Culture Building with a Twist

by Alex Aubry

March 2010

An unusual approach to preserving the past sparks of a cultural revival on the tiny Island Kingdom of Bahrain

It is hard to imagine the bin Matar mansion surrounded by water on three sides, as cars speed past a busy roundabout right outside its doorstep. Yet over a century ago it was there that visitors would pay their respects to Salman bin Hussein Matar. One of the island’s prominent pearl merchants, he would greet visitors from a ground floor majlis with uninterrupted views of the sea. Buyers, such as famed Parisian jeweler Jacques Cartier, would disembark from boats that came right up to the mansion’s edge. Today, this piece of historic real-estate is virtually landlocked as a result of extensive land reclamation.

At the time it was built in 1905 by well-known Bahraini architect Mussa bin Hamad, the mansion was one of the largest buildings on the island of Muharraq, the kingdom’s former capital. A testament to the vast wealth generated by the pearling industry, the building was eventually abandoned until 2008 when an extensive renovation brought it back to life as a museum and cultural venue.

Renamed the Bin Mattar House (Memory of the Place), the restored mansion is the crown jewel in an ambitious plan to transform the Island’s former capital into a cultural and artistic incubator for the region. Leading this cultural renaissance is Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Minister of Culture and Information.

“It took 18 months to restore the house and it was a difficult process because much of the architectural know-how and traditional building materials used in the past simply aren’t readily available today,” explained Manar Moh'd Sirriyeh, the Ministry of Information's strategic planning advisor, who worked closely on the renovation of the mansion. “We had to import the bamboo beams used in the ceilings from Africa, while the gypsum was brought in from Iran,” she continued.

In a region where the race is on to invest billions in art and culture by creating entire museum cities, Bahrain by contrast has taken a more modest though no less innovative approach to culture building. Muharraq serving as the ground zero for this unique cultural experiment is no coincidence. Dr. John Yarwood, a British architect and author who worked in Bahrain in the early 80’s, once referred to the area’s traditional dense urban environment as, “…the last of its type on the south shores of the Gulf.”

In the last few years, tiny museums, culture centers, a children’s library and a sleek café have sprung up in the folds of this neighborhood’s 18th and 19th century dwellings. With each transformation, traditional buildings are being made relevant to a new generation, while revitalizing a once sleepy area.

In the case of the bin Matar house, although much of the building’s original architectural features had been preserved, such as the woven palm leaves that decorate traditional ceilings, the interior spaces were updated with modern light fixtures and furnishings, discreet air conditioning and wood floors. New features also include a modern extension at the back of the building for offices and other amenities, as well as a tranquil café.

"The restoration was a complicated task, even finding the people who could do the job was difficult because many who had the experience retired years ago. Only a few Bahrainis today have the skills to carry out this work, and luckily we managed to find some," said Sirriyeh.

On the ground floor, an interactive exhibition brings to life the history of Bahrain’s pearling industry with the use of rare photographs, historic documents and a priceless collection of pearls lent by the bin Matar family. However, far from memorializing the past, the space will also exhibit the works of contemporary Bahraini and international artists. Recent shows have included the work of Egyptian artist Adam Henein as well as aboriginal art from Australia.

Like most traditional neighborhoods in Bahrain, Muharraq doesn’t reveal its secrets to visitors willingly. Walking through its densely packed narrow streets and winding alleyways is akin to going on a cultural treasure hunt, where a surprise lies around every corner. There are murals covered in winding calligraphy that bleed onto the pavement, created by Lebanese artist and designer Dia Battal, while turning another corner reveals a gurgling water garden. Not far, behind a traditional ornately carved wooden door studded with nails, one will find the light-filled modern interiors of the Bait el Gahwa(House of Coffee). A sleek café conceived by Bahraini designer Ammar Basheir of MelaBlu, it is an updated version of the neighborhood coffee shop.

Yet far from creating a sanitized vision of the past, or a “heritage village,” many of these new projects are being inserted within already established residential neighborhoods.

According to Manar Moh'd Sirriyeh, “These restored houses aren’t just museums to showcase heritage, they also function as contemporary cultural spaces, making them relevant to the community in more ways than one.”

The Iqra Children’s Library, a bright and modern book-filled playhouse, is one such example. Its goal is to expose and connect neighborhood children to cultures different than their own, while encouraging innovative ways of thinking at a young age. The library has several reading rooms and a computer lab, as well as story-telling sessions in both Arabic and English.

In a society where tearing down the old to make way for the new is the norm, the restorations have also sparked a shift in mentality amongst locals. The Asmaa House, one of the finest examples of Bahraini architecture to be found in Muharraq, was purchased by Sheikha Hussah Al-Sabah of Kuwait. A pioneer in architectural preservation in the Arab world, Al-Sabah renovated the house and converted it into a private residence for herself. Such projects have opened the eyes of Bahrainis to the potential benefits and beauty of readapting traditional houses to meet 21st century needs.