Documenting Facades in the UAE with Hussain AlMoosawi

Hussain AlMoosawi

Emirati photographer, artist and communication designer Hussain Al Moosawi, 37, spent a significant part of his childhood visiting his grandmother, who lived near the Al Fahidi area in Bur Dubai. Closely constructed and densely populated the buildings around Al Fahidi left an impact on young Hussain’s mind. Years later, after living in Australia, when he moved back to the UAE, he embarked on a unique photography project capturing facades of old classical architecture styles in buildings in the UAE.

His aim was to focus on design to create an archive of standardised images comparing the architectural styles and influences in the UAE with symmetry as a unifying element. His photographs have been showcased in several exhibitions. Hussain began his facade project with well-known towers such as the Deira Tower in Baniyas Square, the Dubai World Trade Centre, Liwa Tower in Abu Dhabi among others. He has now started including newer buildings as well and hopes to click low-rises and villas. In this interview with middleeastmasala he shares his thoughts on choosing a façade for the project, his inspiration, influences and vision.

What inspired you to document old building facades in the UAE?

Documenting architecture stemmed from my quest of trying to make sense of space. Since 2010, I have been systematically documenting details of the urban environment around me. It started when I developed a series of typologies living in Melbourne, Australia. When I came back to the UAE in 2013 – after spending eight years in Australia, I saw a new urban environment that was shaped by the real estate boom. It took me a while to train my eye to see what is unique about the UAE. I undertook a number of projects that focused on mundane subjects, which eventually resulted in me looking at larger structures that happen to have a greater public interest. To sum it up, it’s less of an inspiration and more of a gradual and logical result that followed a series of interconnected patterns.

What, according to you, is the relationship between human beings and the spaces they live in. Why is it important to reflect on them?

Spaces affect us to a great degree, but we also influence them at a far greater level. This is particularly true with vernacular architecture, which you don’t simply observe but inhabit and influence. These structures are nothing but a reflection of our socio-economic state and entail many details that speak of our human nature and living conditions. 

Building Façade on Airport Road, Aby Dhabi

What are the important characteristics of your facade project. Share with us the patterns and design elements that you have captured?

I think it’s too soon to highlight patterns. Given that my scope is the entire UAE, there might be patterns that repeat themselves nationwide, and others specific to an emirate, city or neighbourhood. I might be able to highlight these patterns once the collection matures after five years. However, I think I would give this mission to architects who have greater insights on architectural forms and a body of knowledge that help in identifying these patterns. My primary role is to document methodologically, which is a time-consuming process. Though speaking of clear patterns, architecture from the 70s and 80s is more harmonised with the local and regional context. This was a result of policies to some degree. The other reason was architects themselves, who came from the region – whether it was the Arab world or the Indian subcontinent. 

How do you choose a facade for your project?

Many buildings I photographed happened to be already appreciated among architects and enthusiasts, so they had to be definitely included. However, most of what I photograph is a result of surveying areas and following my visual intuition in identifying what is worthy to be photographed. To narrow my scope, I have started photographing symmetrical facades, but now I am chasing asymmetry too. At this stage I am mainly photographing towers and high-rise buildings, then I will slowly steer my attention towards low-rises. However, I always make sure to photograph a building once I come to know it might be demolished.

To produce a good photograph of a particular facade, you need to identify the 10-15 time window when it’s best photographed. This is achieved by using conventional apps that show you the angle of the sun at a given place and time, but you also have to be present on the site to see the reflection of light from the building. It’s all about having the balance between having enough reflection to show a degree of colour, but subtle enough to avoid strong shadows that take away from the architectural forms. 

Deira Tower

How long have you been photographing and what do you eventually plan to do with them?

I have been on this project for the last three years and I can see myself doing this for another decade at least. My eventual aim is to build a pictorial and interactive archive of facades and make it available to the public, with the functionality to organise these buildings according to different criteria such as-built year, location, nationality of architect and so on. Naturally, I am also looking at compiling the collection into a series of publications. 

How did visiting your grandmother in Al Fahidi contribute to this unique project, share your childhood memories around the area?

Having lived a large part of my childhood in Bur Dubai, contributed to my fascination with the dense built environment. Most Emirati kids have memories playing in open sand areas, I cannot say that about myself. Perhaps, at a subconscious level, this affected my fascination with buildings. I cannot say I share an equal level of love for villas, which seclude you to some degree from your immediate surroundings. 

Al Omaira Building , Abu Dhabi

What has been the response from old and young residents of UAE to your project.  Have they shared any interesting stories around these buildings?

Most of the response I get is from millennials who experience a sense of nostalgia when looking at older buildings. Many residents – specially  from Abu Dhabi – shared how such buildings reminded them of their childhood, when these buildings used to constitute Abu Dhabi’s central business district before the construction of shopping malls and the development of newer areas. 

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