Exploring Sharjah’s architecture with Peter Jackson

Sharjah government’s architect advisor on his work in the UAE emirate and beyond

Farmers were traditionally good at building without architects, Peter Jackson, Sharjah government's architect advisor, says [ITP Images].
Farmers were traditionally good at building without architects, Peter Jackson, Sharjah government's architect advisor, says [ITP Images].

This article was originally published by Construction Week's sister title, Middle East Architect. Read the original story on middleeastarchitect.com here.

Architect advisor in His Highness the Ruler’s Office, Sharjah, British architect Peter Jackson, first came to the UAE in January 1972 for a family visit, as well as to gain work experience. Jackson was in the middle of his practical training, but he had yet to fully commit to a career in architecture and was looking for a new perspective.

Upon his arrival, he met resident partner of John R Harris Architects, Tony Lodge, who was supervising the construction of Rashid Hospital, the first modern hospital in the UAE. Lodge, according to Jackson, was in need of some assistance with a number of smaller projects.

Harris’s practice is largely responsible for laying the foundation of modern Dubai with its first urban plan in 1960, followed by an updated masterplan in 1971. It also designed the original Dubai World Trade Centre, which for many years stood as the tallest building in the Middle East, and was recently listed for protection as an historic building by Dubai Municipality. 

“Tony was out here on his own,” says Jackson. “I remember designing a house in Shiraz, a porch for the multi-denominational church in Dubai, and two branches for the National Bank of Dubai — all sorts of things that Tony did not have time for because he was responsible for Rashid Hospital. 

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“The night before I left to go back to England, Tony introduced me to John Harris, who told me that when I graduated, I could have a job with him. So, after university, I went straight to work with him in London.

“Harris had an excellent hospital design section. It was very contemporary functionalism, which went out of fashion by the 1980s, but at the time, they were really trying to be sensitive to local culture, without being patronising. 

“They were identifying relevant architectural elements and motifs and interpreting these within very modern buildings. One building I enjoyed [working on] was the Grindlays Bank, just outside the old city wall of Muscat. It is no longer a Grindlays Bank, but it is still standing, fairly intact. The National Bank of Dubai headquarters, facing Dubai Creek, was also very good.” 

After a few years of working between London, Dubai, and Muscat, Jackson wanted to experience working in another part of the world, one that did not “possess the privilege of oil”, he says. 

Having been introduced by a colleague to Montgomerie Oldfield Kirby’s Ron Kirby in Lusaka, Zambia, Jackson packed his bags and relocated. Despite having only signed a two-year contract, with the intention of returning to the Gulf, Jackson went on to work in Africa for 27 years, initially in Zambia, then settling in Zimbabwe, with projects in Mozambique and Botswana. 

Under Kirby, Jackson says he learned important design values and applied skills that have remained relevant for the rest of his career, such as how to deliver quality buildings while working with severely limited budgets and a shortage of skills and materials. 

In Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, Jackson jointly established his own practice, Architects Partnership, with much of his early work tending to the development needs of rural areas. 

“We were very interested in resettlement work,” he says. “After independence, Zimbabwe’s rural areas lacked basic infrastructure, and the priority of the new government was to redress the colonial imbalance through the provision of water, electricity and new district planning, including housing, bus shelters, public toilets, and markets.

“We created a special modular system for components to build local markets. We offered a variety of facilities, depending on the priorities of each local authority. From a sample group of key district councils, we were able to offer a significant variety of different market centres, tailored to local needs. There must have been more than 40 growth points that we worked on,” he explains.

Architects Partnership also delivered projects in Zimbabwe for people who had missed out on much of their secondary education during the war of liberation, and now needed to learn basic skills. These projects were usually undertaken using finance from international non-governmental organisations.

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“Farmers were traditionally good at building without architects,” Jackson says. “They had their own vernacular, and architects can learn from that. I always had an interest in architecture without architects, which is why I was fascinated by the wind-tower houses in the UAE.”

Throughout his career, Jackson has written a number of books that contribute to the ongoing understanding of vernacular and historic buildings. His first publication, with Dr Anne Coles, was on the wind-tower houses in Dubai’s historic, Bastikiya area. The 1975 publication was the first to document the fading building tradition in the UAE. He also published a further book on this type of building in 2007, entitled Windtower. 

In 1986, Jackson wrote Historic Buildings of Harare, which explained the architectural importance of these buildings in the identity of the post-colonial city, and offered planning strategies to make their survival economically viable.

After political and economic turmoil took its toll on Zimbabwe, Jackson returned to the UAE. The country had changed — it was the early 2000s, and after 30 years, many expatriate architecture firms had found a footing and were now locally based. Jackson found himself missing the community focus of much of his work in Africa, but after being invited to join Brian Johnson at Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ), his professional enthusiasm was rekindled.

While working with GAJ on the conversion of historic buildings in Al Muraijah for the new Heritage Museum, Jackson discovered plans for Sharjah’s corniche to be expanded into a major through-highway, which would have isolated the historic core of the city from the creek. He created a presentation of alternative planning strategies for the Sharjah Museums Department. 

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“I have had a very rich architectural career in terms of places, clients, projects and experiences. I have worked with some very talented architects, and I wanted to continue that until one day, I might retire. It was really special to be offered the opportunity to work with Sharjah Government,” he says

“Through Sharjah Museums, I was offered a job as an advisor. My initial responsibilities were primarily to look after museums and heritage. Over the years, though, they have broadened and shifted. I was very involved with establishing an Historic Buildings Unit, with specialist architects and conservationists. At the present time though, my work is predominately environmental, although I still work with the museums and archaeology.”

As architect advisor, Jackson is tasked with implementing some of the projects that HH Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, wants to be developed. He effectively works as both a design and project manager, developing briefs and finding and assigning appropriate consultants. Occasionally, he also designs projects. 

Two projects that Jackson has recently been responsible for are the Sharjah Islamic Botanic Garden and Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre. He is also currently overseeing another project located near the Kalba mangroves, the Sharjah Safari Park, which covers 17km2 in the central region of Sharjah and focuses on African wildlife conservation and environmental sustainability. 

READ: Sharjah firm wins contract for Dubai's $107m Shindagha Bridge

Since returning, Jackson has marked his presence in the UAE through his role in the establishment of both the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gulf chapter and the English chapter of the UAE Architectural Heritage Society, which was founded by Emirati architect Rashad Bukhash.

While transport, roads, and pedestrian mobility are what Jackson calls a “trilogy of challenges” facing the UAE’s urban development, he is especially concerned with “the national phenomenon of low-density urban expansion into the desert”. 

“Sharjah has extremely beautiful and varied desert landscapes, which are rapidly being eaten up by urban development,” he explains

“The dunes are being flattened and gridded with roads and services for very low-density suburbs. There will not be any desert left in 30 years if we continue at this rate. 

“The natural desert offers a major future resource for urban dwellers – for their wellbeing, for recreation, as well as for tourism. We need to consider how to better utilise our existing cities and new suburbs, and to carefully conserve our shrinking wilderness areas.” 

READ: City Centre Sharjah's $71m expansion completed

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