AUTHOR: KELLY CLARKE
The now 70-year-old’s love for design and creation stemmed from his childhood.
In 1975, 26-year-old Indian architect Ashok Mody touched down in the UAE for the very first time. Tasked with designing just one building in Sharjah, his work quickly impressed.
So much so he went on to build some of the city’s most iconic fabric buildings that still stand today.
More than 40 years on, Mody has returned to the birthplace of some of his earliest creations to reminisce about life then; a time when the architectural scene in the country was in its infancy.
“The Clock Tower in Deira. I remember that being an impressive and imposing structure at that time. The UAE hadn’t long gained independence but the buildings that were going up had strong presence,” Mody told Khaeej Times.
The now 70-year-old’s love for design and creation stemmed from his childhood. As a young boy, maybe 10, he would watch his older cousin, an architect, draw sketches of buildings.
“I just remember staring in wonderment, seeing what he would design. He worked day and night, but his creations came to life. That’s what amazed me.”
Spearheaded by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Mody’s latest visit to the UAE, supported by Barjeel Art Foundation, complements the research and work for a book that chronicles the architecture of Sharjah during the 1970s.
Side by side with Sheikh Sultan
Of his most memorable projects was a housing district in Dibba. It was late 1975 and His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, met Mody and his team to construct houses for rural people.
“Dr Sheikh Sultan drew a three dimensional sketch and told me exactly what kind of house he was looking for; a ground floor plus two story building with courtyards and terraces. He wanted spaces that were useful for outdoor activities. He had personally studied the living style of these people. The fact he had drawn his own 3D sketch was impressive. It was touching to see he was so involved.”
On completion, they constructed around 200 houses, a health centre and a mosque; all of which still remain today. And throughout the two-year project, Dr Sheikh Sultan regularly came to inspect “how his dream came to life”.
But one of his most demanding projects was the construction of 1,000 houses in just 12 months. “That was by far my biggest challenge, but I wanted to take it on, so said yes.”
With schools and universities coming up quickly in Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan needed a place to house the influx of teachers coming in. That’s where Mody stepped in. “It was 1976. Giving the time constraints, we started searching to find alternative construction methods for a quick but quality build. We stumbled on a technology called tunnel shutterings.”
A formwork system that allows the contractor to cast walls and slabs in one operation cycle, Mody said tunnel shutterings were the best option. “It formed the entire width of each villa, and we placed the tunnels in a series before concreting the walls and roofs together. We completed it in time, with all the internal finishings. It was big achievement and those villas are still standing today.”
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The first project
Though Mody returned to India from Sharjah in the late 1970s, he left his mark on the city. As one of the architects behind the Al Zahra hospital, he affectionately calls it the “hotel that never came to be”.
“That was my first project here. It was March,1975. Our office was based in Al Zahra Square, a landmark block tower in Sharjah. We initially designed the Zahra Hotel, fit with 130 rooms and suites, but a year into construction the client decided they wanted to introduce a state-of-the-art cinema on the site, so we had to demolish part of the hotel building.”
But nearly as soon as the work picked up on the hotel again in 1977, it was brought to a halt; this time to make way for something completely off-design.
“The client decided the hotel needed to become a hospital instead, so we commenced work on converting it. So ironically, in the end, the hotel never actually made it as a hotel.”
Though a second architect completed the final project, the design today remains as Mody had intended it to.
And after recently being told that “nearly every child in Sharjah is born in that hospital”, he said the building which he had a hand in designing, has “changed the social fabric of Sharjah”.
Architecture: then and now
When asked how building designs have changed in the UAE from then to now, Mody said it’s all in the fabric.
“I have visited three of four times in these 40 years and I find the development of Sharjah and Dubai is overwhelming. Now, everywhere you look there are multi-storey buildings made with glass and steel. Back then, such designs were a rarity.” Nowadays, there are steel buildings Arizona, New York, London and so many other places. Steel is an excellent material to use and it’s great to see architects utilising it!
Windows were few and far between on building exteriors too, mainly to keep the heat at bay, and designs which included gardens plans were seldom.
“The construction technology has come on leaps and bounds now and gardens and windows are aplenty. They’ve converted the desert into an oasis.”
This article was originally published in Khaleej Times on July 22, 2018.