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INTBAU Member’s Award-winning Arish House Reconstruction

When British explorer Wilfred Thesiger crossed the Rub al Khali desert in 1948, he photographed the Liwa Oasis at the edge of what is referred to in English as the ‘Empty Quarter’, in today’s United Arab Emirates. In this otherwise harsh and unforgiving climate, geological formations in the Liwa Oasis provided drinkable water which allowed Bedouins from the Bani Yas tribe to settle there. Palm trees were the only available material for the construction of shelter, and these palm leaf structures became known as ‘arish’ houses. Dried palm leaves were woven into mats; palm trunks were used as structural support; and palm trunk fibres were formed into rope to tie the various components of the house together. Arish houses were typically built by Bedouin women while the men took part in summer migrations to the coast in search of income. The houses were divided into four separate spaces, with one room for men to meet and talk (referred to as the ‘majlis’), two rooms for women and children, and one room to serve as the kitchen.

INTBAU Member Sandra Piesik in front of the reconstructed arish house (left)

A population count from 1908 indicates that there were 800 palm leaf houses at that time; a century later, none of these houses remained. Development and migration to urban centres meant that arish houses had all been demolished. It was with this in mind that INTBAU member Sandra Piesik initiated the Liwa Arish House Project in 2010 to reconstruct a palm leaf house with the participation of the local community, and based on one of Thesiger’s photographs from 1948. Despite the 40-year absence of this building technology, Sandra’s project nonetheless involved women who had previously constructed and lived in arish villages. It was seen as an important exercise for the transfer of skills from one generation to the next, and it is hoped that the project will serve as a record of cultural memory for younger generations.

Thesiger's 1948 Photograph of an arish village in the Liwa Oasis (left)

Arish house construction demonstrates a profound understanding of the desert climate:

Orientation: Arish house orientation was east-west. In the past, the western side of the settlement provided an area for evening prayer.

Thermal Mass: Arish houses were grouped together to provide thermal mass and shading. A double layer of palm tree mats on the walls,   as well as on the roof in the winter months, provided insulation.

Shading: Shelter in the desert was primarily required for shade. Sandra’s research into the temperature of sand both inside and outside of the reconstructed arish house showed that it was up to 23 degrees cooler inside.

Wind: Arish houses protected their inhabitants from the wind by way of carefully measured distances between the houses, as well as with mats woven from small palm leaves (called ‘hassir’) placed in between walls.

Interior of an arish house (left); the four separate spaces of the reconstructed arish house (above)

The Liwa Oasis is one of the most unique desert landscapes in the world. The recording and resurrecting of indigenous architecture provides an example of structures so deeply connected to the land, climate, and local community from historical, cultural, and ethnographic perspectives. It is hoped that this reconstruction project will serve as inspiration for modern interpretations of the local culture in future contemporary schemes.

The reconstruction of the house was made possible by the openness of the local community and their collaboration with the architect and craftsmen. The local government is now using the reconstructed house for community activities. Photographs from the reconstruction have been donated to the Wilfred Thesiger permanent collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. The Liwa Arish House Project also received the honour of being ‘highly commended’ in the 2011 Emerging Architecture Awards, with photographs from the project exhibited at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London. This is a notable achievement for a project based on a traditional form of building, and indicates the relevance of tradition today for sustainable architecture that is sensitive to the local climate and environment. It has also just been announced that the Liwa Arish House Project will part of an exhibition on the palm leaf architecture of the United Arab Emirates at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in London from 16 April – 25 May 2012.

Bedouin women assist with the Liwa Arish House Project (left)

Sandra Piesik will publish a book on the Arish house in February 2012, titled Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture. The publisher Thames & Hudson’s editorial summary is included below.

Traditional buildings made from the leaves of date palms have provided shelter from the extreme climate of the Arabian Peninsula for decades. One of the few forms of vegetation in these hot and sandy conditions, palm leaves have been used in ingenious ways to create habitable structures that have endured for generations. In many regions this is referred to as Arish. With slick contemporary Western architecture now being used to promote the international stature of countries in the Gulf regions, however, many of these localized techniques are being lost to urban striving.

Just as bamboo is central to many forms of Asian vernacular constructions, so is palm leaf at the heart of heritage in the United Arab Emirates and surrounding countries in the region. This publication, the product of a three-year research programme, provides a comprehensive overview of palm-leaf architecture, its history and traditions.

The book contains five sections: an overview in historical photographs; a comparison of regional variations in the United Arab Emirates; a focus on architectural and stylistic details; contemporary applications of palm-leaf architecture; and a resources section, including a step-by-step introduction to the making of Arish, from raw material to built form.

Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture celebrates this unique indigenous building and craft tradition and provides the foundation for a genuine understanding of the region, critical in the context of the fast-developing global economies they have become today.