Sharjah’s rather fine Mleiha Archaeological Centre and the impressive Wahat al Karama memorial park are the two UAE projects that have been shortlisted for World Architecture Festival awards this year.
The competition is fierce – although Dabbagh Architects’ Mleiha Centre has won locally (a Cityscape Global award in September, a Middle East Architect award in November) it’s up against some heavy hitters in the Cultural Completed Building category.
The Palestinian Museum by Heneghan Peng Architects is the bookies’ favourite, but other strong contenders among the 16 candidates include Amanda Levete’s MAAT Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon (lovely lines, shame about the finishing); the Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp, a SimpsonHaugh design that gives the Royal Flemish Philharmonic a new wood-lined home for a bargain £57 million; and the Zhao Hua Xi Shi Living Museum in Beijing, designed by IAPA Design Consultants from shipping containers.
The Mleiha Centre, created to showcase Sharjah’s archaeology and part of an eco-tourism master plan, is certainly not out of place in this field. Mleiha itself is a rich archaeological site, dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE and featuring enough Iron Age and Hellenistic artefacts to suggest that the area was a busy trading post. The Mleiha Archaeological Centre houses museum-style displays, educational and presentation areas, the obligatory café and gift shop, and tourist information – phase two of the Mleiha project will have a 450 sq km Mleiha National Desert Park, a campsite and motel for overnighting, and an astronomy observatory.
Much of the architecture of the UAE pays lip service to a sense of place; the Mleiha Centre genuinely takes its environment into consideration – “it is very contextual,” as Sumaya Dabbagh put it.
This is most obvious in the rich sandstone walls, which “appear as if partly buried in the sand” as the architects put it. They lead the visitor through the site, either to approach the Umm al-Nar Tomb (dates from 2300 BCE) which forms the centrepiece of the site or to go up on to a viewing platform on the roof. The information-packed interior areas are almost incidental.
The Wahat al Karama Memorial Monument and Pavilion of Honour in Abu Dhabi, designed by Idris Kahn with bureau^proberts and Urban Arts Projects, is on the shortlist of eight for the Civic and Community award.
Wahat Al Karama, which means ‘oasis of dignity’, covers an area of 46,000 sq m. At its centre is Idris Khan’s sculpture, The Memorial itself comprises 31 aluminium slabs each 23m in height and leaning on each other to symbolise strength and unity.
We were impressed by this project when it opened last year; the scale is monumental, but the emotions and empathy on show are all too human.
This category is hard to call. That’s because of the pretty loose interpretation of ‘civic and community’. Projects here range from Agra’s Taj Ganj Urban Redevelopment Plan to Streetlight Tagpuro, an orphanage with school and clinic in an area of the Philippines that was devastated by typhoon Haiyan a few years ago. How you compare the architectural and design merits of such a range of projects is beyond us, but there’s no doubting the commitment and care of the progenitors.
In all there are 434 (mostly self-submitted) projects up for a WAF award, ranging from small family homes to large infrastructure and landscape projects. At the 2017 World Architecture Festival in Berlin this November, the shortlisted teams will present their designs to a jury of more than 100 international judges; selected finalists will then move on to the 2017 Super Jury, who will determine the top three winners – 2017 World Building of the Year, Future Project of the Year and Landscape of the Year.