Site visit: Qasr Al Hosn

The challenge of restoring one of Abu Dhabi’s most important buildings

Mark Powell Kyffin, head of architecture at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
Mark Powell Kyffin, head of architecture at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

Architects are fighting to halt the gradual destruction of a building which sets out the history of the UAE in stone.

Historic Qasr Al Hosn fort in the centre of Abu Dhabi was initially fortified by tribes arriving from the desert, became the seat of the ruling family and played a key part in where the nation was first forged.

Architects in Abu Dhabi are fighting to stop corrosion destroying the coral and stone walls of the historic monument – described by one of them as the UAE’s equivalent to Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament rolled into one.

First built for defensive purposes, the site then became a royal palace and a seat of government, which saw completion of some of the oil deals that shaped the entire region’s future.

In 1971, negotiations vital to the formation of the UAE also took place in its adjacent council debating chamber.

Working to a mandate originally put forward by HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan – who ordered that the building should be preserved for posterity – a team of architects is currently battling against previous restoration work, now identified as a threat.

Experts are removing a white façade made from cement and gypsum which was put in place around 30 years ago.

But it now threatens the fabric of the structure as it traps moisture vapour, which is corroding the original coral walls.

“The layers of modern render are suffocating the original construction,” said Mark Powell Kyffin, head of architecture at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

“Qasr Al Hosn tells the story of Abu Dhabi,” said Kyffin. “And it is the UAE’s symbolic birth place. So we need to ensure its future.”

Peter Sheehan, head of historic buildings at the Abu Dhabi tourism authority, carried out the initial archaeological investigations aimed at understanding the construction of the fort so that conservation work could be carried out which matches the original architecture.

He said: “It’s a methodical process and we’re working as carefully as we possibly can.”

“Our job is to ensure that this building is conserved to the highest possible standards, so that both present and future generations can appreciate the evolution of the fort and its historical and cultural significance.”

It is believed that an original watchtower, which forms part of the fort, is the oldest structure in the region.

It was most likely constructed by members of the Bani Yas tribe, who arrived in the area from their homes in the Liwa Oasis region and decided to stay as a nearby fresh water supply was discovered.

As pearl diving became an important business and trade flourished, further defensive structures were added, including crenellated walls and towers with “murder holes” where stones or combustive material could be dropped on besiegers.

Kyffin said: “The watchtower was first noted in 1761 and a sketch dating from 1845 shows the tower and another further along the coast.

“We don’t know why the site was chosen for the main fort. It may have been a vantage point with good visibility, it may have just been a place where the ground was good to build on – we just don’t know.

“Part of my work is similar to that of a detective, but in a historical context. I try and reason out why certain things were done and how it was achieved.

“The techniques of the past are the ones we are using in the restoration work. The ‘newer’ methods, used in the 1980s, caused harm to the building.”

The original builders gathered coral and sea stone to create the fort and put them in place by using mortar made from ground-up coral mixed with crushed seashells.

Successive generations of Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al Nahyan family have added to the building. New walls, containing living quarters and offices, eventually enclosed the original defensive structure as it became a palace and administrative centre.

Negotiations over the exploitation of Abu Dhabi’s oil resources took place within and the complex also includes a debating hall where delegates from across the UAE met to found the nation. This is preserved as it was during its last usage – even boxes of tissues remain in the council chamber.

“There's no doubt this building is of great architectural importance,” said Kyffin. “It was a fortress in a time of turbulence, then a royal residence and also a place where the future of the UAE was discussed.

“Architecturally, it is of military signifi-cance but also important for domestic design. The women’s quarters feature ornate designs that are unusual in Islamic art.

“It also features a barjeel, a traditional form of ventilation system with recessed arches built into the exterior walls directing the prevailing sea breezes into interior rooms via a network of airways.”

The chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, said the restoration project would help to strengthen people’s appreciation of the heritage of the UAE.

He said: “The project will provide a different experience for every visitor, enabling each of them to have their own relationship with Qasr Al Hosn.”

Kyffin added that he was learning about the history of the building while working on it all of the time.

“Because of the many important uses it has been put to, I liken it to a Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and Houses of Parliament, all rolled into one.

“The fort itself is in the centre of Abu Dhabi and all around are modern buildings – so architecture has developed from watchtower to skyscraper in 250 years.

“Also everyone who comes here has a story to tell about the fort. It is a place which has great meaning to local people.”

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