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Hopkins Architects’ wildlife sanctuary in Kalba offers a different model of city-building in the Gulf, but asks if an architectural showpiece was ever necessary
The journey begins as one sets out eastwards, driving out of the shadow of Dubai’s high-rises, past the residential neighbourhoods on the city fringes, into open desert. Soon enough the scrub-studded yellow sands on the western coast of the Emirates disappear, marking the entrance into the centre of the country. The yellow sands grow into orange dunes and the Hajar Mountains appear in the distance. The brown-black rock signals the end of the central United Arab Emirates and the beginning of the eastern landscape of the country, and beyond the mountains is the Gulf of Oman. Each of the seven emirates vies for its own narrative and ‘branding strategy’, effectively deciding its character in relation to (or against) Dubai’s fame as a global city. Dubai is known for its shopping and nightlife, and Abu Dhabi for its administrative role and large institutions like NYU and the Louvre. The third largest state, Sharjah, has defined itself in other terms. In recent years the emirate has become a regional powerhouse in the art world with the Sharjah Biennial and Sharjah Art Foundation; however, they have also taken advantage of being the only emirate that sits on two gulfs: the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. As a result, Sharjah has been positioning itself as not only a regional art hub, but a wildlife and adventure tourism destination, with recent projects like the Khor Kalba Sanctuary, Kalba Bird of Prey Centre, and Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre being models for sustainable development built on ecotourism. These projects are interesting not only for their architectural and landscape approaches, but as indicators of a search for developmental models other than those of Dubai.
After a winding drive through tunnels, along hills and down wadis (valleys), a vista reveals Fujairah and next to it Kalba: a white town nestled between dark limestone hills and the coastline. It is along this coastline that the Kalba lagoon snakes inwards, becoming a mangrove forest and site of the Khor Kalba Sanctuary by Hopkins Architects, which opened in 2021. The lagoon hosts a mix of smaller ecosystems; mangrove forests, sabkhas (salt marshes), mudflats and coastal dunes all meet, along with the run-off from the Hajar Mountains after rainy seasons. The sanctuary occupies a prime position on an inlet facing west towards Kalba and the mountains, overlooking the mangrove forest. The building is one of two complexes by Hopkins Architects commissioned by Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) and opened last year, the other being its twin the Buhais Geology Park. Upon arrival, a visitor parks their car at the ticket office, and then crosses a bridge into the sanctuary grounds. The building serves as the focal point for a visit to the Khor (a dry watercourse), highlighting the recovery of the lagoon as a protected area.
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The visitor centre consists of seven interconnected precast concrete pods joined by an interstitial central skylit foyer. The ribbed pods are composed of scalloped precast concrete panels made with locally sourced aggregate clad around a precast concrete shell. These concrete panels and steel members meet at a disc at the top of the structure, giving the pods a dumpling-like form – which the team at Hopkins say was inspired by the sea urchin skeletons found both in the waters of Kalba and the strata of the Hajar Mountains. The architecture is simple: the modularity and use of pods echoes a previous era of high-tech, with nods to Hopkins’ work in the 1980s, and their roots at Foster + Partners. The use of the steel ribs and a cast in situ concrete disc foundation lifts the pods above the ground, at first glance making them seem inflatable, touching the ground lightly. This raising off the ground, according to the architects, is to minimise the impact of the buildings and protect them from high tide, although the site seems to be a few metres above the waterline and relatively safe from that risk. The smaller pods are used for offices, facilities, classrooms, the café and gift shop. The larger ones house the terrestrial exhibition and marine exhibition, two rooms with aquariums and terrariums showing the different fish and invertebrates that inhabit the Khor Kalba ecosystem. The space also hosts a wildlife care facility, turtle pool and outdoor classroom.
The interior of the building continues the concrete and steel palette, while introducing timber lathes and wood as softer finishes. The visitor centre, with its various tanks, diagrams, terrariums and dioramas, gives an overview of the landscape of the Khor Kalba and the eastern emirates, and shows visitors the variety of plants, animals, insects and crustaceans that inhabit this ecosystem. The star of the show is, however, the site itself. As one leaves the centre, a series of points along a 2km trail reveal the landscape. Aviaries that house coastal and other birds, and scattered birdwatching locations, act as nodes along a larger route. The highlight of the route is the mangrove trail, which begins after crossing the lagoon to the forest, and walking a boardwalk under the shade of three-century-old mangroves.
‘The aim seems to be to achieve zero carbon emissions without cutting back oil production, opting instead to offset the emissions by restoring landscapes’
The Hopkins project and the Khor Kalba experience as a whole is part museum, part zoo, part public park and part wildlife care facility. It is clear there is a tension, on the part of the commissioning entity, between the conviction that the site is worthy of a visit and restoration, and the concern that without an architectural showpiece it would not be considered sufficiently interesting to attract visitors. The design of the pods veers a little too far into seventies high-tech and begins the experience with a sense of technocratic emphasis which the site ultimately does not require. The high-tech as an aesthetic is even more problematic in the Gulf, where the abundance of energy-intensive technocratic solutions powered by fossil fuels (water desalination, air conditioning and motor vehicles) have been the dominant trend in the past century and directly opposed to more nuanced or low-tech strategies. While there are some sustainable measures in the project, like the use of locally sourced aggregate, other examples in the UAE, like the salt-based concrete research by Waiwai at the Venice Biennale or Faysal Tabbarah’s experiments in local stone and recycled rubber, provide better suggestions of sustainable alternatives. Even within the larger Kalba sanctuary site, the birdwatching huts made of wood seem a more low-tech and humble use of materials, appropriate to the scale of the site and the engagement with the lagoon rather than the concrete pods.
The act of walking and seeing the Khor Kalba landscape is sufficient to communicate both urgency and the unique qualities of the site – without stressing technological solutions or the idea of a scientific field station to promote the site’s significance. The reluctance to move away from concrete construction asks how architecture in these projects should be used not only as an opportunity to rethink the landscapes of the Gulf but their building industries as well. While initially elaborate and out of place as a singular building, the pod design does make more sense when seen as a larger strategy deployed across sites. The same pod design is reproduced in the desert of Sharjah for the Buhais Geology Park, although there it is on the other side of the Hajar range rather than along the coast, and with brown concrete panels rather than the grey-white of the Khor Kalba Sanctuary. While the complex at Khor Kalba won’t be adding modules, other pods may appear over time on different sites as they receive EPAA attention, making the modular strategy valid. As a scalable strategy the modularity is less of a singular moment and more of a way of demarcating a larger action towards Sharjah’s ecosystems and their preservation, and the building becomes yet another modular moment in this larger vision.
As the sun sets to the west of Kalba, with its final hour in the sky largely occluded by the mountains that surround the two sides of Sharjah, we make our way back towards the other Gulf. It is dark as we emerge from the Hajar Mountain tunnels and drive towards the bright lights of Dubai. The mountains fade into the darkness behind us, and after an hour of desert around us we re-enter the urbanity of Dubai. The Gulf’s relationship to nature is changing, with the goal of reaching zero carbon emissions by 2060 recently being announced by several countries. The aim seems to be to achieve this, however, without cutting back oil production, opting instead to offset the emissions by planting trees or restoring landscapes.
The Khor Kalba Sanctuary serves as an interesting case study in how Gulf cities are looking to remediate the landscapes affected by extraction and speculative development. The Hopkins building highlights the role architecture plays in reintegrating narrative into the overlooked landscapes of the 21st century Arabian Peninsula. The visitor centre as a singular experience may be unnecessary, but as a module among many in a journey through these landscapes, it suggests the possibility of a larger project to reactivate these landscapes across the Emirates. These may not be the economic powerhouses that compete with the oil industry, or the real-estate market that fuels the Gulf countries, but they are moments of respite. Places like the Khor Kalba Sanctuary and the larger Kalba landscape offer alternative economic models. They are reminders of the qualities of life that existed in the region prior to the triumph of the Dubai model, and can exist through active intervention. However, the emphasis on an architectural landmark with an identifiable form, when the site does not need it, and the lack of long-term architectural and material innovation in the process of commissioning these buildings, means these efforts are still tethered to the very same Dubai model from which they are attempting to move away.
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