The United Arab Emirates, or UAE, is a melting pot of cultures. One of the most intriguing aspects of the UAE is its vernacular architecture, which reflects the diverse population that calls the country home. From the wind towers of Dubai to the coastal towns of the Northern Emirates, Vernacular architecture is abundant in the country. This article explores the different types of vernacular architecture in UAE and how they reflect the country and its culture. 

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The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in the UAE._©Daniel Olah Unsplash

What is Vernacular Architecture?

The term “Vernacular architecture” refers to a style of architecture that is unique to a particular area or culture. The word ‘Vernacular’ originates from the Latin root “vernaculus” meaning “native” or “domestic.” 

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Vernacular landscape of Al Seef Dubai._©Jumeirah Group

Vernacular architecture can also be defined as vernacular buildings and environments characteristic of a particular culture or region. Vernacular architecture is typically function-driven rather than aesthetically pleasing and utilizes local materials and traditional building techniques. As such, vernacular architecture is often seen as being more authentic and less expensive than high-style architecture. 

Vernacular Architecture in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates has a rich tradition of vernacular architecture dating back to the pre-Islamic period. It is distinguishable by traditional material use and adherence to conventional building techniques.

Sandstone, palm fronds, and coral were the primary materials used for construction in the UAE. These materials were readily available and could be made into any desired shape. 

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Use of Arches and wall niches in vernacular architecture._©Saj Shafique Unsplash

Islamic influences, like arches, vaults, and domes were prominent in vernacular architecture in the UAE. These features were introduced during the Islamic period and became popular due to their aesthetic value in addition to their ability to cool buildings in the hot desert climate. Often inspired by Islamic design principles, which emphasize function over form, vernacular buildings in the UAE tend to be simple in design and utilitarian in nature. However, they are also often adorned with intricate details and patterns that reflect the area’s rich cultural heritage.

While vernacular architecture in the UAE has been overshadowed by modern construction in recent years, there is a growing movement to preserve and revitalize traditional building practices. This effort not only preserves the nation’s unique architectural heritage but also supports sustainable building practices that are more attuned to the local climate and environment. Some examples of vernacular structures in the UAE are Qasr Al Hosn, Al Jahili Fort, Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, Hatta Heritage Village, and Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

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Aerial view of Qasr Al Hosn._©ZRSBerlin
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Arched Façade of Qasr Al Hosn is an excellent preservation of vernacular architecture._©ZRSBerlin

Vernacular Architecture Elements in the UAE

In the UAE, elements of vernacular architecture are observed in both traditional and contemporary buildings. Traditional Emirati architecture can be recognized by the characteristic use of wind towers, or “Barjeels”, which were cooled houses before the advent of air conditioning. Built with plaster and wood, Barjeels often have decorative carvings on them. Another vernacular element that can be seen in traditional Emirati architecture is the “Mashrabiya”, a type of latticework that covers windows and helps keep homes cool.

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Mashrabiyas of traditional Vernacular architecture._©Center for Art and Wood
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Barjeels or Wind Towers were used for cooling._©Alamy

Wind towers were used in the past to cool homes and are still a common sight in many Emirati villages. “Barastis” are small huts made of palm fronds that provide shelter from the sun and sand on the beaches. Camel pens house camels and are often found near date palm plantations.

Examples of Vernacular Structures in the UAE

There are many examples of vernacular architecture in the United Arab Emirates. These include wind towers, which were used to cool buildings before the advent of air conditioning; “Barastis”, which are traditional thatched roofs made from palm fronds; and majlis, which are seating areas where men would gather to socialize.

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Barastis made using natural materials._©Gordontour

Other examples of vernacular architecture in the UAE include:

Dhow houses: These are houses built on stilts and traditionally used by fishermen.

Birkhat al barakah: These are small huts built in oasis towns to provide shelter for travelers.

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Bedouin Tent Houses._©Bayut

Desert camps: These are temporary shelters made from materials such as cloth and wood, and are used by Bedouins when they move around the desert.

Modern vernacular architecture in the country

Vernacular features in modern architecture feature the use of conventional materials like coral and sandstone. Additionally, architects in the UAE are incorporating “Mashrabiyas” and wind towers in their designs. These vernacular elements create a sense of place and identity in their buildings.

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Al Bahr towers take inspiration from Mashrabiyas to create shading devices._©Aedas

Modern vernacular architecture elements in the UAE can be seen in its skyline. The Burj Khalifa, for example, is the world’s tallest building and a symbol of Dubai’s modernity. Other modern vernacular architectures in the UAE include skyscrapers, shopping malls, and luxury hotels. Vernacular architecture in the UAE is often adapted to suit the country’s modern lifestyle. For example, many traditional buildings now have air conditioning and other modern amenities. However, some vernacular architectural styles are still used in new construction, such as in Dubai’s Business Bay district, where many of the buildings are designed to resemble wind towers.

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Masdar City uses vernacular techniques to create modern forms._©Tyler Caine

The use of vernacular architecture in the UAE helps to create a sense of place and identity for the country. It also helps to promote sustainable design, as traditional building methods and materials are often more environmentally friendly than modern ones.

Future of Vernacular Architecture in the UAE

There is no one answer to the question of what the future of vernacular architecture holds in store for the UAE. The country is in constant flux, with new developments and construction projects emerging all the time. As a result, vernacular architecture is constantly evolving, as new elements surface and old ones disappear. However, it is possible to make some predictions about the direction of vernacular architecture in the UAE. One trend that is likely to continue is the use of traditional materials such as sandstone and limestone in construction. These materials have been used for centuries in the region and give buildings a distinctively local flavor.

Metal screen for solar shading inspired by Mashrabiyas._©Tyler Caine

Another trend that will continue is using modern technology to create more energy-efficient buildings. The hot climate in the UAE means that air conditioning is essential, but it can be very costly in terms of energy consumption. However, new developments in green building techniques make it possible to construct cool homes and office buildings that use less energy.

Finally, it is worth noting that vernacular architecture does not just refer to buildings – it also includes other elements like landscaping and street furniture. In recent years, there has been a growing trend for incorporating traditional Arabic patterns into public spaces such as parks and squares. This trend is likely to continue as more people become interested in celebrating their cultural heritage through design.


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Badurunissa is an architect, history enthusiast, Literary fiction aficionado, and aspiring writer. She likes to weave worlds through words and is always trying to find ways to understand the parallels between culture and architecture. A lover of the lively and vibrant, she seeks to create spaces that emulate the same.