Abu Dhabi and Dubai are famous for ground-breaking architecture, but this flair isn't confined to the large cities. Anna Zacharias talks with local homeowners in Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain who have found their own style. Photos by Jaime Puebla
Rashed Saeed imagined his dream home would be the shape of an aeroplane.
"But that was too expensive," says Saeed. "So I said I will make a house that is all glass. But that was also too expensive. So I did this."
His "house of the future" is a flashback to art deco of the 1920 and 30s: it's a pink jumble of angles, red trim and great gold tinted windows, lit at night by red lights.
Saeed's Ras Al Khaimah home is an example of a style of Emirati architecture that can be seen throughout the Emirates, typified with such design points as Corinthian pillars, spiral staircases, marble floors, floor to ceiling mirrors, castle-like turrets and towers and elaborate ironwork gates.
These palatial mansions are designed by Emiratis whose families often lived in stone or palm houses 40 years ago. In many cases, the families of these neighbourhoods were given a plot of land on city outskirts, government grants and the chance to build the house of their dreams. Other families have invested their personal fortunes.
Despite a culture that cherishes the communal, some Emiratis strive to outdo each other in home design. Their family abodes rival the icons of Dubai and Abu Dhabi - if not in award-winning design, then at least in flair and ambition.
"I wanted something new," says Saeed, 41. "[This is] the first time I built my house. It must be expensive and at the same time it must be different."
Before moving into this five-bedroom, seven-bathroom, six-hall, Dh1.3 million house in 2008, he lived with his nine children in a small flat in the agricultural area of Digdaga.
"It means something to protect me and all of my family for a long time," says Saeed. "And it will be for my children in the future."
Such designs appear to be something of a cultural and geographical disconnect. Traditional materials like palm fronds, clay, coral and mountain stone are discarded in favour of Levantine stone facades or bright paint. But most families consider their homes "inspired by the landscape" and a reflection of the traditional.
Badriya Mohammed, 32, of Ras Al Khaimah has a staircase lit by decorative green lasers but considers her Dh1.7m house "a piece of the mountain" where she was raised. Its painted exterior is an imitation, a stone patchwork of ochres and browns. Her atrium is painted with a desert mural and gas lanterns are suspended from wooden beams in the hall.
"This is for my husband," she explains. "He likes heritage very, very much. My husband and I sat and did this together, not with engineers or anything."
As much as the homes are a reflection of the family, they also reflect Emirati identity.
Abdulla Al Ali, 37, lives in a pink house with what resembles an attached water tower. In fact, it is inspired by a traditional watch tower, like those on the nearby motorway.
"A home is very nice, it is old, it reminds you of the past, of your mother, your father," says Al Ali. He likens the tower to a national symbol comparable with Dutch windmills or Egypt's pharaonic monuments.
Al Ali's father was among the first generation of Emiratis to live in modern homes that appeared with the advent of oil. He lived in coral and palm houses until the arrival of government social housing in the 1970s. When he built his own house in the 1980s, he became one of the first to exemplify such bold style claimed in the name of heritage.Truly opulent houses have exploded with the expansion of the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme that offers Emiratis land, grants and interest-free loans. The Government granted 667 grants and loans in the UAE between February and April in 2011. By contrast, 1,319 were granted in all of 2006.
The construction of these houses corresponds with a time where the preservation of heritage is framed as a national duty. But many of these houses are the products of travel and cross-cultural exchange, particularly within the Arab world.
"You will make all the world in your home," says Badriya Mandoos, 37, when asked what Emirati design means to her.
The men's majlis of her Dh2m home in RAK is taupe and mauve with layers of plush cushions and curtains. "Old Islamic design," says Mandoos. "Turkish inspired." The women's majlis is scarlet and yellow with beaded, tasseled curtains and embroidered cushions. "This is Maghrebi [Moroccan] design," she says.
The white chequered moulding on the ceiling is "Emirati decor" that she likens to the dark wooden beams from Africa used in old homes.
"You will make just one home in all your life, so why not make it something beautiful?" says Mandoos. "Because I am Emirati, I want something special. Some design is from Egypt, some is from Syria, but inside the home, it is Emirati."
She recently moved to the five-bedroom house from a two-bedroom house with her husband and children. "Maybe you are living in a small house but you are feeling happy in this house. The design or decor will not make you happy. The people will make the happiness."
Khaled Al Ali, 28, and his wife Budoor, are moving into a grand house in Umm Al Quwain that features tall columns on the exterior. Inside, some rooms have velvet upholstered walls and gold latticework, a reflection of what Khaled calls "Moroccan and Egyptian design".
It is "something modern with something old", he says.
But above all, says Khaled, "home is family".
Most homes have three spheres of public and private: they have foreboding gates, a male and female majlis reception room to meet guests and private bedrooms and dining areas for close family located upstairs. But all the homes we visited were designed by husband and wife together, and often with the children.
Many families stress that their home is entirely unique. Few believe in the idea of "Emirati architecture"; "Islamic" and "traditional" architecture styles were often a reworking of foreign interpretations of the Middle East.
Some architects feel that the country is too young to have a developed a style of its own just yet, a process that can take many generations. Dr Mohamed El Amrousi, a professor of architecture and design at Abu Dhabi University (ADU), notes that the UAE has developed its own "non-institutionalised" style by reinventing another style.
Khaled Al Ali's house, like many new homes, exemplifies the features popularized by the 16th-century Venetian architect, Andrea Palladio, whose style was in itself an imitation of Greco-Roman forms.
"Palladio did this when the mercantile community started showing its wealth, says Dr Amrousi. "The UAE has also become wealthy in the past 50 years and it's a revival of the Palladian style.
"There are no longer boundaries of stylistic tradition. The location of the UAE has always been a crossroads of East and West which makes it easier for them to adopt traditions from India all the way to North Africa," he says.
Dr Ahmad Okeil, the ADU department chair, is reminded of 19th-century eclecticism that favoured form over function. He believes the UAE has yet to find its own contemporary style.
"When a person gets an image of what a house should look like and not what a house can look like, then you get examples like these here," says Dr Ahmad. "Any of these could be built today or any of these could be built 20 years ago.
"What I tell my students is that you need to look at the past only to learn how people think but not to copy."
Abdulla Al Ali might live in a house the colour of candy floss, but his concept of the home is universal.
"Home is everything. Home is the place where you feel peace. Home, it is sweet home," says Al Ali. "It's to have a place for flowers, a garden, a place for children to play."from the national.