Palm leaf homes: the future of Dubai?

Author and researcher Dr Sandra Piesik, left, artistic director of Shubbak Eckhard Thiemann, centre and Khalid Shafar, right

Author and researcher Dr Sandra Piesik, left, artistic director of Shubbak Eckhard Thiemann, centre and Emirati designer Khalid Shafar, right

Palm leaf homes: the future of Dubai?

23 July 2015

By Naomi Canton

Traditional buildings made from the leaves of date palms have been used in ingenious ways to create habitable structures to provide shelter and relief from the extreme climate of the Arabian peninsula for generations.

However this vernacular architectural tradition based on renewable materials constructed by hand – known as Arish architecture – was lost to modern Western construction methods in the UAE in the 1960s and 1970s when the region witnessed a wealth boom and huge amounts of foreign investment came in once after oil was exported. Now the UAE boasts a series of slick skyscrapers including Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, to promote its international stature, in stark contrast to the architecture of its heritage.

Yet a Dubai designer and a London architect are hoping to see a revival of the sustainable craft, which is now 99 per cent extinct. Dubai-based Emirati designer Khalid Shafar spoke at an Asia House talk alongside London-based architect, author and researcher Dr Sandra Piesik, who has written a book Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture (Thames & Hudson, 2012).

Shafar has installed The Nomad – a contemporary architectural reinterpretation of the Arish traditional Gulf house made from palm trees – in the Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground at the Chelsea College of Art. It will be there until 27 July.

The installation is part of Shubbak 2015: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture (11-26 July), which is London’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture, boasting more than 100 international artists and more than 30 artists based in the UK.

Inspired by Arish principles, it is constructed from wood, rather than palm leaves, and is part sculpture, part furniture, part installation and part social space.

“Since The Nomad is an outdoor installation, we thought we can’t do a private view or an artist’s talk there without a megaphone, but we wanted to provide some contextual talk about this work which is why we chose to hold this event at Asia House,” explained the artistic director of Shubbak Eckhard Thiemann as he was introducing the talk at Asia House.

“The aim of Shubbak 2015 is to create a dialogue with London and one way to do this was to move the majority of visual arts programme into the streets, urban spaces and quirky corners of London to shed a new light on London as a location and its international connections,” he explained.

Palm leaves were used to construct homes and buildings to provide shelter from the extreme heat and arid climate in the UAE and surrounding countries for the 7,000 years that the region has had human habitation – in the same way that bamboo was central to Asian architecture.

Dr Piesik, the founder of 3 ideas Limited, an architectural consultancy in London, pointed out the benefits of the indigenous craft. “Arish or palm leaf reflects the sun in a far better way than concrete, glass or sand does. Forty two million palm trees are cultivated in the UAE today.  Each tree has 10 to 25 dry palm leafs that could potentially get recycled,” she said.

Another advantage of the palm leaf is that it is cooling and can bring the temperature down by 20 to 30 degrees Celsius, she added. “Historically what happens is people would take a leaf and weave it with a rope from a palm trunk. There are countless possibilities of connecting a leaf and a rope together in very simple ways. There are no nails. There is no foundation and it is just assembled. Each region would have its own style of weaving it together,” she said.

The ones which grow in India have thicker leaves and so they can be woven together more tightly to fend off rain she pointed out.

Currently the leaves from date palms are not being used at all and instead 90 per cent of them are going to landfill (where they produce methane) and 10 per cent is being used for agricultural purposes such as animal feed. The opportunity to recycle them is being lost, she said.

“We need to bring the recycling back,” she added.

Before oil was discovered in the UAE in the 1950s it was a desert land inhabited by nomadic Bedouin tribes with an economy dependent on fishing and the pearl industry. The nomads lived in homes made of palm leaf and moved between the desert, the oasis and the ocean.

Nomadic people were either settled tribes, in which case the houses they built from palm leaf would last 25 years, or they might just take it with them for summer migration in which case they would build it from scratch in a day or two, she explained.

She showed a photo from the 1950s of the UAE with 4,000 houses constructed from palm leaf. “You have to remember it was a grass roots movement, it was all recycled  – now it’s totally changed and it’s all buildings,” she said, then showing a photo of the city today. “We need to find a way to use this material again since they are still available in the country,” she added.

She said one method would be to look at the scalability of building using the palm leaves and connecting them with other more modern materials.

She said that the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was endorsing the use of the Arish technology in order to tackle climate change and alleviate poverty.

“They see the contribution of science, technology and traditional knowledge and practices as a journey to combat climate change. We need a different type of knowledge and a different type of professional nowadays. We need indigenous people to come up with some workable solutions and we need to connect to the knowledge of these indigenous people to figure out how to live in harmony with nature once again,” she said.

“Forty-two per cent of the world’s poor live in desert regions in the world so we can look at these technologies and see how they can help from a perspective of economic development,” she said.

“Employment in the desert region by using palm leaves could prevent the migration crisis, conflicts, food shortages and even terrorism,” she continued. “We need to think about reintroducing Arish to fix problems in the world such as sustainability.  Designers need to convince the authorities to do this. A shortage of resources means we should use these traditional technologies especially with global population growth as we are overusing the planet,” she added.

“We just need to go back to the concept of recycling and what belongs to a particular place and stop being the slaves of fashion and image. The solutions are hybrid – mixing it with modern materials so it looks modern,” she advised.

“It’s important to engage with our own culture and save the planet. This won’t get disseminated without academic research,” she said.

She said palm leaf technology could be used to create emergency homes in post disaster relief zones and more importantly to create jobs for the survivors so they can set up small businesses.

“We always struggle with funding – we don’t lack ideas about what we could use it for. We could generate materials for fashion. We need to take this material and make it up to today’s standard,” she added.

Shafar is a leading designer in the UAE and founder of design studio KHALID SHAFAR. His work has been showcased in Gulf as well as Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, Los Angeles, London and Milan.

Shafar said he was inspired by Dr Piesik’s book which he said “demonstrates her extraordinary research into the Arish technique.

He pointed out that palm leaf weaving could be used to make crafts and embroidery. He showed the audience a photo of a coat stand inspired by a palm trunk as well as coffee tables with colourful woven palm leaf mats.

“I am a culturally inspired designer. I enjoy digging deep into my culture and looking at it. I really want to preserve this craft – we need to understand how it started and the tools they use.”

He then spoke about The Nomad installation. “It’s a sculpture of a palm leaf tree. The slates hint at shade. The message I am trying to convey is ‘look at the historical architecture of our region and how it is being used and the different influences and how it was assembled.’ This material is very sustainable but it is not being used in today’s architecture. The Nomad was the name which came later and it turned out to be a great choice because of the journey the sculpture will take,” he said.

The Nomad by Khalid Shafar

The Nomad by Khalid Shafar

The Nomad will travel to Design Week Dubai this autumn and then to the Abu Dhabi Festival in the spring.

“It’s moving and it’s a reflection of our tribes and how they used to live. I have taken the technique of supporting columns with a central pull in the middle, like the palm trunk, but used wood, not the original materials in the same way as palm leaves allow the wind in. I have created a closed space that is also open so air can circulate. We could save energy if we used this – we could save on air conditioning as it provides cooling air and ventilation. It’s not a sculpture by itself but it’s a social space. You can go and sit there and enjoy. It feels like sitting under the shade of a date palm tree,” he said adding he constructed in one full day.

“That was the whole idea – to we wanted to construct something fast and take it down fast. It can be dismantled in two hours the same as Nomads used to travel,” he said.

“There was a time when the focus was to grow and push the UAE economy to the extreme and that’s when major architects came and the Arabian theme was always part of the brief. But the Arabian theme was only ever about the aesthetics, people focused on making it look Arabian-inspired but not whether it functioned in that way,” he said.

“People had courtyards in Emirati homes but they don’t exist anymore.  Now modern houses have balconies and no one uses them as they are not private or because of cultural issues; and some are glazed with glass. Why have we lost those private courtyards in the middle? We are just looking at how to be modern and fit with today’s style and not about our culture connection, family connection and privacy. I think people are debating this issue much more now as they want to see how we can have a local identity again.”

To listen to the audio of the event click below:-

Did you know that for the first time Asia House is holding a Fortnight of Film in August? Kicking off the fortnight on Thursday 13 August will be Mahout – The Great Elephant Walk (88mins), winner of the Best Film Award at the 2014 London Independent Film Festival. Then on Tuesday 18 August we will screen The Silk Road of Pop (53 mins), a portrait of the explosive pop music scene among the Uyghur community in China’s Xinjiang Province. For more information and to book tickets click here.