COVID-19 and the Built Environment

This moderated roundtable discussion co-hosted by the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, DC, and the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy highlighted the outcomes of a November 2019 delegation to the UAE that included US-based architects, architectural photographers, historians, curators, and writers. The program also addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the fields of architecture and architectural photography.

Sharjah: Shattering Preconceived Notions 

Delegate members found Sharjah to be a surprising place where the architecture portrayed the citys culture yet remained representative of contemporary trends. While the city continues to grow and move into the future, it cherishes its built past. The tour of Sharjahs architecture displayed the use of old materials, like concrete and plaster, but in a way that felt modern. Re-owned, contemporary and authentic,” commented delegation member and architectural journalist Sam Lubell. Expounding on the authenticity of the city, Craig Steely, an architect, noted the specificity of the architecture. Ive never seen Middle Eastern modernism that was so appropriate for a site,” he said. Temperature, weather, and experience -- the architecture rethought different ways of living.” The social and cultural fabric of Sharjah is embodied in its vibrant architecture and is a living history of its past. The hybrid of classic European mid-century modern architecture folded into Arabic architecture tells the unique story of Sharjah as a former shipping hub for European traders en route to India.  

 Abu Dhabi: Nostalgia in Public Space 

Abu Dhabi demonstrated the role architecture plays in the lives and memories of those who experience it. Delegate members noted the strong divide between the contemporary buildings and those built in the 1960s and 1970s. The people of Abu Dhabi share a strong connection with the older buildings which stand in contrast to the stereotypical conceptions of skyscrapers many conjure when thinking of the UAE. This shared memory of architecture informs todays concept of the UAEs identity. People leave with a sense of the experience, and with this experience cities far apart geographically can learn of shared similarities and can work towards solutions together,” said Leila Anna Wahba, deputy director of A+D Architecture and Design Museum, of the citys architecture. 

 Dubai: Safeguarding Culture in Design 

The city of Dubai offers embodied architecture that tells the story of global influence and an urban area built in a short timeframe. Delegate members described Dubais vernacular architecture or a sense of place that is unique and couldnt have been built anywhere else. The city provided many examples of cutting-edge technology and feats of engineering that embraced its history and culture. Bob Cuk, an architect and photographer, gave the example of the famed Burj Khalifa: while it is the tallest structure in the world, it is built to resemble a Hymenocallis flower rising out of the desert. Dubai leaves a memory and personal experience with you,” said Andrew Prokos, an architectural and fine arts photographer. Its not about being overwhelmed but is put together in such a thoughtful way to convey important aspects of culture that I havent seen before.”

Traveling Exhibitions: Architecture as Experience 

A touring exhibition of the delegatesphotographs of UAE architecture is slated for late summer-early fall, starting at the A+D Museum of Architecture and Design in Los Angeles, CA. Participants hope the exhibition will not only teach interested attendees and architecture students about the UAEs built environment but will also encourage people to visit the sites and experience the Emirates in person. Sam Lubell hopes the exhibition will also inspire action in the UAE. I hope the people are encouraged to have pride of place and to foster historical preservation of these buildings,” he remarked.  

Quarantine: Architecture and Architectural Photography During COVID-19 

Delegates had the opportunity to discuss how their respective fields are responding to quarantine. Craig Steely noted the effects of architecture on the psyche and recommended working in a place that allows for the dynamic of sun and light throughout the day”. This allows the body to experience a regular solar schedule throughout the day and the opportunity to notice the movement of light and shadow. Brian Moore, a photographer, recommended using this time to create or update a professional blog, delve into photoshop tools to find new uses and reconstitute old images. The passage of time is meaningful and you might see something you didnt before,” said Moore. You can always take a look at any image from a different perspective and use it in meaningful and artistic ways.” 

Project summary

COVID-19 and the Built Environment
Countries: United Arab Emirates
Impact Areas: Cultural Diplomacy
Program Areas: Convening