Illustrating (literally) his love for Abu Dhabi and the childhood memories the city gave to him, 29-year-old Sultan Al Ramahihas turned his professional skills into a personal passion project, one that showcases the UAE capital in all its architectural glory, past and present. Shabana Adam caught up with the Urban Planner to learn more about Vectors and Stuff, an instagram page that every city dweller needs to follow right away…

A few small roundabouts, the Corniche, and the now-demolished but ever-famous Volcano Fountain all dominate Sultan Al Ramahi’s childhood memories of growing up in Abu Dhabi. The 29-year- old Urban Planner left the city at the age of eight but still has vivid images of life in the UAE capital at a time when the Tourist Club Area was the most happening place to hang out in town. That was a time when Sultan would drag someone to Hamed Centre at least once a week to see which new video games had come in stock. Then there’s the Burger King at Hamdan Centre, which he fondly remembers as the location of every single one of his birthday parties. “Many who were here back then will tell you that life was easier and simpler,” Sultan recalls. “It is a shared collective memory of the city. Everyone went to the same places, the same parks, and same shopping centres, so those buildings hold a special place in many people’s hearts. That’s why they are so nostalgic — they remind people of a certain time and place,” he adds.

The Corniche beach is another place he often frequented: “It used to have only two lanes of traffic and was a few steps away from our apartment building entrance,” Sultan explains. “This was before the massive two dredging projects in the 90s and 00s. I remember the crystal clear water and collecting bucket loads of hermit crabs. I also grew up exploring the marine life close to shore with my swimming goggles — I would see huge lobsters, stingrays, jellyfish, and colourful fish depending on the season.”

Sultan spent 10 years living between Singapore and Dubai before heading over to the U.S in 2008 to study Architecture and Fine Art at Washington State University. In 2013, he returned to Abu Dhabi and started work at the Urban Planning Council, a time when he also came face to face with how much the city had transformed.

“I realised the city had changed a lot when I moved back to the UAE after university in 2013,” Sultan tells us. “It felt unfamiliar all of a sudden. Abu Dhabi really started to change after the passing of the late Sheikh Zayed (God rest his soul). At that point, around 2004, the government started selling islands and huge plots of land to development companies, and projects you see now like Yas, Saadiyat and Reem Island were all announced in that year.”

Sultan has been drawing since he could hold a pencil; constantly sketching on any bare surface near him. “Ask my wife about our napkins,” he smiles. “I naively thought that there would be no realistic career in the arts at the time I left for university in 2008, so I studied the next best creative thing, architecture.” This led Sultan back to Abu Dhabi and in short a project at work where he had to produce building vectors, which soon turned into a personal project of passion and leisure with the creation of Vectors and Stuff – an instagram page dedicated to mapping Abu Dhabi’s architectural heritage, past and present. For those of you who may not be familiar with this term – vectors are digitally-created 2D images that are made up of lines, points and geometric shapes. They stay in proportion no matter their size. 

Everyone went to the same places, the same parks, and same shopping centres, so those buildings hold a special place in many people’s hearts.

“I posted a few of my designs on my personal IG page at the beginning of 2017,” Sultan says. “It got such a nice response that I ended up dedicating a whole IG account to just vectors, with my first series being the architecture of Abu Dhabi.” Sultan’s motto of “from the nostalgic to the unnecessary” not only tugs on the heartstrings of those who have called this city home for a long time, but also illustrates to visitors and new communities just how deeply-rooted and fast-changing the architectural landscape in Abu Dhabi, is an important part of its everyday culture and timeless heritage. From the modern-day architectural phenomena like Louvre Abu Dhabi and Cleveland Clinic to the classic lines of Madinat Zayed and even a water tank in Khalidiya, there is no building too big, too small, too important or too insignificant for Sultan. It’s all about making the local connection. “The first vector of the Abu Dhabi Architecture series was the Bainuna Tower — the blue building on the Corniche with the golf ball on top,” he points out. “One of my childhood best friends used to live there. It’s distinct. I think we’re one of the only countries with golf balls on their skyscrapers. The golf balls are actually where they put telecommunication relay towers for the surrounding area,” he adds. “After I found that out, I knew I had to do that building first.”

Of course, when you dedicate your time to illustrating the buildings in a city, you’re bound to come across some interesting finds, right? “There are a bunch of hidden gems here, you just have to look,” Sultan says. “Sector E9 is one example — it’s the area with the Russian Embassy and the Mariah Cinema. It’s entirely walkable and every building is built to a human scale (meaning it’s built with proportions that humans find easier to look at, use and interact with).
“It’s got so many diverse, amazing food options. We’ve been so conditioned to only go out to enjoy ourselves in hotels and malls that we tend to forget the city that’s right here,” he reveals.
Sultan has no real criteria for which building is chosen to be the next vector drawing. He has a rough list and even personal requests, but it tends to be whichever is the easiest building to complete at the time. With that said, there are some structures that do excite him as he powers up the computer. “I’d love to interpret every ‘unique’ villa in Madinat Khalifa/Madinat Shakhbout,” he says. “Those areas have a huge amount of bizarre, extravagant villas. Look for the Cinderella castle villa the next time you’re in Khalifa City.” Noted! 

Aside from this, some of his favourite buildings in the city include: Al Ibrahimi Building, which he describes as a classic example of the modern architecture of the Gulf from the 1960s to the 1990s; the Pineapple Slide located in Airport Park, which is also a prominent feature in every childhood photograph; and Cultural Foundation, built in 1981, which Sultan can’t wait to explore further when it’s fully reopened later this year. “When this closed down in 2005, you really felt the void in this city’s art and culture world,” he says. 

In terms of technicality and tools, Sultan loves to experiment. He finds the ease of digital design appealing as virtual space gives the artist more breathing room to make mistakes, create as many versions of one drawing as you want to, and let your imagination run wild along the way. “I started messing around with Adobe Illustrator in 2015,” Sultan explains. “It’s a programme that’s really useful working in urban planning design and architecture because it’s easy to draw things with clean straight lines and a variety of illustrations in minimal time.

“On a personal note, I’m an illustrator and have a habit of sketching or doodling on any surface that’s closest to me. I always have a pen and notebook with me. So Illustrator was the logical next step to take my illustrations into the digital space, not just in my notebooks. It’s a totally different medium and way to create but I fell in love with the simplicity and ability to experiment, make mistakes and create a million versions of one drawing,” he says. Sultan recognises exactly why Vectors and Stuff has been a hit with his followers. When he first started the account, it was just a way to have some fun and share his personal documentation of the city’s architecture. Today, he’s hoping that the page can be seen as complementary to the current academic research that’s currently being done across various governmental entities like the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), and the Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, it’s all about the personal connections. “The feedback has been absolutely amazing and positive,” he shares. “Most of the followers are from Abu Dhabi or have spent most of their lives here, so they have a really strong connection to what is written and posted. I think that’s why people are drawn to it — no matter what the building is, it has some sort of nostalgic memory or certain experience attached to it for people who have lived here for decades and have seen the city transform.”

Digital art is a contemporaray, fairly unusual yet very attractive form of creativity through which Sultan has been able to bring together his personal interests with his love for the city. Along the way, he’s utilised all the free videos on YouTube to help him keep up with trends and learn new skills. His advice for other budding digital artists is, first and foremost, to not be afraid of being themselves and sharing their personal style of work. “Don’t be scared about putting the art out there that makes you really happy and that’s fun to you,” Sultan advises. “You’ll be surprised to see the response from people when you share things that are authentically you. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to established designers you love, just to tell them you admire their work or if you have a question on how they do something. You might make some great connections and friendships that way,” he says.

I’d love to interpret every ‘unique’ villa in Madinat Khalifa/Madinat Shakhbout. Those areas have a huge amount of bizarre, extravagant villas. Look for the Cinderella castle villa the next time you’re in Khalifa City. 

Sultan often jokes to himself that Vectors and Stuff will end once he’s digitally carved every building in Abu Dhabi. In reality, he understands that there is room for it to evolve and develop into another series, for which he’d love to partner with local cultural organisations as well as continue to make more vectors through commissions, to sell prints and more (merchandise heaven!). “I’d also love to take this to other cities around the Middle East,” Sultan says. “Jerusalem, Baghdad, Kuwait; our entire region has such an amazing catalogue of modern architectural heritage. Right now, I’m really grateful and excited for the future.” 

Preserving and showcasing Abu Dhabi’s eclectic architecture through Vectors and Stuff has definitely illustrated one thing: you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy. 

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