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Seen: The Central Souk, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

As I wander through the core of Abu Dhabi’s 1960s-era central business district, I catch a glimpse of a large, finely detailed wood box. This building is unlike most new buildings in the region. It is not a glass tower standing alone in unshaded heat; it is low and meets the scale of its surroundings. Its cafés and shops open onto the streets, and its large recessed portals are inviting. The building is the Central Souk, or market, designed by Foster + Partners to replace a traditional market that was destroyed by fire.


The Central Souk in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, is a market designed to replace a traditional structure destroyed by fire.<br />Architect: Foster + Partners. Photograph by Mark Klopfer ASLA.

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Inside, the fine detail continues. What were concrete panels outside become suspended wood screens. Central spaces offer modern transformations of the historic Arab pedestrian street. They are tall in proportion and skylit, allowing dappled light and creating a cool and solemn environment within. Two large atria recall the interiors of Louis Kahn’s Center for British Art. There, daylight washes concrete and light-colored mahogany panels—a foil to New Haven’s gray weather. In the Souk, a similar atmospheric quality is achieved with dark mahogany screens—a foil to the Persian Gulf’s sun and heat. A roof garden alternates planted and social zones, again recalling time-honored building strategies.

The public may not care about such architectural finesse. Shopping for luxury goods in air-conditioning may be all that matters to most. As a shopping center, the Souk struggles against the larger Abu Dhabi Mall with its ice rink and full collection of exclusive stores. Yet to a traveling architect like me, even without the sounds and smells of the market it replaced, what makes this new Souk wonderful is its interpretation of traditional form and scale, and its ephemeral qualities of light and shade, which together create a building of its place.