Jahili Fort Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
Renovation and conversion of a historic fort to a visitor centre with exhibition area including the incorporation and design of the exhibition 'Mubarak bin London: Wilfred Thesiger and the Freedom of the desert'.
The Jahili Fort is one of many historic buildings in the oasis city of Al Ain, a strategically positioned settlement at the intersection of two trade routes passing through the Arabian Desert which served as a resting post for travelling Bedouins. Formed out of the agglomeration of seven oases, modern-day Al Ain now numbers 500,000 inhabitants and is of great importance for Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates, due in part to its cool, dry and peaceful climate which differs markedly from the coastal cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and not least to its rich legacy of historic buildings.
Located near the centre of the city, Jahili Fort is one of the largest forts in the Emirates and was built to protect the Al Ain Oasis and the valuable water resources, which in the past were of key importance in the desert. Its large courtyard today hosts events such as the Al Ain Classical Music Festival. The distinctive tiered form of the watch and lookout tower is a national monument and is depicted on the 50 Dirham note.
The newly converted and restored sections of the fort house a visitor centre and exhibition spaces featuring “Mubarak bin London: Wilfred Thesiger and the Freedom of the Desert”, a permanent exhibition showing photographs by the explorer and researcher Wilfred Thesiger who crossed the Arabian Desert several times with the Bedouins in the 1940s, documenting his travels with a Leica hand camera. The photographs depict life in the region before the oil boom and tell of his friendship with Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the Emirates, with whom he stayed several times in Al Ain.
The sensitive design and planning concept by the architectural practice Roswag & Jankowski Architekten in Berlin brings out the qualities of the existing structures while almost imperceptibly integrating modern climate regulation technology and the functions necessary for a museum. The building structure is made predominantly of earth and materials derived from the palm tree and underwent comprehensive renovation and protection against termite infestation. Much of the original earthen building materials, dating as far back as the 19th century, could be recycled, broken down and soaked to a malleable mortar and used to make new earth blocks for the construction. The conversion of the main structure including the base plaster layer was conducted entirely with historical building materials; new building materials were used only for the fine clay finishing plaster. The historic appearance of the exterior of the building was restored and the interior finished with similar building materials such as clay and earth, palm trunks and palm leaves. The rammed earth floors also follow historical precedence and are waxed to protect against wear and tear.
The exhibition spaces were given a fine grey Clayfix finishing plaster as a neutral background for the black and white photographs on barite-coated paper. Floor to ceiling screen-printed lighting elements made of Corian divide the exhibition spaces into four sections and form part of the spatial concept. The new functions of the visitor centre are denoted by white furniture elements inserted into the historic structure.
The roof is thermally insulated and the openings in the arcades closed with a solar protection glazing to ensure that the building can be used all year round in a climate that at times can exceed 50°C. The 90 cm thick earth walls offer excellent natural thermal protection in summer. The building is kept cool using a cold-water wall-cooling system that is embedded in the plaster. Ventilation with fresh air is controlled via sensors. The cool radiating from the wall surfaces and the low degree of air cooling improve indoor comfort markedly and reduce energy consumption greatly.
The new insertions give the fort a new self-assured identity appropriate to Al Ain’s role as a cultural centre while respecting the historic legacy of the existing structure.
PROJECT TEAM: Client: Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) | Overall planning: Roswag & Jankowski Architekten | Architecture: Roswag & Jankowski Architekten | Structural engineers, earth building construction:
ZRS Architekten Ingenieure | Planning of technical installations: Planungsteam Energie + Bauen | Electrical planning: Deutsche Energie-Consult GmbH (DECON) | Landscape architecture: Freianlage.de Landschaftsarchitektur | Supervision of architectural works: Roswag & Jankowski Architekten | Earth building construction works
Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), Department of Conservation in Cooperation with Hunnarshala Foundation | Earth building instruction: Claytec / Malerbetrieb Wolfgang Scheeres | Curator (Mubarak bin London Exhibition): Barker Langham | Exhibition design (Mubarak bin London Exhibition), Graphic design (corporate identity Jahili Fort) and Design of lighting strip in the café: Roswag & Jankowski Architekten in collaboration with Christiane Liebert | PROJECT DATA: Net floor area: 625 sq m | Completion: 12 / 2008