The Al Hosn site in the heart of Abu Dhabi has proved such a success both as in practical terms and as an example of balance and style in the built environment that it’s surprising it has not garnered more awards.
Maybe first place in the Completed Buildings (Religion) category at WAF 2019 for Al Hosn’s Musallah prayer hall will start a trend. As the WAF jury noted: “through the landscapes [the architects] have enhanced this heritage site and in doing so, created architecture.”
WAF is the World Architectural Festival, the biggest and best international showcase for buildings and their architects. WAF 2019 was held in Amsterdam at the end of last year, where the Musallah project triumphed over some spectacular competitors (at least one of which could have won something on the basis of its name alone: The Thickness of Emptiness Funerary Chapel in Murcia, Spain).
The Musallah architects were CEBRA, the Danish-based practice responsible for the overall masterplan for the Qasr al Hosn/Cultural Foundation development; it has a busy office of around a dozen people in Abu Dhabi.
The client of course was DCT Abu Dhabi; “the recognition of the work done with the Musallah represents the innovative design that Abu Dhabi wants to be recognised for,” said HE Saif Saeed Ghobash, DCT Abu Dhabi’s Undersecretary. “The winning of this prestigious award is confirmation that our ambition to achieve excellence is strategically paying off.”
As he noted, “Qasr Al Hosn is a key part of the fabric of the culture and history of Abu Dhabi … but it is also a symbol of the continuation of Abu Dhabi’s cultural growth as we preserve the past in the present.”
Our ambition to achieve excellence is strategically paying off …
That’s why the Al Hosn development is so good: CEBRA aimed to reinstate and re-energise the city’s most significant cultural and heritage site while also making it accessible to a larger audience – “to make the legacy of the Emirate accessible to the world”.
The Al Musallah prayer hall probably won as a representative of the whole project, a 140,000m2 cultural park surrounding the Al Hosn fort and the Cultural Foundation, a listed cultural centre from the 1980s. All the Al Hosn buildings are designed to almost disappear as landscape objects, not least because the concrete is the colour of the local sand
The masterplan divides the site diagonally into two contrasting landscapes – a plain, open desert area around the fort, suggesting the way Qasr al Hosn stood on the sand before the modern city arrived; and a more formal paved and programmed area around the Cultural Foundation.
The two landscapes are connected by a public urban space with formations of cracks and irregular geometric shapes that are inspired by the mud crack patterns of the coastal desert landscape and salt flats surrounding Abu Dhabi. In fact these shapes serve as design components for the entire site.
“The geometries intentionally land somewhere between building and landscape,” said CEBRA. “Along the transitional zone, the landscape changes from horizontal planes to slanting surfaces and gradually grows into actual buildings, culminating with the Musallah.”
The Musallah is a sculptural building that grows out of the terraforming of the site. It’s a cave-like structure in a landscape of jagged rocky forms that make a pattern of walkways and gardens; the prayer hall complex sits within these, a series of interconnected forms surrounded by water.
“Walking from the open landscape of the park along the narrow passages between the ‘rocks’, the noise and bustling life of the city slowly fades away and visitors enter the cave-like entrance halls, where you can rest and talk before prayers,” said the studio.
The water is intended to create a subtle privacy barrier without using walls, providing calm and secluded spaces for prayer and contemplation without visual intrusions. The water is also used as a symbol of spiritual purification flowing around the interior spaces; they’re connected by glass tubes bridging over the water, which is intended to symbolise purifying the mind when moving through the light-filled passages from one area to the next.
In the two prayer halls, copper has been used to clad the walls and the ceilings, creating what the studio call “endless reflections of light “It illustrates how man has always looked up into the skies, wondering and reflecting on one’s own existence,” said CEBRA. The geometric mud-crack appearance of the exterior is mirrored internally, with a ceiling of suspended forms illuminated by both skylights and artificial hanging lights.
CEBRA’s Abu Dhabi office comprises 10 architects both from the local design market as well as the firm’s Denmark headquarters. A year ago CEBRA promoted Arthi Balasubramanian, previously lead designer on the Cultural Foundation element of Al Hosn and as lead design manager for the site’s masterplan, as the head of its office in the UAE capital.