Contemplating residential architecture in the UAE with Yasser Elsheshtawy: Part 1.

National Pavilion UAE’s ‘Transformations: The Emirati National House’ explores the transformative aspect of the social housing model of Emirati national houses of the 1970s and 80s. The nature of the project for the Venice Biennial 2016 and its fascinating insights into the architecture and homes of fast-changing times drew Made Journal to contemplate architecture in the Emirates more broadly.

We found ourselves pondering a plethora of questions…

Is there an over-riding aesthetic for residential architecture that can be deemed characteristically ‘Emirati’? Do the extremes of the environment shape contemporary design in the Gulf? What of the issues of sustainability, the modern-day catch-cry of design globally?

To discover more, Made Journal spoke to Yasser Elsheshtawy, curator for the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates (UAE) la Biennale di Venezia and Associate Professor of Architecture at the UAE University, Al Ain.


Would you say the sha’abi (folk) houses drew inspiration from contemporary Emirati architecture at the time and have lessons learned from such a large national project influenced contemporary architecture today?

The initial sha’abi programme, which started in the 1970s, drew inspiration not from any particular style of architecture but there were settlements that people lived in, which were made of natural materials, such as palm leaves, and they looked at the way these people arranged their houses. They were based around the courtyard model. So the sha’abi houses became a mix of modernity in materials and the traditional way of living.

They started off quite small at 18m x 18m or 24m x 24m. Now there has been quite a dramatic change in housing in the UAE, the sizes of housing kept increasing and in some aspects reached 60m x 60m. They eventually reduced to 45m x 45m with two storeys – villas that were quite extravagant and very different from the sha’abi housing.

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Talking about housing in the Emirates today, for our international readers, how would you describe Emirati architecture today? Does anyone one aesthetic or set of design principles dominate or is residential architecture in the UAE incredibly diverse?

In residential architecture, housing is to a large degree developer driven. There isn’t really one style style but houses have a certain aesthetic, whether that’s Mediterranean or Greek. Developers usually only offer two or three options so there’s limited choice. Residential architecture is quite diverse across the UAE. There is no universal aesthetic and I think it is becoming too diverse, and lacks a sense of place and one identity.

There is no universal aesthetic and I think it is becoming too diverse, and lacks a sense of place and one identity.

In the case of Abu Dhabi, there has been some effort to develop architecture that responds to the culture. The Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council has looked at ways to extract lessons by looking at traditional settlements including Sha’abi neighbourhoods. Hopefully one day there will be an approach to architecture that is more tied to the culture of the place.


Yasser Elsheshtawy spoke to Made Journal ahead of ‘Transformations: The Emirati National House’, an exhibition highlighting the transformations of the Emirati National House, also known as Sha’abi (folk) house. In the curation of the exhibition, his focus is on how a basic housing model was adapted by residents to individualised homes, thus reflecting their culture and life style.

In the exhibition Elsheshtawy will present case studies that can provide useful lessons on how constructing an adaptable and flexible typology, as seen in the instance of the Emirati National house, can be used to address the universal concern of providing adaptable social housing.

The National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia is commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development. The 15th International Architecture Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia will be held in Venice, Italy from May 28 to November 27, 2016.

Feature photograph: Celebrating the architectural heritage of Arabia, The Old Town Residential area of Dubai by DSA Architects leads the way with developing projects with a sense of place in the city.

All other photography courtesy of National Pavilion UAE

 National Pavilion UAE