FIND Fellow Yasser Elsheshtawy documents the interstitial spaces inside Abu Dhabi's Sector 13 / Winter 2013-2014

Yasser Elsheshtawy investigated the presence of interstitial sites, sometimes named terrain vague, that lie outside the gaze of planners and city officials, within Abu Dhabi’s Central Area. Using a unique methodology that combines photography, video and GIS based mapping, the inner life of this sector was mapped to identify nodes of intensified activity. Those were further explored to provide an in-depth depiction of behavioral patterns and the extent to which they relate to the built environment. The exploration showed the resilience of city dwellers in circumventing official space narratives and their ability to carve out a unique space, and thus lay claim to the city.

Location of the Superblock Explained

A flythrough shows the location of "The Square with the Tree" and the overall study area in relation to the general context of the city of Abu Dhabi.

Time-lapse of the Superblock

24 hours in the life of the superblock as seen from above

Density Analysis of the Superblock

Animation illustrates shifting density "hot-spots" and centers of activities within the superblock from 9AM until 10PM. Activities are spread throughout the block but gradually shift towards the "Square with the Tree," reaching a peak between 4 and 5PM.

Density hotspots aggregated across the entire observation period show the clear center of activity in the middle of the block is by “The Square with the Tree.”

Density analysis is based on “behavioral mapping,” a process in which activities within a given space are spatially mapped. In this case the block was divided into four zones and research assistants were given the task of placing observed stationary activities on a map. In addition to locating such behaviors, assistants were tasked with identifying a series of attributes (gender, age, ethnic background, type of activity, groupings). In addition, for verification purposes, points were accompanied with a photograph. Observations were done for 10 time-periods and took place during the months of December and January on Fridays. GIS software, loaded on iPads, was used for the purpose of mapping. Following each observation session, assistants uploaded data to a shared folder; the data was then integrated on a desktop-based GIS program. The results are a series of points for various time-periods; a Kernel Density Map Analysis (KDM) has been applied to these maps, resulting in the accompanying density hotspots.

Individual density hotspots are documented as they occur during respective time-periods. Maps indicate aggregate number of users in the block engaged in stationary activities.

Life of the Superblock Part 1

Space in front of a restaurant bordering Electra Street acts as a gathering point.

The sidewalk becomes a place for meeting friends. In the background is an old building slated for demolition.

Edges of buildings afford a variety of behaviors such as people squatting or simply leaning against blank walls. The side alley becomes an active place as well.

A wide shot shows the restaurant in context. An abandoned bike is placed in the middle of the sidewalk. Small gatherings form at various sections of the space.

Plastic chairs are placed along the edge of the building leading to the small alleyway and Electra Street. The restaurant with its serving tables, the edge of the building, the bike, and - further to the back - the “demolition” boards, define a spatial setting within the larger superblock.

Architectural Analysis of the Superblock Part 1

Figure-ground map of the block contrasts the shape of buildings (figure) with the open space between (ground). Typical of many such blocks in Abu Dhabi, the ground (open space, parking lots, sidewalk) dominates.

A series of orthographic projections show the block from four corners.

Sketches of the Superblock

Figure-ground sketch of the superblock based on a preliminary field visit indicates the main active social nodes, points of entry, and landmarks in and around the site. Drawings also highlight centrality of “The Square with the Tree.”

Sketch of block cross-section illustrates its spatial hierarchy and the various transitions leading to “The Square.”

Architectural Analysis of the Superblock Part 2

Electra Street

A series of elevation collages/studies for the buildings that border the four main traffic arteries and define the block. Together they form an inscrutable wall, hiding from view a rich and active social life.

Muroor Road

Hamdan Street

Airport Road

Life of the Superblock Part 2

Inside the superblock, Alam Supermarket - a major landmark in the area and a center for Bangladeshi gatherings - appears in the background. It also forms the entry point to "The Square with the Tree."

A non-descript space such as pavements in the middle of a parking area is transformed into a lively social setting. A diverse range of activities exist, from people sitting on the ground to others standing using their mobile phones. This space also acts as a drop-off point for laborers coming from labor camps in Musaffah and other outlying areas.

Further inside the superblock are mini-blocks which become gathering nodes. In this case the sidewalk is transformed and used as a storage area for cardboard boxes.

Another mini-block contains “The Square with the Tree.”

The tree defines a space under and around which numerous gatherings occur. As one approaches the tree, various layers are revealed. People distribute themselves according to the spatial logic of the tree. The circumference of the tree branches acts as an umbrella, defining an invisible circular line on the ground around which people place themselves.

The object of attention here is the photographer who is observed with curiosity.

The other side of the square lacks any kind of street furniture; people use broken utility pipes for sitting. Three restaurants bordering the square have placed temporary seats and tables to serve food. An outdoor seating arrangement has a view towards the tree. The space accommodates both moving and stationary people, making this a lively and vibrant urban setting.

A wide shot of the square, the superblock appears in the background.

Further along another space between buildings is used as a meeting area. Two people rest after making a purchase from the various retail offerings in the block. The WTC tower, which has replaced the old Central Market, looms in the background.

A space between a power station and a building has been converted into an informal, outdoor mosque. Found in other parts of Abu Dhabi as well, such arrangements serve nearby residents, shopkeepers, and passers-by.

At the other side of the block, near Hamdan Street, is a formal plaza and seating area. Placed atop an underground parking area, the place appears underutilized. Overplanned and overdesigned (it was initially planned as a theme park), it seems to be too constrictive to be effectively used as a gathering area. Appearing dark it is occupied by a few people. It provides a stark contrast to the active scene farther inside the block.

As one gets closer to the mosque, more people appear. At the intersection between the mosque, the park/plaza and Hamdan Street, a toy store adds a curious dimension to what would otherwise have been a dreary space.

Time-lapse of the Square Camera A

Time-lapse video of the square starts at 7AM and ends at 10PM. The video demonstrates the diurnal rhythm of the space and shows the ebb and flow of activities. The time-lapse spans from the early morning hours, when the space is used mostly for functional purposes, until noon, around prayer times when it witnesses a peak of sorts. Another peak occurs in the evening hours starting at 5PM. As the evening continues, activities taper off; at 9PM cleaners move in, and people leave. This in turn allows children, residents of nearby buildings, to start a soccer game.

Time-lapse is a particularly useful method for capturing activities as they unfold over the course of a day. The end product is usually impressive showing a flurry of activities, the ebb and flow of a day’s rhythm, etc. For this project two cameras (A & B) were used — an aerial view vs. a street level view. The first requires a special tripod that can be extended to a height of at least 3 meters, and the second is a regular device whose height would be at eye level. Once settled on a locale within the space selected for in depth observation, several parameters had to be established to ensure consistency between shooting periods (for practical reasons it is not feasible to shoot all sequences in one day, but it is done according to a schedule, taking place over four Fridays). These parameters were: location within the space; height of tripod; camera angle. Location within the space was decided by physical features, drawing temporary markers on the ground, as well as taking photographs of the setup; the precise height of each tripod is determined by its specific extension units. Perhaps the most difficult measure was camera angle; a regular tripod head would not suffice since the camera needs to be independently positioned using different movements. Therefore a 3-way tripod head has been used to allow for a precise positioning with specific measurement units, ensuring consistency between observation periods. The initial setup for the aerial shot was tested via a wireless connection linking the camera to a laptop computer, enabling viewing of the observed scene. Once all of this was established, the actual time-lapse began. Both cameras were equipped with a timer programmed to shoot every 5 seconds for an hour (a total of 720 frames); this was repeated for the next 2 hours so that one session covers 3 hours in total. A soundtrack was recorded independently for respective time-periods and overlaid with the time-lapse to convey a “sound-landscape” of the space.

A chart shows a minute-by-minute count of total number of users synchronized with the time-lapse video.

Time-lapse of the Square Camera B

Time-lapse video taken at street level evokes the perception of a square user. Visible is the space under the tree, which as the day unfolds is fully occupied with people. Also as the day progresses, chairs and tables are placed outside the restaurants becoming a major source of activities and gatherings.

Life of the Square Part 1

In the early morning hours of the square, the chirping of birds and a cleaning machine interrupt the emptiness.

As the day progresses, restaurants set up tables and chairs.

These, in turn, generate a whole set of activities. 

People pass through, stop to talk on the phone, and one person returns from a shopping trip to meet his friends who sit at one of the tables.

Sketches of the Square

Sketches taken during field work: Most are an attempt to understand the space and the activities taking place in and around the square. The centrality of the tree highlights its significance as a spatial marker and an attraction point. Some drawings are meant to record the process and to act as a reminder of sorts for further and more developed diagramming.

Density Analysis of the Square

Animation of density hotspots in the square demonstrates that the locations witnessing the most activities are the area of the space under the tree and the restaurants on the left side of the space.

Behavioral map of the superblock shows only the points, aggregated for the whole day. Buildings and roads are not drawn, but the block is clearly visible based on the distribution of people. The “Square with the Tree” appears in the middle and has the highest number of points, or people.

Life of the Square Part 2

Children and teenagers, residents from buildings overlooking the square, take over the space in the night when all visitors are gone. This shot was taken during a time-lapse session and was the last image taken by Camera B.

In the evening hours, when use of the space has peaked and begins to taper of a bit, litter fills the ground.

Late at night, after 10PM, the square is empty, and litter has been cleared. Workers pack up, and children begin their nightly soccer game.

The square's inhabitants: some appear alone, looking straight into the camera, while others are interacting with their friends. Their faces and activities defy the stereotypical narrative of workers in the Gulf. A much more complex and nuanced picture emerges.

Credits: Story

Created by — Yasser Elsheshtawy

Credits: All media
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