AUTHOR: CHARLES SHAFAIEH
In a new book, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and Todd Reisz trace the early boom days of modern Sharjah, drawing on personal archives as well as crowd-sourced photographs and documents.
In the early 1970s, the discovery of oil in Sharjah led to an international obsession with the emirate’s subterranean depths. A host of actors from France to Australia soon arrived, hoping they would profit from the Gulf’s last oil boom. The preoccupation with what was found beneath the earth’s surface often eclipsed a dynamic built environment above ground that arose in the 1970s and ’80s due to the influx of wealth, migrants, and tourism. This overshadowing has had serious consequences: As Sharjah, like its neighbours, replaced still-young structures at a dizzying rate during the past 40 years, the risk has grown that this rich moment in history will disappear from its, and the world’s, collective memory.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, the founder of Barjeel Art Foundation and a prominent academic, has long been aware of this potential loss. Born in Sharjah in 1978, he recalls numerous buildings from his youth that have been demolished and of which younger Emiratis are ignorant. Myriad competing interests occasioned these alterations to the skyline, from the mandates in the 1980s which spurred an “Isla-misation” of new and existing designs to the competitive urge throughout the UAE in the 21st century to replace concrete modernist structures with ever-taller—and less environmentally friendly—glass towers. The result can be disorienting to anyone who struggles to retain a grasp of their childhood home when confronted with rapid change.
In an effort to preserve these crucial decades for the emirate and for his own nostalgia, Al Qassemi began an unprecedented five-year project that became Building Sharjah. Published by Birkhäuser in June and co-edited by Amsterdam-based architect and writer Todd Reisz, the 432-page volume brought Al Qassemi and his collaborators to architecture offices, national and institutional archives, and former Sharjah residents’ homes in Oslo, Beirut, Karachi, Mumbai, and elsewhere, in an effort to reconstruct a city which no longer exists in the same form but that persists as the backdrop to mul-tiple generations’ memories.
In these pages, readers learn about ambitious projects such as the 24 monumental concrete Córdoba and Granada Buildings (1979; partially survives today) along Al Burj Street, which was considered “a Wall Street in the desert”, and the petite but ornate Airport Mosque (1969), or Masjid Al Matar, that could hold fewer than 100 people and which met new arrivals as they emerged from the emirate’s original airport. Both the airport and its mosque were demolished. Structures that still exist are also highlighted, like the vaulted, sprawling Cen-tral Souk (1978), as well as unrealised projects such as Polish architect Józef Zbigniew Polak’s Seashore Development at Khorfakkan (1977), whose spherical constructions and other curvilinear forms now would be considered “futuristic.”
Building Sharjah should not be considered an “architecture book,” however. “It tells the story of a city through its urban history and, through documenting Sharjah, is my way of trying to safeguard the history of modernity in the UAE,” Al Qassemi explains. The book’s idiosyncratic structure illustrates this goal. Mirroring and reinforcing his description of Sharjah in his introduction as “an urban patchwork” that is “traditional, modern, Islamic, and global all at once,” it contains academic essays, personal meditations, and interviews along-side the archival photographs and short, encyclopedia-like entries about 66 specific architectural projects. These longer pieces, written by over a dozen contributors, extend the project beyond material architecture and reveal the psychologies and experiences of the people who occupied these spaces. Their areas of focus are eclectic and wide ranging: the Aqwas collective’s radical performance art that took place in 1985 at the Central Souk; Kuwait’s transformative influence on Sharjah’s education sector; a snapshot of Sharjah’s nightlife at its popular hotels; the story of an Indian photographer who, in 1982, established a studio in the city. The book’s form resists a dominant narrative about a complex city repetitively built and rebuilt, demolished and renovated under the influence of local and international forces.
While these transformations often have been dramatic, they occurred within the borders of a relatively stable trio of masterplans designed by the British firm Halcrow. As Reisz describes in his essay about Sharjah’s long relationship with the UK, Hal-crow’s influence was constant during the reigns of three rulers. Its designs—submitted in 1963, 1969, and 1984—were only tweaked to meet new economic conditions and concerns, and to satisfy each ruler’s personal predilections. The resulting city is a marked difference from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, for instance, where multiple architects’ plans were fused together.
Reisz, whose Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai (Stanford University Press) was released last year, notes that comparisons between Sharjah and Dubai should be limited, as they have markedly different histories. But he does see a reading of Sharjah that positions it, too, as a “showpiece city.” “There was a performance in Sharjah of being planned, and a sense that something is being shown as an element of the future,” he says. “The roads were inscribed; roundabouts were built. What happened in between those roads and roundabouts is a messy story, but these masterplans were really executed.”
Finding that story’s history was itself a complicated, at times messy, endeavour. People with important information are more forthcoming and give more time in person, Al Qassemi says, while acknowledging how costly such outreach becomes. The conversations themselves also require tact and grace. “It takes a lot of skill to get information from people,” explains Reem Khorshid, an Egyptian architect who moved to Sharjah in 2017 to serve as the book’s lead researcher. “To help them remember, you show them photographs and tell them names. Sometimes we had to do that more than once, meeting people twice or three times because they will remember one thing and call back to say they forgot something else.”
Luck occasioned other discoveries. As one memorable example, Al Qassemi cites the Mothercat Building (1976; demolished in 2000), the headquarters of Lebanese businessman Emile Bustani’s con-struction company, which was one of many institutions that relocated to Sharjah during the Lebanese Civil War. “I don’t want to give the impression that I was a modernist since my early days,” he says, laughing. “But I remember this building because I always wondered, ‘Why is there a big black cat on it?’ Every time I would come back from school at Choueifat, I would look at it, and it stuck in my head.” He discovered it was designed by Cyprus-born Mesut Cagdas, who also designed the Police Academy in Dubai, major hotels in Muscat, and other significant buildings in the region. Yet he couldn’t find any photograph of it, which made him start to wonder if he was exaggerating its importance.
Fortunately, evidence emerged, in serendipitous circumstances characteristic of so much of the material that contributed to Building Sharjah.
At a café in Muwaileh, Sharjah, Al Qassemi met the great nephew of an Iraqi photographer and urban specialist who arrived at the United Nations Development Programme office in Sharjah in the late 1970s. Upon learning this, Al Qassemi asked whether his family had any photographs. They did, and among them was one of the Mothercat Building. The circumstances make apparent an ironic, though poetic, counterpoint to the supposed fixity of built structures: that even concrete buildings can eventually leave no trace on the ground and persist in physical form, like a photograph, only by chance.
Less intimate but equally important to the research process was crowdsourcing. Al Qassemi harnessed the knowledge of his roughly 650,000 followers on social media, who he says were integral to getting information from Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, India, and elsewhere. This was evident, for instance, when he would post lists of architects and enquire whether anyone knew them. “I would get seven or eight out of 10,” he says. “In one instance, someone gave me the telephone number of a gentleman who worked in Sharjah in the 1970s who is now in a retirement home outside Las Vegas. I had the nicest conversations with him, and he reassured me about something I had heard about.”
This international community also corrected false information. When searching for an Indian architect named “Ashok Mehta” who designed the Al Zahra Hospital, he was told repeatedly that no architect with that name existed. But many knew about one named Ashok Mody. “Three letters sent me on a wild goose chase!” he says.
Sharjah’s evolution shows little sign of changing pace, which reinforces how important it was that Al Qassemi, Reisz, and Khorshid persevered with their efforts. “At least four or five of my structures have been demolished over the course of writing the book, and they are documented here,” says Khor-shid. Unlike the US and Europe, buildings in the UAE of a certain age do not receive national heritage or other protective statuses. Only recently have a few, such as the iconic Flying Saucer (c. 1974–1976), become protected.
Despite appearances, Building Sharjah is neither a lamentation for a “lost” city nor does it demand the preservation of any existing buildings. Rather, it documents, in polyphonic ways, a moment in time that risks being forgotten by history and which has significance to a readership beyond the UAE. “This city of the past which no longer exists is made up of more than concrete and asphalt; it’s made up of plans, ambitions, and hopes,” Reisz asserts. This is evident both in structures that were built as well as those that remained dreams, which together “capture what was in peoples’ heads” in Sharjah during these lively decades.
“A kind of global fable plays out in Sharjah, with international banking, migrants from differ-ent parts of the world, and the circulation of inter-national expertise. These are topics we are very interested in today and which significantly shaped the future of a city in the 1970s and ’80s,” Reisz says. “While you can read theoretical approaches to these topics, it’s also essential to read how they take physical form across an urban landscape. A compression of scale and time lets us observe these forces over Sharjah.”
This article was originally published in Hadara, Autumn-Winter 2021 issue, and is available for download here.