A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

Desert Architecture

Recently, I had the good fortune of being able to accompany my wife to the United Arab Emirates. She goes to the Middle East once a year for business meetings, but this was the first time that I was able to join her. Ever since she returned from her first trip there, with stories of the country and its people, I’ve been eager to join her on a subsequent visit. I especially wanted to see the architecture of this relatively new country, a country of great wealth due to its vast oil reserves. Money from oil has allowed the U.A.E. to embark on an aggressive and perhaps unprecedented building plan.


The Corniche in Abu Dhabi which includes the Etihad Towers and the Emirates Palace

The cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are where every global Fortune 500 company wants to have a presence. To that end, new skyscrapers, hotels, condominiums seem to rise up overnight. Construction cranes fill the sky, and a large portion of the population seem to be construction workers, often expatriates from neighboring Arab states. Building never stops and it sometimes extends far into the night, but I suspect that has to do with the oppressive heat during the daytime hours. The average high daytime temperature we experienced during our visit in late September was 110 degrees. You would think that living in Alabama, as I do, would prepare you for this kind of heat, but it was not the case. It is not a dry heat either, like the kind you might experience in the American southwest. This is a humid, sticky, draining sort of heat. It really saps your energy. What is amazing though, it that most everyone is well covered up. The Muslim faith dictates that both men and women display little, if any skin, which I guess, acts to protect them to a degree as well. But when you see construction workers toiling all day, in long sleeved shirts and long trousers, it makes you wonder. You know they cannot be comfortable. My wife says, it’s all a matter of what you are used to. Maybe so.


The Grand Hyatt and the Bab Al Qasr Hotels on the Corniche in Abu Dhabi

As I said, one of the main reasons that I wanted to visit U.A.E. was the architecture. My major in college was architecture, and although I only practiced in that profession for a short time, I have always admired those who design and build these modern-day structures where we live, work, go to school and shop. It seems with today’s building materials and computer-aided designs, anything is possible. The more spectacular and innovative you can design a building the better. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become the places where architects can let their imaginations run wild it seems, and where anything goes. Everyone wants to outdo the other guy, and their building has to be more spectacular than the one that came before it. Nothing seems off-limits here. We saw round buildings, cylindrical buildings, pyramid shaped towers including the Burj Khalifa, presently the tallest building in the world. We briefly got a glimpse of the famous Burj Al Arab Hotel which somewhat resembles a sailboat. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get too close to it since only guests and VIPs are permitted onto the property.

The Dubai Mall and the Emaar Office Complex

The Gates Residential Towers in Abu Dhabi

For the the past several years, U.A.E. has been moving away from an oil-based economy, to one of finance and tourism. At some point, all that oil will play out and I suppose they want to be positioned so that there will be alternative industries in place to supplant oil production. That’s the prime motivation for this incredible building boom. A real effort is being made to become the world’s financial and business capital as well as the world’s playground. Billions of dollars have gone into constructing some of the most amazing facilities to lure visitors to the emirates. Already constructed is the world’s only totally enclosed theme park called Ferrari World, an indoor ski slope complete with a chairlift, their own Louvre and planned Guggenheim museums, more shopping malls than you could ever want, and golf courses that rival the world’s best. Mix in the planet’s only eight-star hotel and a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree, and you get a picture of the lengths the country is going to in order to entice well-heeled travellers to visit the Persian Gulf Coast.

Buildings along the Corniche in Abu Dhabi.

Another method in getting cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi on the map, so to speak, is to employ the help of Hollywood. Having an flashy, action-packed movie filmed in your city certainly helps to draw attention to it. In the last few years several movies have been filmed in the U.A.E. You might remember Tom Cruise rappelling off the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building in Mission Impossible, or how about the scene in Fast and Furious 7 where a super-expensive sports car sails from one tower to another of the Etihad Towers in downtown Abu Dhabi. Star Wars and Independence Day also used U.A.E as a backdrop, along with many other films. A couple of seasons ago, the Amazing Race TV show chose Dubai as a major location for one of their stops along the race.

The Plaza of the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi

The exterior of the new Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi

The architecture of U.A.E. is all designed to impress. Seemingly, no expense is spared in acquiring the most talented architects and engineers to create these modern masterpieces. One example is the new Louvre Museum. The museum is a collaboration between Abu Dhabi and France. It was designed by Jean Nouvel to showcase the elaborate web-patterned “floating” dome which consists of eight layers of steel webbing. Sun filters through it resembling the sun shining through date palm fronds. The dome roof weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower. The entire building is surrounded by water to give the illusion that the museum is floating on the sea. The collections are gathered from museums throughout France. Another art museum planned, is the new Guggenheim Museum. Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum is expected to also incorporate water into its theme when it is built. Today, the project is on hold for a number of reasons, not the least of which are fears of terrorism. Concerns about an American museum with a Jewish name  in a country which doesn’t even recognize Israel have led to several years of delays. Time will tell if it ever becomes a reality.

Prayer Hall of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi

The modern skyscrapers which stand like sentinels along the Corniche in Abu Dhabi or the Jumeirah in Dubai are marvels of innovation and technology. They test the laws of physics by their very form. Shapes that defy gravity and reason are everywhere. Structures that somehow stretch out at unimaginable angles, giving the viewer the uneasy feeling that they might topple over at any second, somehow remain upright. It’s all quite amazing. That’s not to say that there isn’t practiced a more traditional style of architecture in the U.A.E., however. The country becomes a bit more conservative when it comes to their spiritual needs. Their mosques, of which there is one in practically every neighborhood, are designed more with an eye towards tradition and practicality. But dispel the idea that a mosque can’t be extravagant or opulent at the same time. Quite the opposite. Seemingly, no expense is spared on their religious structures, again, owing to  the great wealth of the nation. These designs take on a much more measured approach. Modern 21st century designs give way to a much more traditional treatment.

A gallery at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque

My wife and I had the good fortune of being able to stay at a hotel within walking distance of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It is the largest mosque in the U.A.E and the eighth largest in the world. It can accommodate 40,000 worshippers at one time. In a word, it is huge. Upon entering, you are required to remove your shoes and women must put on a loose-fitting robe called an abaya (provided) while men must wear long pants and a button-down shirt. Call to prayer is five times a day, so there’s a good chance you will witness at least one call during your visit. The structure is almost completely white and almost blindingly bright. Someone advised me to bring sunglasses, but of course I didn’t heed their good advice. I soon regretted it. It was so bright, the light meter on my camera was doing crazy things, jumping around and giving me  incomprehensible readings.

Entering the Prayer Hall

I visited the mosque with a colleague of my wife’s as she was still at a meeting on the day I went. We only stayed a couple of hours, but I could have stayed all day and promised myself I would return before leaving for home. Of course, I never did.  The place was just so fascinating, so much so that I didn’t even remember that it was still about 110 degrees inside the courtyard. Unfortunately, I picked perhaps the busiest time of the day to visit the mosque. I have never seen so many tourists in one place outside of Orlando. The fact that everyone had a cell phone and were all taking selfies, kind of spoiled the whole spiritual atmosphere of it for me though. I expected to see worshippers devotedly praying to Allah, but I saw little of that. Maybe that happens on specific days I’m not aware of. Regardless, the mosque was a beautiful sight, from the delicate gilded floor tiles to the soaring minarets poking up to the not-so azure Arabian sky. Yes, regrettably, the skies along the Arabian Peninsula are not so blue. During the nine days I was in the U.A.E. I seldom saw a blue sky. They are mostly gray with lots of haze, I suppose from all that sand that gets stirred up. It was a little upsetting at first, but I got used to it. Polarizers or haze filters were of basically no use here. So, you photographers out there planning a trip to U.A.E, you can leave your filters at home. You can also leave your tripod at home. It’s so darn bright everywhere, you can handhold just about every shot, even at f/22.

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque

All in all, it was a great trip even though I returned home with a terrible head cold for my efforts. I predicted it too. I knew that going back and forth from air-conditioning to 110 degrees was going to do me in, and it did. Oh well, it was worth it. I hope I get the opportunity to go back to U.A.E sometime. I learned some things on this trip that will better prepare me for the next time and I missed getting some shots I’d like to have another crack at. I never made it back inside the Zayed Mosque at night, and that I really regret. The lighting at night really transforms the building to something even more spectacular I’m told. Overall, I’m happy with what I got to see and photograph in the United Arab Emirates. For any lover of art and architecture U.A.E is a must place to visit. Just make sure to pack a bottle of water or two. You’re going to need it. Sunglasses too.

October 6, 2018 Posted by | Abu Dhabi, Architecture, Dubai, Middle East, Photography, Travel, United Arab Emirates, United Arab Emirates | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment