November 10, 2020
Raising Awareness of Cultural Heritage Through Experiential Learning
Walking along Ras Al Khaimah City's Old Corniche may not sound as appealing as it would in similar cities along the Arabian Gulf due to the deterioration of the traditional buildings that dot the coastline. These buildings, however, hold immense cultural and historical value. Consequently, their deterioration raises concerns about the level of awareness of their importance and interest in their preservation among the city's inhabitants.
Old buildings in Ras Al Khaimah, that is those constructed more than 60 years ago, typically from traditional materials – coral stone and sea sand mixed with seashells – are often considered by their owners as a burden. These buildings have become undesirable, firstly because the economic value of the buildings has diminished while their land value has increased exponentially, and secondly, the cultural significance of the buildings is not realized or appreciated by their owners or by the inhabitants of the city. Although Emiratis still enjoy traditional products, visit the old souks, and eat in traditional restaurants, their view of historical buildings is somehow different. The only thing that is keeping these buildings from disappearing is a royal decree to prevent demolishing them. This, at least, reflects a commitment to preserving, if not restoring, the cultural heritage of Ras Al Khaimah at the institutional level.
However, the dichotomy between cultural understanding and legal requirements has led to an unresolved situation that is damaging the preservation of these historically significant buildings. Owners have been left with the option to either abandon the houses and leave them to decay and collapse or rent them at cheap rates to foreign workers or as material storage for contracting companies. It is crucial, however, to preserve these important artifacts of cultural heritage before they disappear. Therefore, documentation is an essential tool to keep a record of the historic buildings and make them available for future reference. Typically, this documentation records both the tangible features and components of the buildings and the intangible aspects that accompanied the evolution of the houses as a reflection of the integrated social, cultural, and economic heritage in the region.
Educating young generations about the value of Ras Al Khaimah's heritage and the influence it had on their current lives is just as important as preserving it. One strategy that can contribute to increasing their knowledge of their past is incorporating historical building documentation into the teaching curriculums of some educational programs, such as architecture. By creating teaching modules with specific learning outcomes that concentrate on cultural heritage and documenting old buildings, students will be encouraged to have a direct encounter with their heritage and, accordingly, learn about its importance in the context of understanding modern society and culture.
With this goal in mind, two courses from the architectural curriculum at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah, Urban Design and Conservation of Historic Architecture, have been tailored to study the urban context of Ras Al Khaimah Old Town and consider conservation strategies. A group of six historical houses was identified according to pre-established criteria before the students began their fieldwork. The selection criteria included the architectural value of the house and its significance and the safety and security of the building – so that the students could go inside and conduct their work. Because some of the houses have been used for dumping garbage, we asked for the help of the Waste Management Department to clean the houses before the documentation process began.
The process spanned six months, during which the students took pictures of all the houses' components, both external and internal. They also measured and recorded the ornamentation on the buildings' walls and ceilings. To verify the accuracy of their measurements, a professional surveyor was employed to help the students collect the houses' exact dimensions.
The data and documentation were then brought to the studios, where the measurements and sketches were converted into technical drawings using specialized software such as AutoCAD and Revit. Students were able to produce precise two-dimensional and three-dimensional drawings. Additionally, the students produced colored renderings which were exhibited to the public. The drawings will be helpful if further studies need to be conducted on the typologies of houses and if any conservation or renovation works are conducted to utilize them for cultural or social development in the area.
The project had a profound impact on students' relationship with and understanding of Ras Al Khaimah's cultural heritage. Lama Al Qady expressed her newfound enchantment with the historic building: "The hidden gems amongst the rubbles of the past years are visible in the traditional patterns in wall motifs, cornices, and niches." She continued, "forgotten majlises and courtyards are the key to studying the culture and lifestyle of the past generations." Similarly, Mohab Hamada said that "working on documenting old houses opened my sight to a different direction in architecture and started to learn more about the traditional and cultural elements of the old houses and keep me in touch with how the people used to practice their daily life."
This experiential approach to teaching cultural heritage has the potential to instill a respect and understanding of Ras Al Khaimah and the broader UAE's cultural heritage. It could be enhanced by extending this experiment to other educational institutions in the UAE. Initiating joint projects among the different schools of architecture will help to exchange experiences and widen the base for a national project recording and documenting the cultural heritage of the UAE.
To learn more policies and recommendations associated with the documentation of Ras Al Khaimah's historic building, including student engagement through AURAK's architecture program, refer to Al Qasimi Foundation's policy paper "Raising Awareness of Cultural Heritage: Experiential Learning, Architecture Education, and Documentation of Historical Architecture in Ras Al Khaimah."
Tawfiq Abuhantash is an Associate Professor of Architecture in the School of Engineering and Advisor to the President of Campus Development at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah.