Low-Impact Ecologically Conscious Project
The Wasit Wetland Centre, one of the first Aga Khan winning projects from the UAE, by architectural firm X-Architects, stands out as a unique, collaborative project combining architectural excellence with a deep commitment to ecological imperatives.
Part of a much larger initiative by Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Agency to clean up and rehabilitate this ancient chain of wetlands along the Persian Gulf coast, the Wasit Wetland Centre aims to supply information and education about this unique environment to encourage its preservation. In designing the visitor centre, the architects took advantage of the site’s natural topography to minimize its visual impact by making it appear submerged into the ground. Visitors descend a ramp to arrive at an angled intersection between two linear elements of the building: one, to the sides, containing services and administrative offices; the other, a head, a long viewing gallery flanked by aviaries where birds can be seen in their natural habitat.
According to the jury, some of the most striking and exemplary aspects of the project are to be found in its most unconventional virtues. Architecturally speaking, it is intent on disappearing from sight. It merges into the natural environment in ways that respect the site’s integrity – a wonderful way of reminding us that architectural merit resides more and more on a structure’s capacity to blend into an environment rather than challenge it.
At the far end of the viewing gallery, a third linear element, running perpendicular, houses a cafe and multipurpose space with views out over the open wetlands. A cantilevered steel truss roof over the viewing gallery avoids the need for peripheral columns, allowing seamless glazed facades. The interior is deliberately minimalistic throughout, placing the full focus on the surrounding nature: informative displays are the only adornment on the supporting central wall. The facade glazing is slightly tilted, to enhance reflections of the landscape for the birds while minimizing reflections for people looking out. The floor being lower than the ground outside, a continuous concrete sill provides a place to sit and contemplate birds at their level. To counter the very hot desert climate, the roof is well insulated and the glass is shaded by its overhang. Some fabric shading is also provided over the aviaries. Rainwater harvested from the roof is discreetly directed to specific areas of the landscape via carefully placed spouts that are camouflaged by landscape elements. Six bird hides scattered around a lake created in the middle of a 200,000m2 site follow a unified aesthetic but are each individually designed for their context, and employ some recycled wood and plastic in their construction, reinforcing the ecological message. What had become a waste dumping ground has had its indigenous ecosystem restored, and is proving a popular place for visitors to appreciate and learn about their natural environment.
It also achieves highly commendable educational and recreational purposes. Less than four years after its completion, a large number of local visitors, especially schoolchildren, attests to the project’s overall success and its positive impact on a broader social context.
Likewise, the project’s major contribution to its urban environment is in its reclamation of close to 20 acres of former wasteland by diverting it from the temptations of real estate development and valorising it as a form of natural capital.
Project data: Wasit Wetland Centre Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Client: EPAA (Environmental and Protected Areas Authority), Sharjah, United Arab Emirates: Hana Saif Al Suwaidi, chairman
Project Data Site area: 200,000 sq metre
Ground floor area: 2,534 sq metre Cost: £7,600,000