At the base of the tallest structure ever made, across from the largest fountain in the world and the biggest mall ever built, Omran al Owais shares his philosophy on buildings. "It's pretty simple," the Emirati architect says, glancing up the 808-metre Burj Khalifa. "I don't want to build anything taller than a tree." At an outdoor table overlooking Dubai's most monumental development, such an idea seems archaic, out of touch with the forest of skyscrapers that punctuate the city. But al Owais is putting his mind to work on how to build a cityscape in proportion to the humble, personal, hospitable roots of his culture. Downsizing is central.
"I love this, this is amazing," he says, gesturing at the 160-storey building across from us. "But I cannot say that it is mine, that this is Emirati." While others were thinking big, al Owais has spent much of the last decade designing living spaces for families, working to integrate what he sees as the timeless values of Arab and Emirati culture into small buildings. As duplex apartments, infinity pools and suburban lawn-and-garage life spread across Dubai, al Owais worked to build homes that surround open courtyards or balance privacy with openness, trying to make modern spaces that capitalise on old, proven ways of living.
"Where we are now with these mega-buildings worries me," he says. "Imagine if you watch a movie and you believe Superman can fly, so you come out of the movie and you try to fly. That is dangerous, and it is what I am worried about here - we are beginning to believe that all of this is really who we are. What we need to be doing is thinking small, thinking about our lives and culture and the buildings we need."
Such talk may sound traditionalist or reactionary, but in his mind, creating places that reflect a people and a place is a chance for great experimentation. His proposed design for a mosque in Dubai's Safa Park is as experimental as modern religious buildings get, as far from typical domes and minarets as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is from the Parthenon. It deconstructs the components of a mosque and reassembles them in abstract form, leaving only a transparent shard standing above the ground, resembling the intersecting branches of a tree. This "minaret" faces a glass-bottomed pool of water, which itself reflects the image of the towers of Sheikh Zayed Road that loom over the park.
Worshippers and visitors descend to prayer halls located beneath the water. Sunlight that streams into the rooms is filtered both through the tree-like branches of the minaret and the reflecting pool, a cleansing process not unlike that which worshippers go through before prayer. The design, al Owais says, is a statement that Emirati architecture can both wow the world and create treasured spaces for its people. "I think that if we can create things that show who we are, if they reflect us as much as possible, then it will not be just us who likes it," he says. "If it is genuine, if it is of our culture, the whole world will like it. This is something I would be proud of, something I would call my own."
After many years running his own Dubai-based architecture firm, Centimetrecube, al Owais is preparing for a career change, one he hopes will lead to the creation of whole communities that are truly of their environment. This month he will begin working in Abu Dhabi, helping to build public housing communities for Emiratis. To begin with, the position is an entry-level one, but one al Owais hopes will be the start of a new career creating entire neighbourhoods.
"This is something I have been thinking about and asking questions about for a long time," he says. "The chance to play a part in these communities, to understand how they are made and their context, it is a dream for me." As long as there are still new communities - and entire cities - to be built in the UAE, al Owais has a better chance than many to realise the architect's dream of seeing a new community emerge with all of his design principles embedded in it. That chance, he explains, is what keeps him going.
"In 20 years we can look back and say that what we did today set a standard," he says. "This isn't just about the UAE but our whole region. The choices we make today will be part of the history books in 50 years."