It’s a place where heritage and modernity meet, a reflection of the Middle East’s trading past and a nod to its creative future, Made Journal explores the contemporary art and design galleries amid cobbled streets that form the breathtaking Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces within the Heart of Sharjah revitalisation project. The work is a collaboration between the Dubai-based GAJ architects and Sharjah Art Foundation, represented by consulting architects Mona El Mousfy and Sharmeen Syed.
“In every city, there is a place that sets its heartbeat and defines the pulse of the city, reflecting its history, echoing its ethos and mirroring its spirit. That’s what Heart of Sharjah is. A project interwoven into the very history and fabric of Sharjah.
Heart of Sharjah is the largest historical preservation and restoration project in the region. Planned over a 15-year period, to be completed by 2025, it seeks to revitalise the heritage district as a vibrant cultural destination by unraveling a glorious past – restoring historical buildings, constructing new structures following traditional Sharjah architecture and transforming them into hotels, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and markets, where the current generations and the future generations can experience Sharjah’s cultural and social fabric”.
The Heart of Sharjah district was a residential district on the banks of the creek and housed residential compounds, mosques, retail and warehouses that all related to the river trade on which the city was founded. Access to the creek was an important factor in the historic layout of the streets and buildings. As much as these linear routes, perpendicular to the creek, were important, so too were the streets, which ran parallel to the river waters. These became informal retail streets, or souks, which supported the river traders. The forms and footprints of many of the old buildings were a direct result of these circulation routes. As the streets retreated (from the creek) into the residential areas, they opened out into small squares and courtyards that served as outdoor meeting places and play areas for the kids. This is where the city socialised.
Recent renovation and landscaping works to this area have started the transformation from a run-down neglected area of the city to a new revitalised core, housing arts, restaurants and hotel facilities. Within all such areas globally, the questions of restoration, renovation or revitalisation come into play. Dependent on the state of existing buildings, the condition of the historic fabric and the planned re-use, the approach to the redevelopment is considered. Within this historic area, there are two projects to note, one recently completed and one due to commence construction this year. In both of these projects, The Sharjah Arts Foundation Building and the Al Bait Boutique Hotel, the planning and layout of the projects took into consideration the historic footprints of the buildings and streets and courtyards, recreating the routes and utilising the resultant infill for the actual buildings. Through research, and as accurately as possible, the historic footprints were reintroduced into the master plan and the new developments planned around these. In some cases existing buildings are planned to be restored or renovated and in some completely re built. In all cases the retention of the historic fabric was of paramount importance as was the ambience and character of the streets and courtyards.
Within these parameters however, two very different architectural approaches have been employed. With the Sharjah Arts Foundation, the design approach of the buildings themselves – in keeping with the functions of art galleries and exhibition spaces – has been one of contemporary ‘boxes’ dropped into the master plan. The surrounding streets and courtyards too, have become external exhibition spaces, thus revitalising the social meeting spaces of old.
With the Al Bait Boutique Hotel, the design approach has been intentionally different, offering guests an insight into the history of the area as well as of the way people used to live 50 years ago. With some renovated buildings and some new infill, there are a variety of rooms available to the guests offering a more traditional interpretation of a more contemporary one. In all cases however, traditional components have been interwoven with the new creating a unique experience for the guests. Each individual building, separated by narrow streets but linked via upper level walkways, has been designed around an open courtyard in the traditional manner to offer guests a semi-private outdoor space in which to relax within the bustling city environment. External courtyards too, have been integrated into the hotel by way of restaurants and cafe’s, allowing guests to intermingle with local residents to create a true social experience for all.
The importance of the design of the Sharjah Arts Foundation lies in its integration with the historic fabric of the surrounding heritage area. The planning and layout was designed to reflect the circulation routes and street planning of the old residential area. A key factor and the specific design intention of the Sharjah Arts Foundation and senior architect, Mona El Mousfy (client representative for SAF) was to create a contemporary insertion that would seamlessly tie in with the existing historic fabric.