1971: A new nation is born, and with it, a new vision for the future.
A visionary who looked at a changing world through eyes that seemed to pierce the future, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan sought to engage the United Arab Emirates in cross-cultural dialogue with the wider international community from the outset, firmly establishing the United Arab Emirates as a crossroads for various cultures – in the process revealing the nation’s welcoming openness to a culture of tolerance and hospitality.
Committed to this vision to create an environment conducive to cultivating and elevating the mind which would also reach out to the world, leadership passed a law the same year to set up a cultural body whose aim was to nurture heritage and the arts in the fast developing nation.
With keen insight, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan envisioned a modern cultural institution that would serve as a vital building block for the fledgling state’s society. He foresaw a place from which a cultural awakening would spring forth, starting at the nation’s new capital, Abu Dhabi, eventually impacting the United Arab Emirates as a whole – and finally, the international community. Over time, the concept grew broader to encompass the protection and promotion of the nation’s valued traditional culture and heritage for future generations.
From the outset, this cultural insitution was to breathe new life into the nation’s artistic gifts, spurring intellectual growth. Radiating outwards from Abu Dhabi to the whole country and to the rest of the world, this cultural renaissance would help usher in an era of modernity. To this end, an international competition was launched in 1973 to find an architectural design to match Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan’s desire for a haven from which art and cultural initiatives would begin to flourish - a national landmark that, while staying true to Arab-Islamic style, would exude the aspirations for modernity and progress.
The winning design came from The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC), originally founded by Walter Gropius (the world famous architect of Bauhaus fame). The design proposed a three-winged building around a central courtyard. The original detailed designs for the building project were submitted by an international team, and were further perfected by a young Iraqi architect, Hisham Al Ashkouri, who was invited by Louis McMillen, one of TAC’s principals, to lead the project. A product of Baghdad University, Al Ashkouri had been taught by a number of leading architects including Mohamed Makiya, Hisham Munir – and had been influenced by legendary architects such as Louis Kahn, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Al Ashkouri was instrumental in the successful completion of the design by 1975.
At the time of its opening in 1981, the Cultural Foundation provided the first National Library, along with a performance auditorium and an exhibition centre. The formal establishment of the Cultural Foundation saw the launch of a series of ground-breaking programmes celebrating local and regional culture, showcasing a variety of art forms and encouraging cross-cultural exchanges on many new fronts.
From that time on, the Cultural Foundation has gained regional and international acclaim as a world-acclaimed venue for culture and the arts. The building itself has gained prominence as a modern heritage landmark, registered as one of Abu Dhabi’s cherished cultural heritage resources.
From its inception to the time of its renovation and beyond, the Cultural Foundation has remained true to the original aspirations of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, fulfilling one of his ambitious and far-reaching visions for the United Arab Emirates and its people - bestowing the timeless, inestimable endowment of cultural heritage and art.