On the edge of Bur Dubai and Jumeirah district in Dubai, lies a contemporary structure that serves as the gateway to the Union House, the Etihad Museum.
The museum is part of the project of Dubai government to restore the Union house that witnessed the creation of UAE in Dec. 2 1971. Etihad means Union in Emirati, thus the museum contains the history of UAE specifically on its origins as Trucial states to the formation of country. It houses the history of the leaders of the Emirates, the society, economy, infrastructure, culture, history and military power of each Emirate.
Etihad Museum is located beside the Historic Union house in Jumeirah waterfront. It was commissioned to Moriyama and Teshima Architects, a Canadian Architectural firm. The architects had an organic approach on design where they took inspiration from the manuscript where the Constitution is written by applying it to the façade and interiors. On the exterior, there are 7 leaning columns that reflect the 7 pens of the Leaders that signed the Union of the Emirates.
The structure and the compound has a relationship going around the dichotomy of being anti-contextual and contextual at the same time. Etihad Museum’s curved form is a complete contrast from the geometrically planned compound and the forms of both the Union House and guest palace but the Museum does not ignore the history and culture behind the area but applies the essence of these structure in the architecture.
The exterior of the museum is cladded with Matte White Aluminum Composite panels that follows the curves of the building. The Front, Rear and Left side of the building has a perimeter reflective glass that reflects it’s surrounding with Jumeirah district at front, Union House at the side and the water front and flag at the rear.
Upon entering the museum, the travertine from the plaza enters the space through the floors and walls. Visitors will see a full travertine amphitheater facing an inclined flooring with Arabic inscription on the floor. The Amphitheater can see the view of the Union house, and the garden where the country’s flag is from the inside.
Most of the exhibit spaces are underground with several light wells and open gardens giving natural light inside the space. The building has a theater, library an interactive timeline with maps and videos, and a recreational space.
It has a total of 10 halls with each designed around a different theme – Founding fathers, the UAE Interactive Map, the Interactive Timeline Hall, the Showcase, the Canals, the Seeds of Unity, the Change of Union, the Unity of the UAE, the Constitution and the Union Accomplishment.
The undulations from the idea of paper continue inside the building using the travertine stoned walls and curved white ceilings. Passageways although curved, values balance that creates a sense of arrival for each gallery. There are almost no straight walls inside the structure and that helps with the continuity of story for the exhibits and interest for the visitors upon looking the architecture itself.
Etihad museum embodies the history and the context of the Union of the Seven Emirates. It has a strong concept capturing the essence of the Union House and UAE’s History but it’s facade has overlooked the context of its surroundings.
It is a challenge to maintain the duality of the concept because designers need to find balance. The museum is a unique structure but its facade lacks character that can make it an Architecture for UAE alone. It can be placed in a middle of Dubai downtown, New York, Singapore or Germany where this type of design is common. Material selection and façade treatment can be a factor on this because the cladding is used too much internationally and it does mellow down the supposed strong concept behind the museum.
The interiors however is another story. Organic pathways, walls and ceilings can be translated to the desert; the curving stone walls reflects the walls of the old houses and mosques, and the ceiling and lights are like the stars at night that Emirati travelers use to navigate the desert. A lot may have thought that travertine is not locally produced in UAE but Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah, two of the seven emirates, have big quarries that produces several kinds of stones like marble, travertine, sandstone and limestone.
If the intent on the Interior was translated also on the exterior, the connection that is needed to close the loose threads between the surroundings and the Union House could have been present.