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Contemporary 'Local' Architecture in the Emirates

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

In the last decade the architectural landscape in Dubai and Abu Dhabi has come to be known as the playground for superlatives (the biggest, tallest and most ambitious buildings); authored by global giants - like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; Foster + Partners, Ateliers Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid Architects.

In the midst of all the noise though, a lot of smaller, more nuanced projects, by local designers, have been quietly shifting the debate across the country.

As these cities continue to grow rapidly, a talented group of local and expat architects working at more modest scales, across a variety of programmes and geographies have begun coming to the fore. In this post we share images of some of the more interesting public projects, designed by these local practices. I have categorized these buildings under three broad ideas that unite what is otherwise a varied group of projects. Exploring materiality

For a while now the architecture in this region has been infamous for its unrestrained use of climatically and contextually inappropriate opulent building materials.

To counter this stereotype, the following contemporary projects show how some local practices have explored ways to reintroduce local materials and to experiment with new but relevant materials.

Al Khazzan Park project; designed by Studio Cultural Engineering / Brownbook. 
In this small community project a set of elegant landscape pavilions - housing a design library, café and an open studio (where workshops and small events can take place) - sit wonderfully in a historic neighbourhood park near Citywalk, Dubai. The project uses locally available Coral stones as free standing gabion walls creating a sense of enclosure around each of the open pavilions. 

Al Mureijah Art Spaces; designed by Mona El Mousfy and Sharmeen Azam Inayat.
This set of art galleries for the Sharjah Art Foundation is set within the historic neighbourhood known as 'Heart of Sharjah'. The design juxtaposes simple white gallery spaces in and around ruined coral stone houses that once formed the thriving centre of one of the wealthiest towns in this part of the world.

Qasr Al Hosn visitor centre; designed by Mark Powell Kyffin / Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. 
This lovely contemporary museum sits next to the historic Qasr Al Hosn Fort (the oldest building in the city of Abu Dhabi) and has many innovative sustainability features. It has a very interesting double skin façade made of willow wicker panels - that besides working as a solar shade, also invokes the memory of the traditional Areesh (Palm leaf) houses that was wide spread in this region till only a few decades ago.

The Block; designed by desert INK.
This urban park next to the Dubai Canal is part of the Dubai Design District is designed to an exceptionally low budget, and is entirely recyclable due to the developer’s intention to develop the plot within the next 5 years. Besides utilizing local materials and vegetation, the designers also incorporated a large number of discarded massive concrete keystones into the park, creating climbing walls, artistic installations, retaining walls and exercise stations.

Encouraging historical/cultural engagement

Like with many others in the Gulf region, cities in the UAE also marked a sudden shift in both the pace and scale of growth with the discovery of oil. This unfortunately meant that much of the existing built fabric of the cities quickly gave way to ‘Modern’ buildings. Many of these early projects were completely devoid of any engagement with the history or culture of this region and its peoples. Although by the 1980s and 90s one can already see an interest in reviving a sort of lost identity - it was still quite limited in its scope, restricted within a modernist framework and rarely created meaningful architecture.

This has changed a lot in the last few years, with an increasing number of practices and projects trying to re-engage with the larger historic and cultural landscape of the country/region. Here’s a few projects that do this successfully, two of which are also excellent examples of adaptive repurposing of what might otherwise have been considered as banal modernist buildings. 

Mleiha Archeology Centre; designed by Dabbagh Architects. 
This award-winning museum in the town of Mleiha (around 65 kms from Sharjah) is built around a beautifully preserved Umm Al Nar era circular tomb (2600-2000 BCE). The brilliantly designed centre details the excavations and discoveries made over the past 40 years at Mleiha and surrounding area.

Al Warqa Mosque; designed by Waiwai Design. 
Designed with the intention of capturing the historical premise of a mosque as a communal space for worship, Al Warqa’a Mosque is a structure that also functions as a gathering place for the community. With the proliferation of the iconic Central Dome mosque typology in the UAE, the architects sought to return to a simpler design that is less focused on the mosque as an icon, and more as a social space.

Dubai Design Library; designed by Pragma Architects.
The concept for this project was decided through a Design Competition organized to revamp a existing public library in Al Safa, Dubai. The winning entry by Pragma proposed to warp the old building with a set of well-lit linear gallery/reading spaces. This simple design strategy also generated a series of small courtyard garden spaces that negotiated the odd outline of the original building. 

Al Faya Lodge; designed by Anarchitect.
This sensitive design project (located near the town of Mleiha) is a wonderful case study in adaptive reuse. Here the architects have converted an abandoned petrol pump (one of the oldest in the country)and its adjoining stores in an exclusive 5 room boutique hotel that makes the most of its impressive context - sited beautifully between the red sands of Mleiha desert and the dramatic Al Faya Mountain. Most of the additions to the existing buildings are finished in Corten Steel. 

Quest for a new contemporary vocabulary

Lastly, there has been an interesting shift away from the kitsch ornamental excesses of the 1990s and 2000s towards a new minimalistic architectural vocabulary. In these four projects the designers return to the eternal architectural question of proportions to create thought provoking spatial experiences with subtle buildings that don’t shout out for attention.

Jameel Art Centre; designed by Serie / Waiwai Design. Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park; designed by Waiwai Design. 
Designed as a 10,000-square-metre, three-storey, multi-disciplinary space, Jameel Arts Centre is the first non-governmental contemporary arts institution of its kind in the Gulf. Expanding beyond the static white cube experience, the Centre’s design emphasizes a connection with the surroundings, a perspective lived out in Art Jameel’s programming.
The Sculpture Park located along the water’s edge of Dubai creek and adjacent to the arts centre is also the country's first open-air art park. It is designed as an open public space with no fence to encourage social interaction through art.

Wasit Wetland Centre; designed by X-Architects.
Wasit Natural Reserve was originally a waste-water and rubbish dump. The rehabilitation process of the damaged eco-system started in 2005, healing the land from toxic chemicals and conservation of the Unique salt flats and costal sand dunes. The partially underground 'non-building' houses the wetland visitor center - established on site to continue protecting the natural environment, educate people on the richness of the wetland ecosystem and provides information about the birds that frequent the area and other wetlands areas of the emirate. This project was awarded the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2019.

Al Hamriyah Studios; designed by DXBlab.
Situated on the Sharjah coast at Al Hamriyah, inaugurated by the Sharjah Art Foundation in early 2017, Al Hamriyah Studios expand and diversify SAF's programming beyond Sharjah’s urban centre. In keeping with SAF’s other urban development projects, which have readapted historic architectural elements to new uses, Al Hamriyah Studios were constructed on the site of a former souq. The award-winning local firm dxb.lab combined modern architectural aesthetics with regionally-inspired customs and traditions of the built environment to design this elegant project.

Meydan HQ; designed by Loci.
This new retail and office headquarters is surrounded on all sides by residential blocks, between road and park. The intention was to create a pure elegant ‘pavilion in the park’ that is both autonomous and contextual. Strong visual and physical connections to the park are established at ground level with an internal ‘street’ linking the supermarket, shops and restaurant to the park. The massing and façade treatment is generated from the functions contained within, mostly solid at ground level punctuated by massive carved openings strongly announcing the entrances to the supermarket, office lobby and park, carved out of the base to visually draw users inside. 

These projects capture a newer ethos that at some level is addressing the urbanism required in these cities more realistically rather than the previous 'Potemkin' version of Urbanism - which while not done away with is at least being acknowledged for its shallowness.

I end this post with a couple of ruminations: Could these projects be signaling a larger trend towards developing a more sustained urbanism and architecture for these cities? Is it too early to speculate that the days of impatient capital of the last two decades are on the wane?


All photos © Sahil Latheef | including the aerial photos shot using a DJI Mavic drone camera.



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