“God has inscribed beauty upon all things.” – Hadith

The Customs of Islamic Architecture 

The masterpieces of the remarkable Islamic civilization communicate a sense of beauty and truth that is unmatched across the world – their literature, art, calligraphy, miniatures, poetry, music, and architecture hold a distinct character that lies in the essence of the teachings of Islam. A canvas that has been able to display these distinctive artforms for centuries is the architecture. 

The first generations of Muslims had developed distinctive monuments such as the mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; the style claiming to be an eternal way of life that meets the people’s needs at any given time. Islamic architecture features regional variations in both Islamic and non-Islamic countries; both secular and religious architecture reinforces the elemental concept of unity, impermanence, and beauty. Mosques, houses, and gardens provide the best examples of Islamic architectural principles, displaying arches, towers, tile designs, and ornamentation. The style is also largely influenced by the climatic conditions of the desert and the wise use of resources. One of the central ideas of this genre of architecture is that of privacy, bestowing it with the expression “architecture of the veil”.

Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet1
Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet2
Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet3

In the first decade of the 21st century, the Gulf region became an architectural playground, witnessing numerous fanciful and extravagant projects framing its proliferating skyline. Urban design and the traditional Islamic style architecture have begun to combine and form a ‘neo-Islamic’ style, where the efficiency of the urban style blends with the spirituality and aesthetic characteristics of the Islamic approach. 

Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular envision themselves as modern world cities and first class tourist destinations, so contemporary designs have featured prominently. The elements and benefits of traditional techniques must be explained and developed through modern efforts to make it more suitable to the cultural plurality of this age. While most contemporary works of architecture aim to break away from the past, many marvels take inspiration and learn from their heritage to give it a fresh perspective.

Blending the Old with the New

Burj Khalifa: Making an international mark as the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa gives a spectacular nod to traditional styles. The architects were greatly motivated by the philosophy embedded in Middle Eastern iconographic architecture and motifs. Its design is derived from the patterns embodied in Islamic architecture, and the triple-lobed footprint of the building is based on the symmetry and form of a native desert flower. 

The strong flower-like influences of onion domes and pointed arches, and indigenous patterns of the region were used to create a lasting landmark. The design of the 162-storied skyscraper combines local cultural influences with sophisticated technology to achieve high performance in an extreme desert climate. 

Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet4
Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet5

Louvre Abu Dhabi: For the concept of the award-winning museum, Ar. Jean Novel sought inspiration in traditional Islamic architectural culture. Taking a contextual approach to the site, the ‘museum city’ centered in the sea is an amalgamation of traditional design and modern construction techniques. The project is founded on a major symbol of inborn architecture, but with a subtle shift from tradition: the dome.

A double dome 180 meters in diameter provides shade punctuated by bursts of sunlight from the complex perforations, a result of highly studied geometric design. Its contrasting series of white buildings are a clever mimicry of the medina and low-lying Arab settlements.

Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet6
Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet7
Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet8

Atlantis Hotel: Located on Palm Jumeirah, one of the UAE’s man-made islands, the Atlantis Hotel was designed to capture the wonder of the water-based resort while paying tribute to traditional Islamic architecture. The result was mighty spires, Moorish arches, Arabic-inspired lamps, and palm-shaped pillars tied together with accents of Middle Eastern vernacular elements like hand-wrought iron columns of flowers, leaves, and buds. 

The interior murals kept with tradition by avoiding living figures and instead of painting classical motifs such as jewelry, seashells, coral, and geometric patterns. The 23-storey hotel also exhibits patterns with semi-precious stones, intricate fossilized shells, and fish stones.

Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet9
Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet10

Museum of the Future: Showcasing the future of building design technology, the torus-shaped museum is one of Dubai’s latest expressive landmarks. The parametrically designed structure features an elliptical void that will center on a holographic billboard and feature exhibits on different areas of innovation. Traditional Arabic calligraphy undergoes a modern makeover, forming perforations in the tough exterior that bathe the visitors in the glowing script. The calligraphy is some of the Ruler of Dubai’s quotes about the future and displaying mankind’s passion for art and creation.

Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet11
Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet12
Towering on Tradition: Contemporary Architecture of the UAE. - Sheet13

The Future has a Past

Meaningful architecture is that which is conscious of its precedents and is firmly rooted in its context. Traditional architecture fossilizes the identity and culture that people collectively share, creating a sense of belonging amongst communities.

Islamic architecture is in a state of flux- exploring possibilities for the future while re-discovering the heart of its architectural past, giving rise to buildings that wish to belong to its geography, to its history, and to its country. A region that has transformed itself from sand to skyscrapers still stays true to its values and memories that will remain till posterity.

Islamic architecture serves as a powerful reminder of the more profound realities of the tradition, and of the purpose of the entire Islamic tradition in the first place: the highest art of bringing the human souls back to its fitrah (true nature).


Ankitha is an explorative student passionate about architecture, urbanism, and ecology. A creative junkie- she loves to express herself through music, design, and written reflections. She believes that architects are conscious observers of the world, translating their needs into tangible forms.