How Sharjah Became a Beacon for Architecture

By Sean Williams
11 September 2018
Sharjah's Islamic Souk on Lake Khaled, 2005.

Sharjah's Islamic Souk on Lake Khaled, 2005.

Whether through the Zaha Hadid-designed and soon to be completed Bee’ah Headquarters or the fabulous builds that represent the region’s growth, Sharjah Architectural Triennial aims to smash the orientalist clichés.

When considering the architectural treasures of the UAE, two images often spring to mind. On one hand there is the ornate, traditional Islamic art of mosques, palaces and historic meeting places. On the other, the country’s string of ultramodern, supertall skyscrapers – from Dubai’s Burj Khalifa to Abu Dhabi’s swirling Capital Gate.

“This barely scratches the surface”, says Amin Alsaden, director of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, a year-round study in architecture and urbanism across the Middle East and South Asia – the first of its kind. The Triennial will address the changing face of cities and countries across the region, fostering ideas for their future. Beyond mere building design, the event will pose deeper questions about what people want from a home, and why.

“Given the violent legacy of colonialism, many of the nations with which we engage have not been able to develop at the same rate as their counterparts in the rest of the world, or to nurture rich architectural cultures that can meet their aspirations,” says Alsaden, a Harvard University doctor of architectural history who has taught all over the world. “Therefore, and from our unique and central position in the Gulf, the Triennial can become the major platform for architecture and urbanism in this vast region, a hub that hosts relevant debates and provides opportunities for young talents.

“The Triennial considers architecture as an intellectual discipline that manifests itself in physical form,” he adds. “Therefore, we are interested in the agendas that our collaborations bring to Sharjah, and that we can project to the rest of the world.”

The Triennial’s first public programme was held in April, but the show proper begins next November with an event entitled “Rights of Future Generations”, which aims to explore the kinds of places in which future MENASA residents can, and would like to, live. Collective rights are a principle issue – and curator Adrian Lahoud says it’s vital the show can overturn “orientalist cliches” about local architecture.

“There's going to be an attempt to rethink architecture beyond a Western European framework," Lahoud told design publication Dezeen.

Sharjah may not seem the most obvious choice as an architectural hub, given the headline-grabbing building projects of its Emirati neighbours. But it is nonetheless home to some fabulous buildings that reflect its rapid change from a pastoral outpost to major port and industrial centre. The drape-like expanse of the Bee’ah Headquarters, designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, will draw crowds when it opens next year, too.

“Over the past few years, Sharjah has anchored its position as a beacon of contemporary cultural energy, fostering emerging and established artists, designers and architects not only from the region but the world,” says Riyadh Joucka, founder of the Middle East Architecture Network (MEAN), in Dubai. “As an emirate, it has a wealth of modern architecture that exemplifies the growth of the UAE and as opposite to its neighbouring emirates, the urban fabric is mature and has grown within rational parameters over time, since the 70’s onwards.

“The Triennial is simply a summation of this energy put into an event that has no precedent in the region,” he adds. “I am very excited, to say the least.”