Palm Leaf Architecture is Both Historic and Contemporary

palm leaf architectureBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

The subject of Arish palm leaf architecture in the United Arab Emirates sounds obscure, and it is. But it is also quite beautiful, sustainable, has been around for centuries and is still an important building material in the Middle East.

This small exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society in London is an examination of an age-old tradition in the modern world.

palm leafBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

Date palm leaves are an important resource in the Middle East: the trunks, fibre and leaves are all used in the construction of these buildings. They have provided shelter from the extreme climate of the Arabian peninsula for 7,000 years. The astonishing thing is that only 60 years ago most of the housing in coastal cities consisted of small clusters of these houses, with private courtyards in the middle. They housed market stalls, airports, and shops. Now there are none.

palm leaf architectureBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

The architect and curator of the exhibition has researched these buildings and written a book on the subject, hence this show. She was examining how palm leaf is central in the United Arab Emirates and surrounding countries, just as bamboo is to many forms of Asian buildings.

The buildings are simple but sophisticated in design, practical to transport, and yet strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the desert. Even when the houses were made out of stone, the roof was still made of the palm leaves.

palm leaf architectureBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

Palm leaves are similar to bamboo in that both are sustainable and easily grown and can be used as construction materials that are indigenous to the culture. In the last fifty years, with the onslaught of new development and destruction of the old, these traditions are in jeopardy of being lost.

palm leaf architectureBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

The walls were made of a double layer of tightly woven palm leaves. The orientation was always north-south. Clusters of houses, less than one metre apart, acted as another layer of cooling. Dry palm leaves absorb the sun by about 25 degrees more than the sand.

The house was put together with the help of architecture students and over 4000 palm leaves. They were part of a development and disaster relief charity called Action 25.

palm leaf architectureBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

These charming baskets are used as cages for small chickens. Their production has been developed by a social enterprise, Sougha, aimed at creating opportunities for Emirati artisans and preserving their heritage.

palm leaf architectureBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0
Arish Palm Leaf Sculpture

As part of the show, a palm leaf sculpture was also created. The age-old construction methods were used, with a new twist.

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