A smooth dialogue. A proposal for the historical neighborhood of Heart of Sharjah, UAE

by Anna Cornaro

Compasses Magazine

Sharjah is one of the seven Arab Emirates part of the Union created in 1971. Heart of Sharjah is a historical area of vernacular architecture, survived to the rapid growth of the city, surrounded by high-rise buildings. It occupies the old part of the city; it is open to the creek on one side and defined by fortified walls on the others.

The most visible and accessible part of the area is pointed by a small mosque. In the past, it faced the creek directly, whereas nowadays it is included in a wide open space, that hosts also a majlis, a place where men gather after praying. The entire historical neighborhood behind the mosque is mainly occupied by townhouses in coral bricks stone. The residential buildings have the irregular form of a square, defined by blind walls, with all the openings facing the inner courtyards. They are characterized by the traditional wind towers that not only provide a strong identity to the area, but also ensure ventilation and a cooling system to the buildings.

The area also includes an old souk, the traditional covered market, with narrow pathways of shops stemming from a central space. Recently the urban pattern behind the mosque underwent some manipulations due to a renovation for the creation of an exclusive boutique hotel. The original urban pattern of the neighborhood was probably similar to the townhouses of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with a random arrangement of buildings in coral bricks and some temporary arish buildings (made by palm leaves). Sharjah aims to become a cultural and scientific hub for the Country. It counts several museums inside and outside the historical center of the city. Those which are part of Heart of Sharjah – or are included in the closer outskirt – have the intention of revitalizing the identity and the heritage of the city.

The main aim of the proposal is, on one side, creating a pathway that, starting from the mosque, brings visitors to the exploration of the inner historical area and, on the other side, providing complementary functions for the touristic use of the neighborhood, such as information points, cafés and bike rentals. In order to create an organic and pleasant pathway for exploring the neighborhood, the project doesn’t use architectural elements, but works more on the re-introduction of natural elements that bring back the experience to the nomadic life of the past.

Modular seating systems have been located in specific shaded areas, resulting from the study of the solar path all over the year. The seating system – already presented at the exhibition Zero at Gallery 1971 in Sharjah and at the Beijing Design Week in 2015 as part of the Dubai Pavilion – is a versatile modular system made of circular components, inspired by Islamic patterns. It can be produced in smaller sections to be assembled in different shapes, in order to be able to follow the tortuous shadow path along the irregular traditional walls of the old city. Sand has been reintroduced in the form of pools, that, following the main buildings, create a recognizable path to guide visitors through the entire area. The idea is to remind the original atmosphere of the unpaved middle eastern cities and, at the same time, to create a fascinating and unique wayfinding system.

The project not only enhances the existing buildings, but also creates areas with the specific purpose of hosting festivals and events related to the intangible heritage. The proposal is focused on some main key areas: Al Majlis Al Shabi, dominated by the small mosque facing the creek; Al Arsah Square surrounded by Souk Al Arsah, the Al Eslah School Museum and the Bait Annaboudah Museum; Heart of Sharjah Visitor Center and Calligraphy Square, an enclosed piazza where the Calligraphy Museum is located.

In the area of the mosque (Al Majlis Al Shabi area), the huge open spaces where the majlis is also located, just a few elements are designed in order to favor as much as possible the necessary flexibility in the use of the areas by the crowd during the Heritage Days. Al Arsah Square, a square that can be considered the core of Heart of Sharjah, combines a sand “pavement” with wooden pathways in order to permit the installation of traditional tents and allow the presence of camels during events. The proposal includes also a wide shaded space above Calligraphy Square, inspired by Islamic geometries, that screens the square from the sun and allows ventilation, giving the possibility to hold open-air workshops and conferences during the good season.

Heart of Sharjah also includes an existing heritage village. Very popular in UAE, heritage villages, sometimes totally isolated, sometimes included or connected to the historical centers, are a showcase of intangible heritage that in certain cases includes, as for Heart of Sharjah, the reconstruction of temporary buildings (like the arish) and the presence of palm grooves showing the traditional irrigation methods of the Region. The proposal for Heart of Sharjah also includes the renewal of this area, with the design of a proper arrangement of the palm-leaf houses and including didactic pavilions made of weathering steel to host traditional activities.

The project also provides the relocation and the renewal of the booths lined along the ancient walls, which usually serve traditional food during the Heritage Days. The proposal intends to give new visibility to the fortified walls and to create a more adaptable and flexible system that allows the expansion of the booths in case of need. The overall project is conceived as a flexible and reversible micro-urban system, that represents an additional adaptive layer over the existing historical neighborhood, combining the old and the new, the contemporary and the vernacular, in a mutual smooth dialogue.

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