Conservation ethics in architecture

The state of cultural heritage in the UAE.

Dr. Samia Rab
Dr. Samia Rab
Dr. Samia Rab
Dr. Samia Rab

Rapidly modernising cities grow at the expense of the past, which makes conservation an afterthought as opposed to an integral component in the development process.

The World Bank Urban Development Report of 2000 states that cities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) face four challenges: 1) Improved capacity to deliver and finance services at the local level; 2) Development of efficient land and housing markets; 3) Revitalisation of cultural heritage sites; 4) Responsiveness to emergency needs.

While the third challenge is specific to safeguarding existing sites, the other three indicate need for effective services necessary for engaging in the processes of ‘modernisation'.


MENA is collectively recognised as the cradle of human civilisation; the region enjoys a rich history and its cultural heritage encompasses approximately 60% of the world's ancestry.

That said, less than 50 of the 851 sites on the World Heritage List designated by UNESCO are located in this region. Four countries, including the UAE, have, thus far, listed no sites. The World Bank Report and the UNESCO List collectively present an ironic reality about the region: Neither has MENA safeguarded its cultural heritage, nor has it adequately prepared for modernisation.

This article explores current restoration practice in the UAE and addresses the fundamental question on the minds of development authorities in the region and throughout the modern world: Can cultural heritage be appropriately revitalised while pursuing modernisation?

The answer is, yes, provided we decompress our notion of 'time' and insert conservation ethics into development processes.


Today, our biggest challenge is time. In our efforts to work as hard as we can, there is a general consensus that we could all use longer days. This is mainly due to the fact that we all share a desire to complete what we start, both in our careers and in our lives.

This attitude is reflected in architectural practice. Current lifespan for buildings is estimated at 20-30 years. The fact that we erase our buildings within one generation reinforces the assumption that 'time', as a concept, is compressed. We have lost our ability to think beyond our existence on this planet.

This self-referential notion of 'time' is our inheritance from a particular kind of modernity pursued after the 18th century European Enlightenment, and implemented around the world with distinct zeal.

This kind of modernity celebrates the present, both its opportunities and its problems. The main, albeit highly relative, idea behind this modernity is that only we can best understand and critically engage our situation.

By that rationale, the past is largely incomprehensible to us as we are not the living members of that past and, likewise, the generation to come will fend for themselves. Bottom line: We are neither the custodians of things inherited nor are we responsible to the future; we are forced to think, act and build in the present.

For example, supporting Napoléon III's vision, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann reconfigured the city of Paris from 1852 to 1870. In doing so, Haussmann erased much of the historical urban fabric to create the long, straight, wide boulevards that include the cafés and shops we associate with Paris today.

Haussmann developed a new type of urbanism that facilitated the movement of military troops, and eventually, automobiles. By cutting through the dense and irregular medieval alleyways of the old Paris, and establishing a rational city with wide avenues and open spaces, he spread the city of Paris far beyond the confines of its medieval core.

One could argue that if not for ‘Haussmannisation' of Paris, the city would not have embarked on the journey toward modernisation. In other words, to modernise one must erase the past. This assertion is both inappropriate and reckless.

For more than a century, people have begun to understand the inherent problems with an attitude that encourages rapid modernisation and ignores the dilapidation of both cultural and natural resources.

This narrow and disconnected focus on the present will only lead to periodic destruction, not accumulated growth.

Conservation ethics in architecture

Garcia Lorca, the famous Spanish poet, warned us that, "Time, not man, builds architecture" (Lewcock, 1994). There is much wisdom in this short line as we can read in it a continued notion of ‘time' that goes beyond a single ‘man'.

We can also recognise in it the potential significance of the environment (of which architecture is just one part) as encapsulating simultaneously the past, the present, and a future. The eagerness to serve and exploit the present disregards the pursuit of continuity in the built environment.

But architects, who, like Lorca, appreciate the seamlessness of time, carry into the future valuable aspects of their present environment. Their architecture is not about themselves, but about the environment they inherited and its effective transference to future generations.

Memory is our contemporary connection with specific moments of past societies and cultures. People relate to their past in different ways. The word 'memory' is rooted in the Latin verb memoria, which means ‘to be mindful' or ‘to think'.

The word ‘monument' is rooted in the Latin verb monere, which means ‘to remind'. ‘Monumentality' does not necessarily refer to heroic objects. Rather, it is the quality of a memorable place that reminds us of something, loaded with memories of the past and a place to be remembered in the future.

One of the roles of an architect is to help maintain a record of time through thoughtful and contemporary interventions, thereby inspiring memories and fantasies about places.

It is important to underscore the difference between being ‘contemporary' and being ‘self-referential'. While the former uses the present to relate the past with a potential future, the latter is only about serving or exploiting the present.

The past century's efforts to modernise have left the built and the natural environment of our planet in jeopardy. A new development process is badly needed; one that introduces conservation ethics.

As architects, we should observe existing conditions of specific places with the intention to act upon them, alter them and leave them memorable. It is important for architects to engage, through their acts of design, with particular places and connect with people through a rigorous understanding of their past.

Architecture is an intention that germinates from ‘memory', a process that employs imagination, and a product that may be elevated in the future to the status of ‘monument'.

Conservation Challenges in the UAE

As architects we make and safeguard monuments. Architects who aspire to give old buildings a new lease of life face tremendous challenges today - especially in the context of the Arabian Gulf - where pursuit of borrowed processes of modernisation has led to the massive loss of its built and natural heritage.

In the past two decades, some parts of this region have undergone rapid economic development facilitating the emergence of global urban projects. Architecture, now more than ever before, is impacting changes to large portions of the urban and natural landscape.

As a result, most of the region's historic sites are either situated in densely populated urban areas typically exposed to the pressures of modern development, neglected and left to decay, recognised but ineffectually restored, or threatened by natural disasters and human conflict.

One of the major consequences of the emergence of a global ‘network society' has been a steady rise in tourism, which is regarded by many economists as the largest growing global economy.

The status and standing of many countries throughout the world is now being measured by the attention they pay to their cultural facilities and heritage management policies. However, the situation worsens as historic buildings are subjected to neglect or over-restoration, depending on availability of funds and spirit of nationalism.

Despite the increase in scope of conservation activities today, tourism development and uninformed approaches to architectural reconstruction and/or reuse have posed serious challenges for urban heritage.

Many rapidly growing cities in the UAE, including Dubai and Sharjah, are pursuing neighbourhood-level restoration efforts to retain abandoned forms of architecture and urbanism.

These efforts are commendable in terms of the timely documentation of buildings, the development of a comprehensive archive of traditional architecture, and reviving the traditional techniques and materials of construction.

However, many experts have launched criticism on these efforts in terms of their lack of respect for international standards. But, the international standards have also been criticised of late¹. Drafting the Venice Charter in the middle of the 20th century, its authors demanded proof of a monument's antiquity in terms of narrowly defined physical attributes². While monuments made of stone age with dignity, mud construction requires constant repair to escape erosion and thus rarely appear ‘new'.

Working with local and regional restorers over the last seven years has led me to re-evaluate my view of an authentic restoration outside the scientific overtones of the Venice Charter.

The 14th century scholar, Ibn Khuldun, best articulated the problem with treating things historical: "History has a great number of approaches that must be probed with the yardstick of philosophy." Conservation of heritage should result in an honest communication of distinct values across time.

The concern with ongoing restoration efforts in the UAE do not relate to their philosophy of ‘reconstruction', since authentic restoration does not have to rely on the physical attributes of built heritage. Rather, the restoration efforts are questionable in terms of four shared attributes:

a) Harvested coral (an endangered marine specie): Often used in restoration, it deteriorates faster than usual due to harsh air-conditioning.

b) Loss of inhabitants (stakeholders) from the restored districts: Homes are considered individual structures and public areas contain only museums, cafés and boutiques for tourists.

c) Lack of trained professionals in architectural conservation: Resulting in archaeologist-led restoration efforts and the use of predominantly unskilled assistants.

d) Absence of a comprehensive conservation plan: Individuals are left with few resources to guide restoration efforts.

Current restorations in the UAE serve to glorify an imagined past, without due consideration to either international standards of conservation or the indigenous knowledge of regional historians.

Since architectural conservation is a tangible act of historical judgment, attempts to recreate an imagined notion of the past usually result in environments that are inauthentic.

In pursuing architectural conservation of historic districts, government officials and their architects have a tendency to either ignore the local community or greatly underestimate the informed culture of potential visitors - many of whom are seeking authenticity in historic buildings, however dilapidated they might be.

According to a recent study (Lewcock, 2004), in countries where overzealous reconstruction of heritage sites has been pursued, word has spread that these monuments are no longer ‘authentic', but just recreations of the originals.

The loss of site integrity not only limits its potential for inclusion on the World Heritage List, but it also decreases tourism, as visitors are neither ignorant nor naïve as some people believe them to be. Moreover, once included on the UNESCO List, access to public/private funds for conservation becomes available at local, regional and international levels.

A listed heritage site attracts a culture of informed visitors who are generally interested in seeking: 1) Uniqueness and differentiation in the world's built heritage; 2) Continuity between natural and cultural environments; 3) Continuity between past and future physical environments; 4) The physical patina of age to affirm the historical continuity of time and place on sites visited.

Cultural landmarks can encompass vast and diverse areas, which are usually administered by different territorial and specialised authorities. These ‘culture tourists' are who the UAE should aspire to attract but this subgroup is greatly underestimated by most governmental agencies related to tourism promotion in the Arabian Gulf.

Therefore, the different national and local authorities responsible for zoning, infrastructure development, environmental and architectural conservation must collaborate to define appropriate management tools to preserve authentic features of cultural landscapes.

Integrity of the relationship between natural and built (cultural) environments is essential for sustainable conservation, making it a shared responsibility. Several disciplines must take part in giving a new lease of life to historic buildings and sites.

Archaeologists excavate layers of history to piece together and reconstruct the social and cultural life of a past civilisation. Architects investigate what these artefacts mean to stakeholders in the present to develop a comprehensive conservation plan.

Conservationists document, interpret and pursue a course of action to preserve, restore, or conserve the physical aspects of significant monuments. Curators ensure the appropriate restoration and public display of artworks associated with these monuments.

Conservation of cultural heritage thus pursued promotes sustainable development of historic cities, while retaining the ethical and social values of the built environment.


Architecture encompasses making memorable places for people and is based on experience, memory and history. Architects today have the responsibility to produce buildings that fit with the surrounding context, physically and metaphysically, and still speak of their own time.

As cities grow and evolve at an unprecedented pace in the Arabian Gulf, it is important to realign development processes with an eye toward passing on our knowledge attained in the present without erasing or blurring the past.

Achieving these goals requires conservation of cultural heritage. Development is always seen as the enemy of conservation, even though conservation ethics may serve the purpose of environmentally and culturally beneficial development.

Inserting conservation ethics into development processes will facilitate an honest communication between contemporary and future generations. It will help us set goals that are clearly communicable across generations. This approach in urban development is needed especially in contexts that are increasingly multicultural.


1. The most rigorous criticism of the Venice Charter is advanced in the following articles: A. G. Krishna Memon, "Conservation in India. A search for direction," Architecture + Design, 1989: 22-27; "On the production of Authenticity in the Restoration and Re-use of Historic Buildings," unpublished lecture given during a symposium in Katmandu in Nepal, May 1991; "Rethinking the Venice Charter: The Indian Experience," Third conference of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments, Paris, October 8 - 11, 1992.

2. Richard Etlin, "Contextualism and the Reasoned Picturesque," in Modernism in Italian Architecture, 1890-1940. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991: 127.



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