Modern Architecture from Foreign Roots

The history of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is only forty-two years long, yet the country radically changed during this period. After oil was discovered in 1958 and the economy took off, Abu Dhabi was rebuilt entirely and attracted vast influxes of immigrants and visitors. This large foreign population impacted the city’s landscape and built environment. Modern architecture soon became a crucial part of Emirati history. Abu Dhabi’s main public buildings, including the Courthouse (Abdul Rahman Makhlouf 1977), the Cultural Foundation (TAC 1979), the Bus Terminal (Bulgarconsult A&E 1989), and the Municipality (Bulgarconsult A&E 1990) are prominent icons of modernism.

The majority of the city’s population has roots far outside the region—and so does modern architecture. The European and American precursors of modern architecture were influenced by the Industrial Revolution, whose methods they emulated to revolutionize building techniques. Modernism developed as an art movement, and as both an adaptation and a resistance to industrial capitalism. It became increasingly internationalized after WWII.

As postmodernism settled in the West after the 1973 energy crisis, modern architecture grew deeper roots in the Middle East. Abu Dhabi in particular, with its sparse population and its newly discovered oil reserves, was experiencing an economic boom that allowed for large-scale development projects.Sheikh Zayed sought out architects to build large complexes, government buildings, and social housing. The architects appointed to build the city were coming out of a time and place where modern architecture was the holy grail of design. Major municipal buildings were designed with modernist forms, and builders of Abu Dhabi’s common commercial and residential buildings followed suit. Today, modernism is the vernacular architecture of Abu Dhabi.

Architects and Planners

The city’s original built structures from the 1970s and 1980s have simple designs with right angles, circular forms, and minimal ornamentation. Sharp geometric forms resembles what Le Corbusier called “geometric truths.” When one looks at Abu Dhabi’s modernist buildings, the eye does not have to interpret the structure; it quickly registers the neutral form, and immediately understands the function of the building. By the 1980s, the city was filled with mid-rise concrete buildings, where shops and offices cohabited with residential spaces.

Sheikh Shakhbut Al Nahyan commissioned the city’s first master plan, proposed by British architect John Harris. The 1962 plan integrated the old city with the new one, and was characterized by curved roads and organic shapes. However, this plan was never implemented. In 1966, Sheikh Zayed came to power and called in new planners and engineers. After the Arabicon engineering firm and British architect John Elliott planned the utility networks, American planner Katsuhiko Takahashi designed a new master plan in 1967. He suggested that Abu Dhabi be built along the utility grid. The city would be easy to get around, and its infrastructure would be quick to access. In 1968, Egyptian planner Abdul Rahman Makhlouf inherited the Elliott and Takahashi plans, which he amended and continued.
Elliott, Takahashi and Makhlouf’s modernist planning allowed for a rapid transformation. Following modernism’s interest for social purpose, large parks were created and public services were made widely available. The Officers’ Club and Zayed Sports City show the nascent state’s confidence of a new era. Large mosques were also built, in replacement of older structures and as an accessible and central feature of each neighborhood.


Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007, p. 134.
Yasser Elsheshtawy, “Informal Encounters: Mapping Abu Dhabi’s Urban Public Spaces,” Built Environment, vol. 37, n.1, 2011, p. 95-97.
Todd Reisz, “Plans the Earth Swallows: An Interview with Abdulrahman Makhlouf,” Portal 9, 2, Spring 2013. Web. January 20, 2014.

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