Noura Al Sayeh has worked as an architect in Amsterdam, New York, Jerusalem, Bahrain and Paris. She was also co-curator of Reclaim, Bahrain’s first participation at the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010, which was awarded the Golden Lion for best national pavilion. An architect par excellence, who recently won the Aga Khan Award 2019, Noura shares her thoughts with #SurfacesReporter on the Winning Project: Revitalisation of Muharraq, Bahrain.
What made you think of revitalising Muharraq?
The idea behind the revitalisation of Muharraq started with the vision of Sh Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa to rebuild her grandfather’s majlis that had been demolished. The idea behind the rebuilding of the majlis was two-fold, on the one hand to revive the role of the majlis as a cultural centre, and on the other to revive the old historic neighborhoods of Muharraq that had been somewhat neglected and were at the periphery of cultural life.
The majlis was rebuilt in 2006 and served as a cultural centre that hosts a weekly programe of lectures, musical concerts and theatre plays, reviving the cultural role that her grandfather’s majlis had played in the region. From that first project, the Shaikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture & Research (SEC) was born which today has renovated more than 15 traditional houses in Muharraq along with the rehabilitation and the upgrade of the surrounding neighborhood.
How and why did the project evolve into a comprehensive programme entitled Pearling Path? At what stage did this happen?
From the initiative of the SEC, the idea evolved in early 2008 to include all of the rehabilitation of the old city of Muharraq through the project of the Pearling Path. The idea was to expand the rehabilitation efforts that were carried out by the SEC at the governmental level to include a more comprehensive vision for the whole of the city of Muharraq spearheaded by Shaikh Mai through her role as the President of the Bahrain Authority for Culture & Antiquities. The preparation of the nomination folder of the Pearling Path was headed by Dr. Britta Rudolff.
How is the project progressing? How’s the response from the inhabitants?
The project is approximately 40% completed and the response from the inhabitants is more and more encouraging and positive. In the case of the Pearling Path, in the early years of the project a lot of energy and efforts were made in making sure that the proper urban and building regulations are in place to make sure that the city on the whole is safeguarded and protected from the threat of rampant urban development and real estate speculation which would surely increase once the Pearling Path project was completed. This resulted in the fact that there was not so much progress on the ground in the early years, and the inhabitants were getting impatient and losing faith in the project which necessitated an increased community outreach and communication to better explain the complexity and scale of the project. Once the works started on the project, namely on the public components, the attitude of the inhabitants evolved in full support of the project.
What are the major components of the project? What all will the new site include?
In 2015, the project received full funding through a loan from the Islamic Development Bank and financing from the Government of Bahrain at which stage, the project evolved from the World heritage components to include a wider urban vision for the city that addresses many of the infrastructural shortcomings namely those related to mobility and parking and the inclusion of community public spaces. The project today includes in addition to the rehabilitation of the 17 World Heritage properties, two visitor centers, 4 multistorey parkings, 16 public squares, a pedestrian bridge that reconnects the city to the sea front, and the rehabilitation of more than 400 facades along the path.
The project is approximately 40% completed and the response from the inhabitants is more and more encouraging and positive.
Which materials are being mainly used in the project?
The materials that are being used for the conservation and rehabilitation are mostly the same that were used for the construction of these traditional structures: coral stone, danchal wood, lime based plaster and teak wood. For the new constructions, contemporary materials are used in tune with the architecture of each project, reinforced concrete, steel and aluminium which is locally produced in Bahrain.
How are you making sure that the spirit of the old city is maintained?
On the one hand, this is maintained by making sure that the conservation works that are being carried out are done in accordance with the UNESCO standards and guidelines for conservation, that all interventions on old buildings are reversible and do not compete either in scale of expression with the original structures. We are also making sure that the programing, which is always a crucial component of a rehabilitation project gives a new life to the traditional buildings ensuring that life returns to the city. The different programs include a small guest house, exhibitions spaces, a library, a pearl museum, an art gallery, cafes, and shops within the traditional suq.
In the project of the rehabilitation of the suq, we also made sure to temporarily relocate all the original tenants during the works to make sure they would return to their stores once the works were completed, it necessitated a lot of coordination and additional funding but is crucial to make sure that the original spirit of the city isn’t lost while it is being maintained and upgraded. Furthermore, a special attention has been made to the public realm whether it is through the facade upgrades, the inclusion of public squares, the re-paving of pedestrian streets, to ensure that beyond the monuments it is the whole city that is once again brought to life, encouraging a thriving community based street life.