What was the brief for the project
We were approached by the client, The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (ADACH), to team up with architects from Boston to restore the Al Ain Oasis in Dubai. The project was centred on the landscape and the historical buildings around the Oasis. The idea was that in the past the Oasis in Al Ain was very famous and popular as it was one of the key aspects of the city. But due to circumstances the Oasis had become disconnected from the city, and as time went on eventually nobody was using or really visiting the Oasis. So the City wanted to bring back that interest and we were asked to help achieve it.
For that reason what we did was to conduct quite a bit of research about how the Oasis used to work in the past, and also to find other oases elsewhere, not only in Al Ain, to see how they worked. For example one of the things we did is visit an Oasis in Spain which has a lot of similarities with the one in Al Ain but still has a lot of public interest. We compared what they have in Spain at that Oasis to what is missing in Al Ain, there was a mix of trying to bring historical elements and trying to add extra things that would bring interest back to the place.
How did you go about answering the brief?
We visited the Oasis frequently and we saw first hand how abandoned it was. In the past it was divided into small plots each owned by someone who lived in the city, who would go there to grow their vegetables or fruit trees, often as a way of life. Slowly over time people began abandoning those plots, so the city removed them leaving only palm trees running throughout. This decision resulted in the palms growing very large creating an abundance of shade throughout the Oasis as it became more overgrown.
Our first aim was to try and understand the different layers of the landscape and to re-establish the three separate layers. By that what we had to do was to try
and remove some of the palm trees to bring some light back into the Oasis and then to try and recreate those original plots.
Another element was that there were a lot paths inside the Oasis and at a certain point back when the Oasis was originally created, the walls were relatively low so you could always see through. However at a certain point in history those walls were extended higher, closing up the space. We wanted to bring the walls back down so people walking along can see all the different layers of landscape throughout the Oasis.
The third thing is that as it was so big there had to be something inside the Oasis to see and do apart from walking and seeing the landscape. We suggested a mini-plaza with a cafe and a little visitor information centre so you could rest while walking through the Oasis.
Once all those elements were established the next step was to connect the Oasis to the city. Because it was so abandoned there was large amount of space betwee
n the Oasis and the next block of buildings. To tackle this we proposed to the client that in the north area around the Oasis, because it was already so close to the city, we would could construct a new Souk, which would hopefully start bringing people back down from the city to the Souk, and then between the Souk and the Oasis.
We also created a sort of demonstration plot to show people how the agriculture of the Oasis worked in the past. That was mainly in the north area, on the eastern side as there were two existing forts the client wanted to restore, one of those they wanted to turn it into a historical museum with then one of the big areas of land which was then a huge car park we turned into a indigenous landscape. We also designed dunes and decided to bring back indigenous plants that would link back to the fort.
On the western side there was an existing palace around which we wanted to create a botanical garden, while combining all these elements we were trying to fill those spaces around the Oasis in order to stop it feeling so disconnected from the city. Additionally all the plots in the past were irrigated by a system called Aflaj, which are open channels that carry water throughout the Oasis.
What do you believe is the most unique aspect?
I think the most unique aspect was that it was a project that wasn’t making huge changes to big buildings that could be seen from the distance but was about bringing back all the historical elements. It wasn’t very disruptive it was all about the small intricacies that were then going to create a great place rather than one big statement building or feature. For me not making a statement and to just trying to recapture the history of the Oasis was the most interesting part. It was about trying to study the history and gain inspiration from oases around the world to understand what made an oasis a place that people wanted to visit.
What was the biggest challenge?
The main challenge was that the size of the Oasis was very very big so there was a danger in creating a lot of different things just to fill the space. I think the main challenge was finding the balance of what to do with the empty space by not creating new things as it would become too much but to find a balance of how to link the Oasis and the spaces back to the city with not adding a lot of new stuff – that could make it feel like more of a theme park than a UNESCO site.
How did you take the climate conditions into account?
In some new spaces we were proposing water features, but due to the climate you can’t put a water feature in an area that is completely uncovered and sunny all day, as then it would just evaporate. This meant it was about finding places where we could place a water feature that would attract people but in an area where there was a lot of natural shade. Also we were adding these new areas when creating the botanical garden and the exhibition plots and of course all these areas need irrigation as well.
One of the interesting things about the Middle East is that you can’t go crazy and say ‘let’s have everything irrigated’, because then you need a lot of water. We therefore conducted a study that led us to propose areas where it was going to be almost non-water zones, and some areas where the area needed to be fully irrigated. It may look great if you have grass everywhere but grass needs a lot of water and that is not sustainable – one of the mistakes in the past in the Middle East. Again it was about finding the right balance about using the right amount of water in the right places – this is the case for all the projects in the Middle East – not only this one.
Was creating the dunes also an answer to this problem?
Yes, because the area that we created the desert in is a huge area, I don’t think you can fall into the trap of creating a big area of lawn here. We were also working in an area that has a history and type of landscape, so why not show this to the people that visit this landscape? There are plants that only grow in deserted landscapes so that was one of our ideas that we had. The plants we chose showcased what you can grow in a desert climate.
How did you take into consideration the fact there would be an increase in the number of people visiting?
By filling all these spaces, and by suggesting to the clients that some routes that connected to the city and key places that had to be improved. We then suggested to the client a system of main routes, secondary routes and then internal routes to make sure that intervention was not just within our red boundary – it was not just going out but was instead linking towards the city. Also the municipality of Al Ain wanted to create some cycle lanes, so we suggested bringing some of those through and around the Oasis where people could enjoy the views.
How big was the team on this project?
I’d say we were a team of six landscape architects depending on the plans, sometimes more, sometimes less. Myself and Robert Townshend were the most involved and the two people who were travelling and conducting the presentations every three weeks in Al Ain. The first week of every month we had to be there because it was a very big team overall with architects from Boston, lighting consultants from Edinburgh and the engineers based in Dubai – it was agreed that it was good to make sure that everyone was flying to Al Ain to help develop the designs.
How was the design received by the clients?
It was very well received and we even made an application to UNESCO to try and get the protection of the site which is currently undergoing. The clients really liked it and they accepted everything when we submitted the masterplans. The aim is to develop the project slowly and step by step around the Oasis.
What is the current status?
I believe currently the visitor information centre has been completed and they are building the rest slowly. There was a period of time when the project had to stop due to the effects of a recession, but the plan is to eventually finish the design by completing it in stages.