Atlantic Cities

What Does Preservation Mean in a City Without History?

What Does Preservation Mean in a City Without History?
Reuters

The past is in trouble in Abu Dhabi. This rapidly developing desert city in the United Arab Emirates is a poster child of the brand new, ultra-futuristic megacity. Though it's less flashy than neighboring Dubai, Abu Dhabi has more than its share of supertall skyscrapers and sparklingly new developments – from the 74-story Sky Tower to the 40,000-person capacity Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

Beneath their shadows are some signs of the Abu Dhabi of the past. Even in a city that typifies newness, old and potentially historically important buildings do indeed exist, including the 1980s-era Terminal One inside Abu Dhabi Airport and the Quonset hut-like Al Bateen Mall. As Abu Dhabi rushes forth toward urban futurism, some wonder what will happen to those vestiges of not-so-distant history as the city continues to evolve. When old isn't that old and new is everything, should the past be preserved?

This is one of the questions explored in a fascinating article by John Henzell in The National. Now a city of roughly 621,000, Abu Dhabi was just a small town of 25,000 in 1960. In the decade that followed, leader Sheikh Zayed launched an oil-boom-fueled era of citybuilding that has continued to this day. Virtually no trace of pre-oil Abu Dhabi has been left behind.

Abu Dhabi's situation is unique because, unlike other metropolises, the entire city - with the lone exception of Qasr Al Hosn (the White Fort) - dates from the modern era. The sudden influx of oil revenues allowed the capital to jump from what the pioneering Abu Dhabi businessman Mohammed Al Fahim described as an 18th-century urban environment to a late 20th-century one.

Because it has a majority expatriate population that tends to stick around for a few years and then move on, there's little long-term knowledge of the city's built environment, nor is there any real connection lost when an old building is torn down and replaced with something new.

This transient population would suggest a lack of stakeholders interested in preserving the city's older buildings. But a preservationist constituency is growing.

Henzell points to the city's bus and taxi station. Though it's less than 30-years-old, local officials are considering knocking it down and developing a bigger one. The city's transit agency also wants to build a more modern station to urge people onto the city's developing transit system. With a swooping concrete roofline, the bus station is well-recognized local icon, and now the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority is adding it to a list of sites in the city that are worth preserving.

Though a bus station and a shopping mall and an airport terminal aren't exactly the sort of historical sites one might find in Rome or Jamestown, they represent a point in time in Abu Dhabi that has few physical remnants left on the ground. Each of these sites is important in that they are all well known and well used. The growing preservationist movement in the city says they're significant parts of the city's history and that not everything needs to be replaced.

The conflict between modernity and history is not new for Abu Dhabi, but given the lack of historic buildings in the city, it's becoming increasingly rare. It's too soon to say whether the bus station will be saved, but it's at least one major sign that local officials are trying to make sure that Abu Dhabi's history – albeit a very recent history – is not lost like so much of its past.

Top image: A tourist takes a photograph in front of skyline of Abu Dhabi. Sharon Perry / Reuters

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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