Walled wonders: a walking tour around Abu Dhabi’s lesser-known architecture

The obeid al ­mazrouei building
The Obeid Al ­Mazrouei building / © Brian Kerrigan / The National

As much as possible, I usually avoid downtown Abu Dhabi. While by rights it’s the centre of the city, for me it smacks of being in a ghetto. I find its shopping malls, shops and restaurants largely depressing, dirty and crowded. On foot, there are few destinations worth visiting, and driving there can be, well, ­challenging.

Sometimes, though, and especially recently, with the completion of the Sheikh Zayed Street roadworks and the smartening up of parts of the area, as well as the new bridge over to Al Maryah Island, I’ve started to notice something. Some of these buildings stand out.

The Al Omaira building on Al Firdous Street near Abu Dhabi Mall was the first place that I noticed, driving past one day in the passenger seat of a friend’s car. A 14-storey residential building, at first it could be dismissed as just another tower – dull, homogenous and not worthy of aesthetic consideration.

Yet dwell on it for just a few seconds and you’re confronted with something that is well-built, attractive – stylish, even. Most of the slim exterior is covered in dark tiling, broken by bold, clean, white concrete lines. The geometric pattern radiates completeness, purpose and, even though it’s decades old, a distinctive look. I found myself wondering who lived there and what it was like.

Judging by a new book published by New York University Abu Dhabi, The Abu Dhabi Guide: Modern Architecture, 1968-1992, I’m not the only one. The Al Omaira building is one of 30 modernist structures profiled by the book’s editor, Pascal ­Menoret, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies, and a group of his architecture students. They intend for the book to be used as an alternative guidebook to the city, with the ultimate aim of preserving the urban fabric that we all take for granted. ….

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