This week, the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (IBG) in London opened its doors to an enthralling new exhibition headed by architect and curator Sandra Piesik, which details the merits of Palm Leaf Architecture, also known as Arish. The practice of using dried date palm leaves to construct simple yet ingeniously-designed structures out of these sustainable natural resources is intrinsic to the history of the United Arab Emirates and dates back at least 7,000 years; however the demands for more contemporary glass and steel spires has seen this indigenous art form all but die out.
Piesik’s mission is to reignite the memory of this diminishing practice and demonstrate that palm leaf architecture can be incorporated into contemporary design as she told me last week at the opening. For three years Piesik has researched the intricate art of palm leaf architecture and recently managed to gain the support of international engineering firm Buro Happold. Together with charitable organisation Article 25, Piesik gathered together a collection of experts who volunteered their time to construct several impressive Arish structures including a fishbone-style sculpture which now decorates the front of the Royal Geographical Society.
Inside, visitors can educate themselves on the history of this indigenous architecture by reading display boards mounted onto towers of feathery palm fronds, following a red carpet route through the glass doors to a spectacular example of Arish housing. The impassioned Piesik informs me that this humble abode was constructed in stages using materials donated by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority in Al Ain and despite the drizzle in the air and squelching mud beneath our feet, the volume would stay intact. It seems that it’s not only the harsh desert storms that palm leaf houses can withstand, but a ruthless British downpour!
Potentially the most affecting example of design at the exhibition is the series of palm leaf baskets dangling in the Royal Geographical Society’s central courtyard. Made by the hands of skilled women in the UAE, these intricate shells have been suspended as part of the display and flutter in the breeze with Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Y.D. Scott’s elegantly domed Royal Albert Hall as their backdrop.
To Piesik the message of this exhibition must last longer than the five weeks it is on display. She details: “Traditional buildings constructed from the leaves of date palms, tree trunks and rope made from palm fibre has provided shelter from the extremes of climate on the Arabian Peninsula for millennia. Today, western styles of architecture employed in the region threaten to erase this valuable heritage. The exhibition aims to stimulate debate about contemporary adaptation of crafts and authentic cultural continuity in the globalised world, as well as a timely record of how many localised techniques are on the verge of extinction.”
‘Arish: Palm Leaf Architecture in the UAE’ runs until 25 May 2012 at the Royal Geographical Society in London, UK and is accompanied by a book of the same name by Sandra Piesik, (published by Thames & Hudson, £28).