Local architecture is music for the eyes

By Mika Michael » For architects, Bahrain offers a truly unique experience. Here you can see the works of the most famous architects in the world, projects where only the sky has been the limit - not the thickness of the client's wallet.

I remember the first time I arrived in the Gulf. "This must be the architect's paradise," I thought. Buildings you couldn't imagine even in your wildest dreams - and then some straight from the wildest nightmares, but which country is without those!

What makes Bahrain unique for me is also its people, who unlike most other parts of the Gulf are extremely warm, welcoming you into their homes and allowing you to take in aspects of life in the Middle East you would not otherwise have experienced.

It is as easy to approach a shaikh (member of the Ruling Family) as it is to strike up a conversation with a taxi driver, and it is this kind of friendliness that makes visiting Bahrain especially appealing.

Being able to visit Bahraini homes also helped me observe close up the finer architectural points of a country which boasts a rich cultural heritage, a strong unique character and a history dating back almost to the very beginning of time.

So let's have a look at the local architecture.

Building through the ages

While sitting inside an air-conditioned limousine, driving along the wide boulevards running between the turquoise Arabian Gulf and the modern skyscrapers of the Diplomatic Area in Manama city it is very difficult to imagine how different the townscapes of the main cities in the Gulf were just a couple of decades ago - before the oil price rise of the Seventies.

At that time many of the now powerful financial centres were just small villages with none of the luxuries of everyday life that were known to the West.

Life went on as it always had, in perfect balance with the nature.

There were no glittering skyscrapers and no air-conditioning which is now an absolute necessity in the Gulf, especially during those steamy summer months July to August when the temperatures soar above 40 C.

(A word of caution here; for people like me who are more used to the cool climes of northern Europe, visiting the Gulf in August is not the most enjoyable experience. After one experience of the lethal combination of extreme heat and humidity, I make sure I visit the Gulf only in winter, which is still like a warm summer to me!)

Considering the very difficult climate it is hard to believe how anyone could have survived here before the advent of electricity and air-conditioning. But still there have been people living in Bahrain for over 5,000 years. How did they do it?

In cold countries like Finland, where I come from, it was possible to manage without electricity - to get warm people just wore more clothes and added more wood to the fireplace.

But how can you get you and your house cooler than the surrounding air - without any modern technology and air-conditioning?

Back to the basics

Due to Bahrain's long history, local architecture has had many influences, especially from India (the fantastic woodwork!) and Portugal, which makes it somewhat different from other Gulf countries.

A typical Arabic home in ancient times was built with the need for privacy in mind - an aspect of building that has carried over into modern homes as well. Everyday life had to be concealed from the prying eyes of the neighbours and passers-by.

However the hot weather in turn meant that much of the work had to be done outside - this led to the erecting of high walls surrounding the house, and eventually the courtyard inside the house.

Equally interesting is how the houses were built. Before the Industrial Age people usually used materials that were readily available.

In Bahrain where the sea is always close, it was only natural to use coral blocks that were then set in gypsum mortar.

A stable block from these primitive bricks had to be at least three blocks - or approximately 60 cms - wide to ensure good insulation. These thick walls helped keep the heat outside the door.

Palm trees provided the material for the beams and the roofs. And just like in any other hot country all the buildings were white to reflect the warm sunshine.

The windows were kept small, not only because of the need for privacy, but also to keep as much as possible of the heat outside.

Roofs were flat so that during the summer nights it was possible to go and sleep on the roof in the cool air under the sky (the Gulf enjoys very little rainfall when compared to most other parts of the world, so there is not much need for angled roofs as in areas where heavy rains are common).

An integral part of Islamic architecture is the use of geometric and symmetrical forms and the contrast between light and shadows. Since there is plenty of sunshine in this area, it is also important to provide as much shade as possible by means of architecture.

The courtyard in the middle

The house was built along the wall, so that a courtyard was left in the middle. This was not only because Islamic culture emphasises the privacy of the family, but also to keep the cool night air in the shadow of the building as long as possible.

There were trees growing in the courtyard under which the children played.

The women of the family spent their days sitting around the yard in the shadow of the trees, chatting and preparing the food while watching the children.

There was usually no garden around the house, quite the opposite to the houses built today.

Cooling the house

With houses built as they were, much of the heat of the sun was left outside, but in the hottest months, it would still have been terribly warm inside.

The answer to this problem was the badqeer, or wind tower.

These are tower structures rising several metres above the house. They have large openings on all four sides for channeling down even the slightest breeze there is.

If you stand under a wind tower on a hot summer day, you will notice a clear drop in the temperature as the air flows down.

The living room, lea'good, was situated just below the wind tower to give some relief from the heat and humidity. The openings of the wind tower had doors which would be closed during the winter months.

Even today, despite the air-conditioning, one can find new buildings with wind towers.

While the modern wind towers are not primarily built for cooling the air in the room, they still serve as important architectural elements reminding of the not so distant past.

The entrance and the windows

The main entrance was often large, even monumental. The door was decorated with detailed carvings. If there were any windows facing the outside of the building, they were usually on the second floor and screened.

Any ground level windows were smaller and grilled; they were also placed near the ceiling-level to secure the privacy of the family.

Most openings were small and towards the inner courtyard. The windows had shutters to keep both the direct sunshine as well as the cooler winter air out.

Detailed ornamentation

Given the fact that there aren't many trees growing in the area, the quality and detail of the woodwork is amazing. This can be seen especially in the old doors and windows and window shutters, where beautiful geometric patterns have been used.

(A small sidepath to the naval architecture here: much of the old woodcrafting skills are still in use when they build the dhows, the wooden boats used in the same form for centuries to ship merchandise overseas - and still going strong).

The same applies also to the walls of the buildings, which were richly decorated with these delicate patterns.

The use of old Islamic motifs has been on the rise recently, as can be seen from the walls of some new, beautiful mosques and also in some new shopping complexes.

Majlis and harim

The house was functionally divided in two parts: usually near the entrance there was the majlis, the reception room for male visitors, which was also the best room in the house, a showroom of the family's wealth to the neighbours.

You will still find the majlis in most Arabic homes. Many have changed the furniture there to western style sofas, but in many homes there are the traditional pillows along the sidewalls of the room - sitting on them for hours at the same time trying not to point your sole at anybody can be rather demanding to your feet - at least for those of us who are more used to normal chairs like I am.

So much so that after a long dinner you might need a helping hand to get back to your numb feet (yes, you eat dinner sitting on the floor with the food being served at floor level, preferably with your right hand - no need for knives and forks here!).

The majlis was strictly separate from the rest of the house, the harim, which was the domain of the women. It was forbidden for all men except those of the family to enter this part of the house, which is the case even nowadays.

Primary rooms were placed on the north side of the house so that they weren't directly in contact with the sunshine.

In old two-storey houses you will see one part of the house projecting out from the rest, usually on the back, with a hole in the floor. You guessed it, this is the washroom.

Like in medieval towns in Europe, for hygienic reasons all the sewage was led out from the building. Before the sewerage system it all stayed there of course - it must have been an unforgettable experience to walk on the side alleys during the hot summer days....

Everyone was an architect

Houses weren't planned much beforehand; instead they were expanded when necessary (again, a striking difference with modern houses, which lack the more organic nature of their randomly built predecessors).

Because of the use of local materials everyone knew what to do and how to do it; nowadays you need the skills of highly educated professionals who use hi-tech building materials.

Importance of the family

The family is very important to the Arab people. Usually the whole family - parents, children, their spouses, their children, etc - lived in the same house sharing all the rooms, with the bedrooms as their only private, personal spaces. And if not in the same house, the children would still live in the house next door.

A typical Arabic household was really a small, self-sufficient community, well suited to manage in the harsh environment.

The streets

A typical feature of the old towns was the narrow winding alleys, in comparison to the modern, six-lane highways running through the cities in the Gulf.

Those towns were made for pedestrians with no parking problems and traffic jams - just drive through the old souk in Muharraq and try to find a parking place and you'll get the idea.

However, the main reason for the buildings to be built so close to each other was that then they provided much more shadow to the streets in between, thus easing the oppressive heat.

So you can see, the cities of yesterday were built in total harmony with the surrounding environment and the requirements of Islamic culture.

Survival of the fittest

Thanks to the demands of modern times there are regrettably few of those old, beautiful houses left, and even the ones surviving are often neglected and thus falling apart.

There is always a fear that a new high-rise building or shopping mall will take the place of the old-timers. Money talks, just as it does anywhere else in the world.

Fortunately, however, there is an increasing interest in preserving the past, the cultural heritage in which the old buildings have a major role.

High-rising Manama

In Bahrain, there is not much left of the old Manama. If you take a boat trip, you'll notice the very Manhattan-like silhouette of the Diplomatic Area in Manama, giving a very modern western image for the town.

Much of this new area is, however, built on reclaimed land. When the Bab Al Bahrain ("gate of Bahrain") was built in 1945, it was almost on the waterfront in the harbour; now you can hardly see the water from it!

If you walk along the narrow streets of the souk, you might occasionally run into a old building in ruins, depicting the sad story of total negligence by the owners.

Probably the best way to learn about how things were in the past is the Heritage Centre near Bab Al Bahrain. There you can see how the people used to live, what their homes looked like etc, in a more or less museum-like environment.

If you are more interested in Bahraini culture, pearl diving, the burial mounds and the like, you should visit the National Museum - the building of which is a fine example of mixing modern architecture with traditional Arabic and Islamic architectural elements.

Speaking of Islam, visitors should not miss the fabulous Beit Al Quran (literally "the home of the Holy Quran"). Here you can see a wide selection of the Holy Qurans, old historical copies in different languages and sizes, some as small as a matchbox!

At the same time the visitor can only admire how well the architect has been able to capture the spirit of the holy book into this building.

Old houses of Muharraq

If you want to see more surviving old buildings, you must go to Muharraq, which is the old capital of Bahrain. Wandering through the narrow alleys gives you a good idea of how it must have been to live in the cities here before.

A good place to start your exploration is the fabulous Shaikh Isa bin Ali's House (tel ), the home of the great grandfather of the present Amir, HH Shaikh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifa. It is one of the best surviving examples of traditional Bahraini architecture.

After recent restoration work, it offers a truly unique opportunity to study the past. Here you can also witness yourself how effective a wind tower really is in cooling the intolerably hot air, especially during the summer!

Near Shaikh Isa's house is the Beit Al Siyadi, or Siyadi House (tel ) which used to belong to a famous pearl merchant in the 19th century. With all the detailed ornamentation on the facade and in the finely carved doors, it is an excellent example of the best architecture from that period.