The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1861] Windtowers of the Arabian Gulf: Eastern Technology for a Cultural and Sustainable Environment in the midst of Globalization

United States

The windtower, a traditional architectural structure, in the Gulf region at least since the 13th Century, developed as a result of the climate as well as the culture, designed to direct air into the rooms below, functioning to cool the room, making it climatically more comfortable in the extreme, hot climate. Today, the image of windtowers is used as an icon for identity of the people of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but unfortunately the windtowers have lost their functional significance. Instead, design has resorted to the use of high powered air-conditioning systems to cool both modern and traditional buildings in the UAE, and windtower forms are arbitrarily pasted on top of shopping malls and apartment complexes as a formulaic way to display a regional architecture aesthetic.

With the depleting oil resources in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the threat of global warming of the already harshly hot region, the lessons of ancestors who designed this ingenious technology should be rediscovered. As Alonzo C. Addison wrote in addressing this essay question, “[O]ften in the heritage of others are lessons for us all: great monuments and cities may reveal long forgotten techniques and practices that can efficiently address modern challenges.” Windtowers are an elegant example of exactly the kind of challenge Addison suggests.

1. Windtowers. A Social Tradition that Values Human Worth in its Construct

The windtower, or the baadjir, was typically built on top of a traditional, courtyard house. The windtower featured enlarged openings on the top periphery of the tower which was typically the width of the room to which they supplied air circulation. Extra large bays captured a large volume of strongly flowing air, driven with the great force of nature, down into building. The affect, was a culturally satisfying, functional family room, with a significant, room-cooling air flow achieved by harnessing the very “nature” of nature, the ideal energy source of sustainability.

These traditional houses had a multitude of sustainable methods to deal with the harsh desert climate, including open interior courtyards which provided natural light to the surrounding rooms; fountains in the center of the courtyard which provided physical comfort by cooling the wind through the courtyard. Other architectural features complementing the windtower included the mashrabiyas, which were intricately designed screened walls, located near the guest reception areas, separating public and private spaces, and allowed for natural ventilation between two spaces while maintaining an acceptable degree of privacy. The intricate correlation of these design elements come together in form and function, evolving to withstand the harsh and unrelenting heat, in one of the world’s most extreme climates, forging social tradition with human worth in its meaning.

2. What is the social significance and utility of a windtower?

2.1 The windtower as a cultural, sustainable and vital element of the home

Focus of Family and Gender-Driven Gatherings. A key feature in all residential architecture in the Middle East, privacy for family gatherings was possible with the windtower’s unique way to ventilate and circulate air without open windows exposing the interior rooms. The windtower rooms which were directly connected to the windtower were occupied and most commonly used after lunch, when northwest sea breezes blew the strongest. Fruit (mangoes, dates, bananas, and lemons) would be put in a bowl of water and placed below the windtower to make as cool as possible in time to eat when everyone woke from their afternoon naps. Families would gather in rooms with windtowers to allow the cool air to circulate in the room while they took their naps until the afternoon Asr prayer. The elders would sometimes pray directly under the windtower due to its cool and accessible space.

The senior male members received priority under the windtower itself where the air movement was greatest but this space was sometimes shared with the sick or young babies in need of cooling during the hot summer afternoons.

When the family had outside male guests, women would often take their meals into the windtower room. These various uses of the windtower room show the secure and intimate setting that windtowers were able to provide.

Security for Sleeping. A windtower room was usually a multi-purpose room during the day, a family gathering and napping space during the afternoon and a private bedroom for the head of the family at night. The windtower room provided cooling and thermal comfort without losing the secure comfort of a private room having very few openings to the outside. These rooms were a secure place for the entire family to feel comfortable enough to sleep.

Preference of the elders. The most respected members of the gathering would be given the seat directly under the windtower. In the 1980’s, even after electricity and air conditioning units were brought into the Bastakiyyah area, many elders preferred the gentler natural fluctuation of air passing through the windtowers.

2.2. The Windtower as a Culturally Complex Icon

Religious foundations. Islam the dominate religion of the area, suggests modest living and that correlates to low impact environments. Modesty and humility is a lifestyle requirement for all Muslims. Humankind is expected to work hard, while respecting the environment, conserving resources, avoiding wasteful behaviors and generally doing all things in moderation. [Serajeldin, p. 217]

Wind as a gift. Traditional wisdom of the Gulf Region is that the wind is a gift. The Islamic holy book, the Qur’an tells Muslims that the wind is a gift to accept: “for among His wonders is this: He sends forth the winds that bear glad tidings, so that He might give you a taste of His grace . . . and that you might have cause to be grateful.” [Qur’an 30:46]. Not only is the wind considered a gift from Allah but also a resource that humankind is instructed to manipulate to their benefit. “And so We made subservient to him the wind, so that it gently sped at his behest whethersoever he willed” [Qur’an 38:36].

3. The Value of Windtowers to Sustainability, Tradition and Culture and Why We Must Save the Traditional Windtower Design

Preserving architectural heritage. A force of modern technology, whose base is primarily Europe and America, is so overwhelming, so deceptively attractive to these countries and so responsive to their desire for fast construction of unprecedented scale and volume that it is almost impossible to resist the temptation to copy by and large their methods, forms and technology. [Fazlur R. Khan, p32]

The use of European and American designs cannot be expected to match the environmental conditions, culture and tradition unique to the UAE.

An iconic part of the local architecture is being lost because windtowers are no longer needed with air conditioning systems being the norm. Oil money has led to speedy urban development without investing time into building codes with an aim towards sustainable technology, a growing trend around the world. With the extreme temperatures of the middle east, air conditioning systems are running at there maximum potential emitting a large amount of carbon dioxide gas into the environment.

Function over form. Windtowers should not be merely a cut-and-paste structure.

The regeneration of windtowers could bring out an authentic representation of traditional architecture as opposed to the spiritless cut and paste windtower icon on modern building attempting to replicate traditional architecture. Recent studies by the Dubai Municipality Architectural Department have found that comfortable thermal environments can be achieved through the use of traditional windtowers and that comfort was more dependent on the wind speed produced by the windtowers than on the outside temperature, adding to their value as energy-savers.

Technology leading towards environmental sustainability is usually associated with Western technology; however by using a traditional architecture archetype to promote and preserve both traditional wisdom and heritage, resorting to Westernization can be avoided. The pursuit of a technologically advanced society can be achieved through re-emergent sustainable archetypes.

4. My Two-Point Plan to Make the Windtower Ubiquitous

My two-point plan begins first with educating the public, about the functional windtower, launching a new initiative of the Arch/Eco Tourism platform; and second, to incorporate the windtower element into contemporary design in the UAE, including a demonstration project of restoring the function of the windtower in the Dubai Heritage Area.

Promote Windtowers as Arch/Eco Tourism. In an attempt to promote the functionality of windtowers as an Arch/Eco Tourism icon of the desert could be achieved through speaking and informing this interest at international architectural and heritage conferences and publications

Design proposals using windtowers can be integrated into modern development. Our responsibility today is to bring modern technologies and knowledge in tune with traditional practices to develop solutions that provide us with economical, sustainable buildings that interact and are in harmony with natural climatic conditions. As an aspiring architect, seeking to find harmony between the built environment and the fragile natural environment of the Middle East, I envision the incorporation of windtowers into future development in the UAE. The demonstration project for this concept could be initiated simply by opening the current windtowers in the Dubai Heritage Area and educating the public on the windtower’s effective cooling abilities.

5. How Windtowers Can Become Unremarkable and Why that is Good.

The limestone houses, or barasti, are the traditional architecture of the Arabian Gulf region. Renovating the function of the currently closed windtowers in these traditional houses of the Bastakkiyah Heritage Area would demonstrate traditional wisdom, and would be a highlight of spectator cultural appreciation.

Windtowers are a location-specific feature to mitigate and adapt to the climate through the built environment. The windtower has already become an icon for the “image” of Dubai so the prospect of incorporating this symbolic form into a functioning and sustainable form would be a logical extension of this image. The proliferation of this design element would be the ultimate goal of this trend, until it once again, became commonplace in the built environment.

Arch/Eco Tourism. Tourism is already the second largest resource for the UAE, and a developing ecotourism industry is an ambition for the UAE. This tourism focus could be the launching platform for a new, sustainable concept of tourism, for which I have coined the term Arch/Eco Tourism. The concept of Arch/Eco Tourism in the UAE could be used to support the continuation of traditional design with environmental sustainability, converging into a celebration of the culturally significant and environmentally sustainable Arch/Eco Tourism in not only the UAE, but in the Middle East and North African Region.

There have been many modern hotel and recreation developments in Dubai which attempted to bring the traditional environment to visiting tourists but these modern buildings, with their modern materials and contemporary technology lack a much needed spirit in the replications of architectural tradition. Tourists who are already seeking opportunities in ecotourism, will find a fascinating outlet for this interest in the built environment by human ingenuity in concert with an extreme climate. The new “vacation” is about recreationally experiencing and appreciating the natural resources of the environment through non-consumptive constructs, such as that demonstrated by the sustainable windtower heritage.

Arch/Eco Tourism would support windtower development. The importance of having an authentic sense of place is becoming more apparent in the UAE. There are many preconceived notions about the exoticism of the Middle East and when tourists are greeted by inauthentic replicas of traditional buildings with an interior environment exactly like they experience in their own home, the cultural exchange is lost.

The Arabian Desert as an Arch/Eco vacation would be enticing in combination with the traditional architectural identity of the UAE. Arch/Eco Tourism positively affects everyone: it increases awareness of sustainable building method that is effective, maximizes economic benefits for local people, encourages cultural sensitivity, and minimizes negative impacts on the environment [Ryel and Grasse 1991]. The use of traditional architectural methods of the Arabian Desert creates a unique experience for those interested in the environment as well as those interested in the culture. While Dubai attracts people to the UAE through the “wow” factor with cutting edge building designs (indoor skiing, the world’s tallest building, the first underwater hotel, “the world” man made islands), its traditional architecture has been marginalized.

Thus far, the most significant attempts made towards attracting tourists to the authentic culture of the UAE have been through the creation of sterile environments and outdoor souks or markets, which are now enclosed, indoor areas, blasted with air conditioning. Unfortunately, they embody a “Disney-fied” space that is spiritless in its architecture.

Arch/Eco Tourism could be a first for the Arabian Desert regions and could embrace the exotic appeal and fascinating curiousness of a vacation to an Arabian desert. Arch/Eco Tourism is about showing visitors the real traditional location through a closer relationship with the environment., established by informing and marketing the unique atmosphere of a windtower house in the Arabian Gulf. In order to embrace the heritage and the destination location or sense of place, tourist must be connected to the environment and find that their vacation experience could not be replicated anywhere else in the world.

6. The Windtower: Success in Ubiquity

The windtower represents the natural association between environmental adaptation and culture. It has become an icon for the UAE as a symbol of urban settlement and growth. This icon can not become lifeless through the loss of its original function. Windtowers should be applied throughout the region. They should become ubiquitous.

The social, cultural and traditional significance of the windtower, provides a central organizing feature for the family, where privacy can be found and families can gather. Placement of rooms, furniture, and places of honored seating, are dictated by the windtower and its cooling function. The complexity of the social function has supporting religious beliefs which are woven into the social context, including providing sanctuary for gender-driven traditions.

Supporting windtowers through Arch/Eco Tourism education will not only bring a new aspect of tourism to Dubai but also save the architectural windtower icon for the UAE which is not only aesthetically-pleasing, but also environmentally and socially functional, giving continuity to cultural traditions.

Finally, the two-point plan to educate the public, about the functional windtower, launching a new initiative of the Arch/Eco Tourism platform; and second, to incorporate the windtower element into contemporary design in the UAE, culminating in a demonstration to restore the functionality of the windtowers in the Dubai Heritage Area is the vision for this sustainability concept. The educational component realized through Arch/Eco Tourism will segway into the incorporation of the windtower’s resultant growing identity into contemporary buildings. The opening of the windtowers and restoring their former function in the Dubai Heritage Area is the ideal demonstration project for this effort.

What begins as a re-enlightenment and re-emergence of an ingenious, sustainable architectural design, will be considered successful not in its pomp and glory as a jewel of Arch/Eco Tourism, but ironically when it becomes a common sight in its sheer ubiquity against the UAE landscape, once again, and sustainability emerges.

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