process that can include
in its procedures both rehabilitation and
Urban conservation is a process that seeks
to co-ordinate and regulates the process of
continuity and change of an urban structure
and its values. It can be said as well that
urban conservation planning process is an
activity that aims to preserve the creative
change of values within the context of the
continuity of the urban structure. Rapid
change is a character of most UAE cities,
especially Abu-Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah,
therefore the issue of managing this
staggering change remains an important
dilemma to be tackled.
The United Arab Emirates was founded on
the 2nd December 1971. It is composed of
seven emirates, Abu-Dhabi the capital city,
Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Um-Al Qaiween,
Ras Al Khaima and Fujairah. Dubai is the
second major city, it is well known for its
shopping and tourist activities, and has
been during the last decade the most
visited city in the Gulf. Prior to reaching
this strategic place in the region, Dubai
experienced a period of developing large-
scale projects. All buildings with various
international fashion styles can be found in
Dubai. These buildings vary from high rise
tower blocks, to five star hotels, and very
attractive shopping malls…. Etc. The
latter, brought about many styles that
weakened the strong and unique identity of
the historical Dubai.
In order to meet the increasing need for
housing, education facilities and shopping
areas that followed the discovery of oil,
large areas had to be prepared for this
purpose. In order to do so, the bulldozer
had to do its job of cleaning away urban
areas, which usually comprised historical
and heritage buildings. As a matter of fact,
modern alien buildings and environments
replaced these historical relics. In order to
implement rapidly these vast construction
programs, most highly qualified
international architects and planners have
been commissioned, comprehensive
programs have been prepared, the best
quality materials have been imported. The
result is embarrassing and disappointing in
terms of economic and cultural
Most of these new urban environments are
inappropriate to the social and climatic
environments of the region. Therefore,
when visiting Dubai it is hardly possible to
say that we are in an Arabic Islamic city.
Following this unprecedented pace of
construction during the 1960s and 1970s,
people started to feel that something was
missing in their environments, elements
that show that their cities should have a
specific character, that of the Arabian
peninsula. In other words, a search for an
artifact that reflects their cultural identity
and heritage started in the early eighties,
when hardly anything was left. Most of the
historical buildings were swept away by
the bulldozer. As a matter of fact, people
started to feel disappointed about the great
loss of their architectural and urban
heritage. These feelings reached the minds
of the people in power, and especially at
the level of the municipalities which
started to react quickly, in order to try and
save what is so little left of historical
Dubai, the second largest city of the seven
united emirates, occupies a strategic
position between Abu-Dhabi and Sharjah.
Dubai lies on an area of 1500 square miles,
which corresponds to 5% of the UAE.
With the exception of the traditional
mountainous Hatta village, Dubai is a
semi-desert, with one of the astonishing
natural harbors in the region- the Dubai
Creek, called locally, the “Khor Dubai”.
Fig1. Showing the strategic location of the UAE.
Archeological excavations have
determined that settlements in Dubai go
back as far as 3000 years BC. A settlement
might have been established near the creek,
providing shelter and the availability of
fresh water. In 1833, about 800 members
of the Al Bu Falasa subsection of the
Baniyas tribe split from Abu Dhabi after a
dispute with its ruler and settled in Dubai.
This migration marks the beginning of
Dubai as an independent Sheikdom. The
community was under the rule of Maktoum
Bin Butti from 1833 till 1852. All
subsequent rulers have been always from
the Maktoum Family.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the
Portuguese were the first Europeans who
arrived to exercise influence in the Indian
Ocean and the Gulf. Their main target was
to dominate the profitable trade between
the areas bordering the Indian Ocean and
Europe. The town of Khorfakkan, on the
eastern coast of the UAE, was completely
razed by the Portuguese in 1507. The
Portuguese formed a significant maritime
force in both the Indian Ocean and the
Gulf but were unable to maintain the
monopoly of trade for long. By the end of
the 16th century Britain and Holland had
become interested in this commerce. By
the mid-eighteenth century, Britain had
become the preeminent power in the region
and this position lasted for almost 200
years. (Gabriel, 1987)
In 1902, Tehran established the Imperial
Customs in the Persian ports along with a
series of restrictive measures, which were
imposed on the merchants there. From this
time onwards, the Indian trade started to
shift to Dubai. In addition to trade,
merchants, craftsmen and pearlers
migrated with their families to Dubai.
Economic considerations began to grow in
importance coinciding with the discovery
of oil in Iran in 1908.
The development of the oil industry after
the 2nd World War revolutionized the
economy and society of the trucial states.
Shaikh Rashid took the reins after the
death of his father in 1958. His initial
objectives were to enlarge the entrepot role
of Dubai and to provide an attractive base
for oil exploration activities. During the
1950s, he embarked on programs to
develop a variety of new services and to
modernize the administration. In 1953 the
British Political Agency was moved from
Sharjah to Dubai, reflecting the latter’s
established commercial importance.
In 1966 oil was discovered in Dubai, and
its export started just three years later. For
about ten years, Sheikh Rashid had been
successfully modernizing the
administration, improving facilities and
encouraging commercial development. Oil
revenues enabled the government to
undertake large-scale developments, such
as Port Rashid, the Jebel Ali Port and
industrial area. Consequently, Dubai has
become a focal point and a regional center
for many multinational companies. During
the major period of concentrated
development and expansion that occurred
between 1974-1978, Dubai resembled a
massive construction site. Following this
staggering development, the 1980s saw a
slowdown in growth, as the major
development of infrastructure had been
nearly completed.
In 1833, Dubai was no more than a tiny
fishing village. By the turn of the century,
the population of Dubai was estimated to
be around 10,000 inhabitants, concentrated
in three residential districts: Deira,
consisting of 1600 houses and 350 suq
shops, used by a population composed of
Arabs, Persians and Baluchis making up
the majority; Al Shindagha area, a former
residence of the Ruling Family, where
there were 250 houses but no suqs, and
only Arab residents; and Dubai, the
smallest of the three quarters, composed of
200 houses and 50 suq stands and
dominated by Persian and Indian
merchants. (Gabriel, 1987)
There is no detailed information about
these three historical settlements. All what
is known that each compound had solid
dwellings, built of clay and coral stones.
These were surrounded by “barastis”,
square or rectangular courtyards laid out
and fenced with palm-frond mats. Within
each “barasti” were several huts, built of
palm fronds. The wind-tower, a square
element introduced by the Persian
immigrants was used for ventilation as
well as giving a specific character to the
skyline of the historic city of Dubai.
Fig.2. The traditional wind-tower in Bastakia.
The first house of concrete was built in
1956. It was in the mid-sixties, after the oil
discovery, that Dubai witnessed a dramatic
growth. For instance, the population of
Dubai had increased sevenfold, and town
planning and construction accelerated
accordingly. Deira, particularly the side of
the settlement closest to the Creek, has
continued to develop along modern lines.
Many imposing multi story and high-tech
buildings were established to show the new
image of modern Dubai. These were
intended as well to hide the traditional
dwellings of the past, which might have
been considered as signs of misery and
poverty of the past that should be erased or
at best, be well hidden at the background
of the newly built modern buildings.
Fig.3. The modern high-rise buildings of Deira.
A characteristic of Middle Eastern cities is
the concentration of the population in
districts, according to ethnic, racial,
religious or nationality groupings. The city
of Dubai is no longer divided into areas of
particular ethnic groups, but more
according to social status. Nationals and
wealthy expatriates live in well-developed
areas, such as Jumeira and Zaabeel,
characterized by well designed villas and
integrated with parks and green areas,
whereas the manual laborers and poor
people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh
and Philippines live in the historical areas
abandoned by their original inhabitants,
such as Bastakia, Al Ras, Al Sabkha and so
on. (Gabriel, 1987) The latter are usually
overpopulated and without any
maintenance, leading to a continuous
disrepair and rundown, and making them
look like slums.
Fig.4. The poor state of dwellings in Bastakia.
Until the sixties, the inhabitants of Dubai’s
rural districts followed a nomadic way of
life. People lived in Barasti compounds,
known as bedouin camps. Due to the
unprecedented rapid development of
Dubai, the transition from the bedouin
“barasti” compounds, through the
somewhat similar low cost housing to
generously built houses took place within
one decade. This shows the speed of
urbanization, which did not leave time to
think about the appropriateness of
buildings and respect for the local culture,
and environment. In other words, there was
a pressing need to wipe out images of
poverty, misery and the backwardness of
the past. Consequently, this has been done
by sacrificing heritage areas and buildings,
thus wiping out long chapters of history.
Fig.5. During the 70s wind-tower houses have been
demolished to be replaced by tower blocks.
In order to understand what was behind
this rapid astonishing development of the
city from a small fishing village to a
modern metropolis in the Gulf, one has to
list the priorities and the planned
objectives established by the Ruling
Family at that time: (Gabriel, 1987)
1. The Ruling Family wants to make Dubai a
modern city with a thriving economy,
comprehensive social welfare and a high
standard of living for all its inhabitants.
2. The inhabitants seek employment and
business opportunities, mosques, housing
and recreational facilities.
3. The dominating merchant community
wants a liberal economic policy, an
effective infrastructure and favorable
conditions for commerce and
4. The oil and other related industrial
companies; their contractors and suppliers
need extensive well-equipped wharfages
and yards, efficient support and
communication facilities, and modern
living conditions for staff and their
5. The many guest-workers require adequate
accommodation, good schools and
hospitals, favorable shopping and service
facilities, and the social amenities needed
for their own cultures.
6. The fast growing planning department of
the Dubai Municipality has endeavored
since its first master plan of 1960 to direct
growth and building into orderly,
manageable and sensible channels.
In contrast to the great metropolitan
centers of the world, Dubai is still a
community with very few significant
shortcomings: the people are cosmopolitan,
tolerant, and pragmatic, and feeling of
security is achieved for both inhabitants
and tourists. The living conditions of the
lowest social strata are quite adequate. One
should notice as well, that there are no
unmanageable traffic jams, nor power cuts,
no failure of the water supply, not even for
the higher buildings, no air pollution, and
no slums apart from those in abandoned
historical districts.
The development of Dubai from a tiny
fishing port with a small souk to an
important trading metropolis is remarkable
and fascinating. This success could not
have been achieved without the following
factors: a strategic geographical location,
the farsightedness of its rulers, the
astuteness of its merchants, good fortune,
and last but not least, the entrepreneurial
mentality of its people. (Gabriel, 1987)
During the sixties, all trade was centered
on the natural port of the Creek. This
represented the most important axis of
development of the city. The old city
quarters in Dubai and Shindagha are
situated along a strip of varying width
directly by the Creek, while in Deira they
are located in the western part of the
narrow peninsula surrounded by the Creek.
The network of streets and lanes of the old
city quarters are irregular. Most of the
dwellings are two-story stone buildings
with interior open to sky courtyards. What
is important to say here is that these
traditional districts were not amongst the
priorities set out in the city’s 1st master
plan. The main planning goals that were
introduced by John R. Harris for the first
master plan in 1959/60 can be summarized
as follows: (Gabriel, 1987)
 Establishment of a road system.
 Dividing the town into industrial,
commercial and public buildings zones.
 Defining areas suitable for new
residential districts.
 Allocation of sites for school buildings,
open spaces in the new residential
 Creation of a town center in Dubai.
In May 1971, John Harris prepared a new
master plan. It was based on the guidelines
of the 1960 plan and took into
consideration of the actual urban
development from 1960-1970. Since Dubai
was exporting oil from 1969 onwards, this
new plan acknowledged this important
source of income. Comparing the master
plan of 1971 with land use in 1986
demonstrates that Dubai’s development has
progressed much faster than anticipated but
has followed the proposals of the 1971
The present urban development state of
Dubai is thus the outcome of just 40 years
development. The urbanized region of
Dubai is divided into quite different areas,
in the outer districts, which have been
constructed during the past 25-30 years.
Most of these buildings and structures
belong to one very young generation with
no historical background. In the inner areas
of Dubai and Deira, on the other hand, the
urban fabric is multi-tiered. Two roads
were to be cut into the “old city” in order
to improve the traffic flow. However, this
could not be done without causing the
demolition of a large number of traditional
buildings. The newly built modern
buildings often represent a second phase of
development, the traditional structures of
the previous phase no longer meeting the
requirements of a modern lifestyle. Thus
more and more of them were cleared away
and replaced by modern buildings.
(Gabriel, 1987)
For example, the southern part of historical
Deira close to the suqs, traditional housing
was given way to commerce and industry.
Only a few stone houses have survived
from the first generation of buildings; most
have been replaced by large blocks of
rental flats or apartments, where once
again several plots have been grouped to
form one large site. At the same time,
narrow lanes and pathways have been
replaced by newly laid-out, asphalt access
Fig.6. Construction of roads started in 1961.
During the period 1965-85, more than 50
high rise buildings, including hotels,
banks, public services, company offices
and shopping malls, were erected in the
Baniyas Road along the Creek. In these
high-rise buildings the ground floor was
allocated for commercial purposes,
followed by 2-3 floors for offices and the
last five or more floors for apartments. On
the one hand, this vertical combination of
residential and commercial activity within
one building, along with hotels,
entertainment, restaurants and offices,
ensures the continuing life of the area day
and night. On the other hand, the
emergence of these high rise towers
participated greatly in erasing the local
character and identity of the city.
Despite the fact that building regulations
issued in 1969 permitted only a maximum
height of ground floor and 9 stories for
waterfront buildings, what we see today is
a number of important landmarks of more
than 10-12 stories, such as the Etisalat
tower, the National Bank of Dubai and the
Chamber of Commerce and Industry
building. One of the major landmaks of
Dubai is the 39-story World Trade Center,
and recently the Burj Al Arab tower in
Fig.7. The 39-Story World Trade Center in Dubai.
The traditional homes of Bastakia and
Deira were abandoned; more security
removed the need to maintain defense
towers and castles, which quickly fell into
ruins. Thus, in many areas, virtually all
traces of the past vanished in a mere
couple of decades. During the late
seventies and early eighties, Governments
became increasingly aware that this
irretrievable loss of their heritage should
be checked and no more time should be
wasted for action.
Fig.8. High-rise developments along Zayed Street.
The erection of these high rise modern
towers replaced the graceful and attractive
traditional wind-towers - a Persian
influence -, which in the past dominated
the skyline of the city. These are fast
disappearing as the old buildings are being
replaced. However in the early eighties, the
Dubai Municipality started to launch a
preservation action for the few surviving
buildings of the past. The first historical
building that was restored was the Bit
Sheik Said house in Shindagha, and this
took two years 1984-86. It had survived for
more than 100 years as the main palace of
the Ruling Family.
Sustainable development is seen in present
times as a powerful motivation for urban
conservation planning. It consists mainly
of an urban development process based on
the permanent adaptive reuse of existing
built and natural resources, associated with
the introduction of a low input of energy to
meet the new requirements conceived in
society. It is also seen as process based on
the local culture, on an equitable
distribution of urban services, the use of
liberal principles of management, and the
preservation and regeneration of traditional
values and practices. (Zanchethi, Jokilehto,
From the perspective of sustainability,
cultural heritage is understood as a non-
renewable resource. It encompasses some
of the most important cultural values of
society (identity, memory, self-
consciousness and artistry), and is an asset
capable of attributing value to new things
through the creation of new processes
based on established values. As a man-
made product, a city is an artifact
composed of various historically
recognizable parts or strata. There may be
no historic center as such, nor specified
historic areas, but rather a historic urban
structure that regenerates itself through the
use of characteristic elements and
Fig.9. Sustaining traditional construction techniques
in the Tourist Heritage Village of Shindagha.
From the sustainable approach, the city is
understood to be a unique ensemble that
needs to be conserved in its historical
integrity. This means understanding the
city as a dynamic process, a structure in
permanent and continuous change. Similar
to other structures, it has both states and
processes; these elements and their unity
give a specific character and identity to the
city. There are artifacts possessing greater
stability than others, because throughout
history they have acquired values that are
fundamental to urban life, however, there
are also processes that are strongly rooted
in city life, and for this reason, have
become conceived of values. (Zanchethi,
Jokilehto, 1997)
Fig.10. Beit Sheikh Saeed, the 1st restored building
in Dubai in 1984, now it is used as a museum.
Sustaining urban conservation must be
seen in the context of diversity, and
specificity of cultural and socio-economic
development. The globalization of the
world economy is still partial, and confined
to certain regions of the world; it also
embraces certain aspects of urban life.
Each situation should be understood
separately, and should be faced within the
context of a strategy that works to
implement appropriate conservation
There is a need to emphasize that any form
of sustainable approach in urban planning
should be conditioned by the analysis of
existing values, and their formation and
possible regeneration. Therefore, values
should be considered when urban planning
objectives are being discussed. In order to
ensure a sustainable approach to urban
development, there is an urgent need to
encourage debate about values as the
central issue of the planning process.
(Zanchethi, Jokilehto, 1997)
The meaning attributed to the urban fabric
can be either individual or collective, and
this can have important implications, as it
suggests that the built environment can
play a major role in stabilizing group
identities. Thus, preserving symbolic
artifacts can give cultures a sense of
historical understanding and belonging by
creating a sense of a place. This
relationship between place and identity
should not be necessarily established
through conscious processes, as Stokols
and Jakobi argue: ( Stokols, D. and Jacobi,
M., 1990)
“The traditional referents of the built
environment, rather than promoting a
constant awareness of historical links, instead
carry important meanings that can be
assessed by group members as needed. The
physical manifestations of the traditional
compose a repository of latent meanings that
group members draw upon to reaffirm links
with past or place”.
Demolition of prominent social or public
buildings, such as Beit Sheikh Saeed in
Dubai, Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain, or the Al
Hisn Fort in Sharjah can have a deep-
seated effect on a community, as it
effectively wipes out an important chapter
in the history of a place, and deletes
memories of its heritage for the majority of
its present and future residents. Costonis
has catalogued the controversy
surrounding the preservation of the Isaac
L. Rice mansion in NewYork’s West Side,
where the local community fought against
a proposal for demolishing the mansion by
a developer in order to replace it with a
tower, which would be in conflict with the
character of the neighborhood. (Hubbard,
Despite the fact that the historical
evolution of these significant architectural
relics was in most cases rarely understood,
they were viewed as symbols of
community development, and
acknowledged as being important in giving
the town a sense of identity. Whilst the
historical purity of the townscape may be
unimportant, its symbolism and allusion to
past events and ways of life are essential in
maintaining cultural identities.
Heritage conservation must be viewed as
an important catalyst for maintaining and
regenerating socio-cultural identity, as
familiar objects indicating shared cultural
values are more important than unfamiliar
or foreign objects in creating this sense of
place. Generally, conservation is being
increasingly accepted by people, and the
conserved environment is recognized as
the physical manifestation of the meaning
of the past.
Perceptions of place and historical identity
are dynamic and vary between groups of
different socio-cultural backgrounds. This
dynamism may bring about problems when
changing meanings come into conflict with
unchanging physical forms. It can be
argued that conservation can act as an
important mechanism in the maintenance
of individual and group identities in the
face of the increasing globalization of
culture and the imposition of national
historical identities on unique localities.
(Hubbard, 1993)
Conservation of heritage buildings and
sites preserves the citizen’ sense of identity
and continuity. It induces wonder,
reverence and respect for our forebears.
The scholarly will appreciate the historical,
documentary and archeological values; the
sensitive will appreciate the artistic,
architectural, townscape and landscape
values and so on. (Fielden, 1990)
Conservation is the creative use and re-use
of heritage buildings; therefore, it involves
using the functional and economic value of
historic buildings, which can usually be
rehabilitated at far below the cost of
demolishing, and building from scratch.
Conservation and development can be thus
happy partners.
The issue of identity should not be
considered only as a mere stylistic matter
of transposing tradition. However, it
should be well integrated in the heart of the
processes by which cities are shaped,
managed and financed. One of the major
problems facing ‘modern’ cities in general,
and particularly, Dubai, Abu-Dhabi and
Sharjah in the UAE, is a lack of identity
and character. For the sake of progress, and
fast modernization, buildings are erected,
without any link with the local cultural
values and natural conditions. In addition,
the loss of orientation and identification
has a grave psychological impact on part of
the population. People cannot identify
themselves and cannot be identified; they
are thus strangers in their own localities.
Fig.11. A traditional Areesh built in a new villa in
Khorfakkan as a Guest room, to express the
attainment of the owner to heritage and identity.
During the 60s and 70s, Dubai witnessed
large-scale urban development projects.
The focus was on physical and esthetical
aspects, rather than wise development,
which incorporates social, cultural,
economic and environmental dimensions.
In many cases, there has been no
consideration for cultural values and local
climatic conditions. This rapid
urbanization has been harmful not only for
new areas, but also for traditional sites. In
these areas, historical buildings were swept
away to provide sites for new
developments, or on most occasions
neglected, to only deteriorate and vanish
slowly. These historical areas were
invaded by commercial activities, and by
low-income Asian workers seeking cheap
accommodation. In all cases, the identity
of the city of Dubai has been seriously
threatened, tasteless and bizarre buildings
have replaced the mystical charm of
traditional Arabian cities, which were the
subject of admiration of many travelers, as
it has been pointed out by (Zahran, 1979):
“In the Middle East the gushing new wealth
fueled massive construction developments
enveloped in deceptive and contradictory
architectural pronouncements of utter
irrelevance and invalidity. Mushrooming
cities, in this region and elsewhere, display a
carnival of kaleidoscopic forms, colors,
textures, styles and fashions which can only
undermine local values, threaten cultural
continuity and isolate unquestionable
This discontinuity with tradition has led to
an identity crisis, disorienting people,
dehumanizing cities, and creating
enormous social, economic, physical and
environmental problems. Hahn & Simonis
(1991) well describe these effects:
“Cities have become a symbol for and a
product of the careless treatment of scare and
sensitive environmental goods. The process of
transforming raw materials into waste and
pollutants has become autonomous, while
urban planning ignores significant elements
of human behavior, giving rise to grave socio-
psychological problems. Cities have thus
become a symbol for the neglect of organic,
cultural traditions and the destruction of the
identity of places. Respect of traditions and
factors specific to certain places is however,
of highest importance for a symbiotic
development of the human environment
relationship. As individual characteristics are
different so it should be with cities, with
urban planning”.
Bastakia is a unique survivor of old Dubai;
only 25 wind-tower houses have survived
out of the 200 dwellings originally built.
However, what is more important, it is the
only remaining example of traditional
urban settlement at the heart of the city.
Due to the overpopulation of the area,
there are usually 100 low-income workers
inhabiting one house, and with the poor
maintenance of the buildings, their decline
has been accelerated during the last
decade, and this state has made the area
look like a slum. As a matter of fact, Dubai
Municipality has felt that no more time
should be wasted in order to save what is
left of Bastakia. Today, and since the early
eighties, the city of Dubai has been striving
to save the few remaining historical relics,
in order to preserve the local identity and
traces of the past.
Fig.12. Conservation efforts of Dubai Municipality
in Bastakia.
Heritage areas and buildings echo the
‘spirit’ of a culture and remind us of the
past. They express the collective attitudes
and the common patterns of life, and as
such they are a source of identity and
inspiration. In many areas of the Arab
World and UAE in particular, traditional
areas have been suffering from neglect,
lack of maintenance and deterioration. The
importance bringing these heritage areas
back to life, through conservation and
rehabilitation cannot be overemphasized if
we are to regenerate life in them, and thus
sustain their identity. The survival of what
is left of these heritage structures depends
on the level of integration within the new
urban system, on appropriate functional
reuse and adequate means of
Fig.13. Location of the remaining part of Bastakia.
In addition to adaptive reuse, we should try
to harmonize old and new urban areas in
terms of scale, building typology and urban
morphology, as well as enhancing and
improving quality within old areas by
appropriate in-fill urban design projects
and landscape schemes. Conservation
schemes cannot be implemented without
developing traditional craftsmen, who are
not stuck in their old ways with respect to
techniques and materials, but who are also
able to invent and progress with the use of
modern materials and construction
The Bastakia area in Bur Dubai is located
on the eastern part of the historical town.
The compound is developed 300 meters
along the creek with a depth of 200m to the
south. This part of the city reflects an
important era of the historical architecture
and urban development of the city. By the
1920s, most merchants who had initially
taken up temporary residence in Dubai to
keep a foot in the business of importing
into Persia decided to accept Shaikh Said
Bin Maktoum’s offer to settle in Dubai and
to bring their families over. Therefore, a
large number of these families came from
the Bastak district in Iran. (Heard-Bey,
The immigrants were given an area
immediately to the East of Al Fahidi Fort
in Bur Dubai to build houses for
themselves. This location is close to the
creek where boats could be offloaded and
near to the Suq of Dubai, which turned out
to be favorable indeed. The choice of the
site was mainly due to security and defense
reasons. The settlement was established
along the creek, as there is only one access
that could be controlled by the inhabitants.
In addition, the economy at that time was
mainly based on fishing and searching for
Unfortunately, land reclamation in the
early seventies has separated the Bastakia
from its original context, rising as it does
straight from the water with a splendid
sense of immediacy. It was an ideal site for
a merchant community, close to the market
where business was conducted. It is
unfortunate to see these attractive
dwellings falling into disrepair and it is
essential to preserve this settlement, both
for the quality of its architecture and for
the superb townscape it provides.
(Browne, 1977)
The art gallery building on Al Fahidi road
stands out as the main gateway to Bastakia.
Most of the dwellings have a wind-tower
rising up so as to break up the continuous
horizontal skyline formed by the one and
two storey houses. A network of external
narrow streets and alleyways form the
basis of the external shaded circulation.
Restoration work is underway and an on-
site workshop has been erected. Despite
the fact many buildings have been restored,
a large number of them are still in a very
poor state. The mosque erected towards the
edge of Bastakia seems to play a double
role as a main place of worship and for
security similar to that provided by forts
and castles. There seem to be a potential
possibility of developing an interesting
walkway between the two nodes, the
mosque and the art gallery.
One of the main features of Bastakia is the
wind-tower known locally as a ‘barjil’. A
wind-tower is usually found in the master
bedroom and it stands as a higher element
than other parts of the house. The planning
of Bastakia was a response to the specific
needs of the family, and dwellings were
usually built according to the size of the
household. The masonry wind-towers,
each slightly different, lessen the
discomfort of summer heat and humidity
by catching the breeze and funneling it
down to the rooms below, where increased
air movement makes the occupants feel
more comfortable. Four sided; the towers
catch the wind from any direction, while
thick walls of petrified coral blocks
provide good insulation.
Fig.14. The wind-tower & shading provide a cool
environment in Bastakia.
The Bastakia is the last wind-tower district
left in the Gulf. In other areas, a few
isolated wind-tower dwellings survive in
the middle of high rise developments.
These occasional buildings create none of
the visual impact of the wind-tower skyline
of Bastakia. The layout of the quarter is
compact, with winding pedestrian alleys
serving the dwellings characterized by a
unity of style. At present, there is an urgent
need to design housing that is as
responsive to the social, economic and
environmental conditions as the Bastakia
houses were for those of the 1920s. (Coles,
Like in other medinas of the Arab World,
most of dwellings in Bastakia are built
around an inner courtyard open to sky,
known locally as a "haouch". Rooms
surround the latter, roofed verandas open
onto this courtyard, and roof top areas,
which were screened, and walled on the
outside, and, in the case of two- storey
houses, galleries overlook the courtyard.
The Bastakia is an interesting example of
an ethnic stronghold, which is exclusively
housing. (Browne, 1977)
Fig.15 A floor plan of a courtyard house in Bastakia
The main building material used by the
local builders is coral stone, well joined
and covered with plaster. The width of the
walls varies between 40-60 cm so as to
bear the load of two or three levels. In
addition, these walls are climatically
appropriate, they are built intentionally to
keep the internal spaces cool, and let the
warm air escape through the small
openings. The local builders used plaster
for decoration as well as finishing work for
internal and external surfaces.
More than that threatened with demolition
is the Bastakia, where every owner wanted
to demolish his house in order to develop
his plot with a multi-use tower building. To
prevent this, it was suggested that the ruler
would buy the whole district and to rent
these houses to the senior management of
foreign consultants on the condition that
they would restore and maintain these
One of the first listed priorities of Dubai
Municipality is the conservation of
Bastakia. Firstly, new constructions were
prohibited inside the area in order to
prevent the disturbance of the original
character of the area. Secondly, in June
1994 a consultant was commissioned by
Dubai Municipality to undertake the
Bastakia Conservation Project. The
restoration of the wind-tower houses, with
the intention of their adaptive reuse in
order to make Bastakia into a unique
housing and working part of central Dubai,
was a major goal of Dubai Municipality. In
order to implement this project four stages
were defined: (Gray, 1995)
 A detailed survey of all buildings to
assess their architectural quality, value
and suitability for future use.
 A site appraisal to determine the
opportunities and constraints, city
context and linkages.
 Research and analysis into what
future uses are realistic in Bastakia
based on market demand.
 Consideration of physical
development options.
A building survey was carried out in the
area to specify the state of the buildings,
secondly, to study the architectural
planning and suggest a work program for
the restoration of the area, and finally to
undertake legislative and design options in
order to revive it. The project also aimed
for Dubai Municipality to allocate these
buildings within a framework of a
comprehensive tourism and housing
In 1996 the Historical Building Section
started to undertake the execution of the
restoration work. The third phase aimed at
restoring the remaining buildings in the
area, and thereafter to begin with the
program of its employment and utilization.
The main issue of this project is to seek
ways of bringing new life to the area once
the threat of its demolition has been lifted.
This historical district presents more than
an architectural interest only. It is an
expression of a way of life that is fast
disappearing. Bastakia provides a record of
the social history of the first half of the 20th
Century, the period when Dubai emerged
to be the chief commercial center in the
Gulf. While this district was under
continuous threat of demolition, an appeal
was made in 1975 to save at least one
house in Bastakia: (Coles, 1975)
“It is hoped that it may be possible to make a
fuller record of the whole Bastakia before it is
too late, and there are strong arguments for
retaining at least one house as a folk museum.
In the mean time, we hope that this portrait of
a house will serve to arouse an interest in and
an appreciation of the traditional buildings in
the area.”
So far we have discussed the possibility of
saving the identity of cities through
conservation and rehabilitation processes.
However, there is also another way of
enhancing identity with new buildings and
urban areas. We should find a symbiosis
between tradition and modernity, and
between internal and external influences.
The attempt requires genuine architectural
expressions that respect the values of the
past and yet open the door to a present and
future full of modernity and promise, as
Yeang explains (1987):
“Whether the designer may like it or not, all
new constructions takes place in the present
where contemporary influences, technology,
context, world trade and economy, all of
which are already there in the present and
have to be contended with. Rather than
negating contemporary ideas and forms of
construction, the design question to the
regionalist is therefore to seek ways in which
the imported technologies, materials, ideas,
and built forms can be effectively localized
(where appropriate) to best fulfill the
building, the program and to be beneficial to
the local community”.
Creating a link between past and present
leads to bridge the gap between technology
and culture, change and tradition, and the
universal and the regional. It strives to
create meaningful, comprehensible and
engaging urban areas, which are not
ordered by professional mannerisms but
conditioned by the inseparable
relationships between human needs and
sustainable development.
In UAE, when the majority of cities have
been invaded by alien international style
buildings, a number of state departments
started to think about how to establish
regulations and guidelines for the design of
new buildings. The latter should reflect the
local environment and character in order to
enhance the cultural identity of the city. In
this line, and following the directions of
HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan, the President
of the UAE, a committee was established
at Al Ain Municipality in 1987 called “
Committee for Preserving Arab-Islamic
Architectural Character”. Its main role is to
examine drawings for new buildings in
order that they reflect the Arab-Islamic
character of Al Ain city. (Al Ain
Municipality, 1990)
Along the same lines, in November 1994
Dubai Municipality established a technical
committee dealing with the conservation of
areas and buildings. Moreover, this
commission has contributed to the creation
of a local pattern derived from traditional
architecture, offering a similar unity and
harmony found in the old parts of the city.
This has been achieved through
recommendations concerning conservation
planning, maintaining traditional
architectural styles, reviewing elevations of
new buildings in the area, and also
publishing a guide to the traditional
elements for architectural researchers,
scholars, consultants and students. (Arts &
the Islamic World, 1998)
As a result of these efforts, a number of
architects and consultants have started to
search for innovative concepts in designing
new buildings. These should contribute to
the strengthening of the cultural identity of
the UAE cities, which should be an
integral part of the Arab Islamic World.
Various routes have been followed, for
instance the integration of traditional
elements such as the wind-tower in new
designs. Examples of these attempts can be
seen in Dubai, Sharjah and AbuDhabi.
These are respectively, in Dubai, the
Tourist Information Building in the middle
of Nasser Square, Al Boom Tourist Village
and a number of houses in Jumeira. The
Central Market in Sharjah uses wind-
towers for ventilation; in addition, most of
its walls are decorated by Islamic
ornaments, and this building has become
an important landmark in the city. The
newly built Madinat Zayed Center in
AbuDhabi is a significant example of
integrating wind-towers on the roof along
with an enclosure of arcades.
Fig.16.The tourist information building in Deira.
Al Ain city is well known for its forts and
castles, thus a number of new designs have
been inspired by the traditional form of the
fort, such as the recent office and services
building in the civic center. In a number of
circumstances, Islamic architectural
elements have been used instead of the
local traditional elements, such as the
Muharabiya, the arcade and dome. One
significant adaptation is the Union Bank
building in Dubai. Attempts can be seen in
Sharjah city’s Cultural Roundabout and the
University City buildings. In Al Ain city, in
addition to housing, most of the
Government buildings have been designed
according to the Arab-Islamic style.
Fig.17. Union Bank building in Deira, Dubai.
All these efforts are meant to try and
revive the local identity and character of
the UAE cities. We have seen that many
approaches can be applied, from
conservation to new appropriate designs
inspired from the local tradition or from
the broader Arab-Islamic World. In
addition to these efforts, a number of
recommendations can be made for future
consideration and research.
Architectural education can be a catalyst in
sustaining identity in our cities.
Throughout the universities in the Middle
East, little attention is given to the
localized social and economic
determinants of design, and the studio
problems given to students assume a
sophisticated westernization, without
trying to relate them to local environmental
A program is needed which highlights the
relevance of the past and investigates the
development of indigenous architectures in
the future. Architectural history courses
need to stress the social, climatic, cultural
and ecological determinants that give rise
to architectural forms, instead holding up
surviving monuments as masterpieces of
art that cannot be applied or developed
again. Moreover, the studio problems that
are given to the students at schools of
architecture should not be purely western
or foreign ideas that have no relation to the
local context.
Fig.18.The use of wind-towers and Islamic
ornaments in the Central Market of Sharjah.
The built environment should not be
conceived as a physical entity, a functional
container, an accumulation of goods and
commodities, or a pattern of land uses;
because it is also a setting for social
actions, sensuous experiences and cultural
expressions. Change is a law of life; thus
conservation of a city should not be
designed to stop the process of change, or
prohibit the introduction of new elements
to enhance city life. On the contrary, it can
be a way to perpetuate a process of
generation of novelty that can be
appreciated on a more collective basis
(social, cultural, economic and technical).
Human needs and aspirations are different
from one region to another. This implies
that cities should not be similar, but should
have unique characteristics derived from
the local and regional contexts. Identity is
important for human beings and we strive
to manifest it in different aspects of our
daily-lives: national flags and languages,
gestures and rituals, customs and habits. So
it should be with our cities, which play a
significant role in diminishing or
strengthening our sense of identity.
Identity is not only expressed by the
exterior of buildings; this should also be
expressed in the internal layout and
arrangements, which should be responsive
to social, cultural, economic and
environmental conditions. In other words,
identity is the relationship between people
and cities, the ways they see them and the
meanings they attach to them. Identity does
not mean blind copying from the past, but
requires a thorough research and
investigation of its principles.
In order to extract lessons from the past,
references, values, images, cultural and
spiritual considerations should be
investigated and studied. To set up strong
links between the past and present we
should ensure the continuity of local
characteristics in the built environment.
Identity cannot, however, be fossilized as a
set of styles but should rather be
considered as a dynamic process like life
itself. This approach seeks to blend the old
with the new, the traditional with the
modern, and the regional with universal.
The past is a part of the present and both
will be a part of the future. Continuity
between old and new should lay strong
foundations for future growth and
Furthermore, in heritage areas such as
Bastakia, a number of actions should be
- Remove from the surrounding area of
Bastakia the huge publicity and advertising
signs that disturb the overall view of the
Fig.19. Commercial signs should be removed from
the Bastakia surroundings.
- Revive the area by introducing a number
of small shops, offices, and tourist
information points that should not harm the
residential character of the setting.
- Propose tourist walkways inside the
district, such as the one between the art
gallery and the mosque, to give tourists the
opportunity to discover the richness of this
historical site.
- Landscaping of the area should be
enhanced so as to accelerate air circulation
and thus reduce the effect of the high
humidity inside and outside the dwellings.
Fig.20. Potentialities of developing shaded tourist
walkways inside Bastakia.
To conclude, we must have the confidence
to believe in the city and in ourselves. We
need to avoid the siren calls for
commercial and industrial exploitation,
avoid theme park tourism and leave aside
marketing hyperbole. We should avoid
fashion but utilize our cultural assets. We
should strive to do what is right rather than
what is expedient, so that the city will
outlive us all. We should bear in mind that
what we do today will be the history of
tomorrow and it is ultimately by history
that we are judged. Civilizing the city
through sustaining its identity is now a
vital cultural question. Where there is no
vision the people perish. We need to see
the vision. As was stated by Lewis
Mumford in 1968:
“This then is the task for today and
tomorrow; to restore and eventually elevate
even higher than before the organic and
human components that are now missing in
our compulsively dynamic and over-
mechanized culture. The time has come to
come back to earth and make a new home for
The city’s identity is the outcome of the
planning system, the professionals’
creativeness and people’s awareness.
Nevertheless, if any fruitful result is to be
achieved, the identity of our modern cities
should not be treated as a materialistic
stylistic matter in isolation from the social,
cultural, economic and environmental
dynamism of urbanization. The issue of
identity should, therefore, be integrated
within the processes, which shape, manage
and finance the cities. In this way, identity
will be discussed in relation to maintaining
ecological integrity, to developing
economic bases and to improving social
conditions. This is not a cut and paste from
the past, but requires rethinking and
innovating, and changing priorities of
productions and behaviors.
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In the face of rapid economic development, population growth, people's increasing needs and their changing lifestyles, most historic centres in the Arab world have experienced problems. Located in a central position in the growing urban areas, these historic districts have to function as city centres. Previously, they kept the medina alive and they participated in the economic growth of the city; however, today this is not generally the case, as many of these centres have been erased, replaced by modern shopping malls and hypermarkets. Despite the fact that the trend for building modern skyscrapers is still popular, it is possible to counterbalance this drift by preserving the few remaining historic areas. We believe that one way of rediscovering the cultural identity of Doha is to go back to its initial roots and try to sustain them in harmony with the present and future trends of the city. Fareej (district) Al Asmakh, a model of Qatari heritage in the heart of Doha, presents an urgent case for urban conservation. Fareej Al Asmakh should be recognized as a valuable resource for future development. It is a reflection of Qatar's cultural identity in the heart of Doha, and thus should be sustained in the face of the proliferation of alien high-rise developments around and adjacent to it. This research focuses on the role of Fareej Al Asmakh and other districts in reviving and injecting new life into the heart of Doha. In other words, the question is: can urban conservation be an adequate strategy to revive and sustain Fareej Al Asmakh, thus strengthening the city's cultural identity while participating in its growth and development?
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Historic cities in North Africa are struggling to survive in rapidly emerging global environments. While numerous significant historic centers and districts were demolished to pave way for modern high-rise buildings, others die slowly of neglect and dilapidation. This situation raises important questions. What should be the future of these historic centers? Will they be erased to provide more space for ambitious growth or can they be conserved and sustained for the present and future generations? Tensions over land use, changes in the nature of local economies, and the marketing of historic assets place considerable pressures on those distinctive values that make historic cities attractive places in which to visit, live, and work. Such pressures have brought into focus the extent to which sustainable development policies can participate in managing rapid change in historic centers. This paper explores some of the conceptual issues raised by the social sustainability / historic city discourse. In order to place this discussion in a real context, three world heritage cities Algiers (Algeria), Tunis (Tunisia), and Fez (Morocco) will be explored and examined.
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