x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Architecture of note

Saloon Want a print of Brian Johnson's iconic work? Get out your wallet.

Brian Johnson in front of his most famous work: "I always carry a 20 with me. Just in case."
Brian Johnson in front of his most famous work: "I always carry a 20 with me. Just in case."

Want a print of Brian Johnson's iconic work? Get out your wallet. When Brian Johnson runs out of business cards, he starts handing out money. Johnson is an architect, and for about a decade his most famous design - the clubhouse of the Dubai Creek Golf Club - has been depicted on the back of the 20 dirham note. "I always carry a 20 with me," he says, pulling a bill from his pocket. "Just in case." In a city that now bristles with "iconic" structures, Johnson stands as the first architect to create a building whose physical presence was matched by its status as a local emblem - Dubai's answer to Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower. Johnson's work is also notable for having set in motion a countrywide trend in the UAE: incorporating traditional Islamic themes into modern architecture. In Dubai in particular, you can hardly swing a tourist map these days without hitting a wind tower or elaborately latticed window, and Johnson is largely the reason why.

It's been exactly 20 years since Johnson founded Godwin, Austen and Johnson, the firm responsible for the Creek clubhouse. Since then the company has refined its old-meets-new technique, creating, for example, the Bab al Shams and One and Only Royal Mirage resorts. While he is clearly not one for self-congratulation - "It's one of those things you think, 'Oh, that's nice' and then move on," he says of being featured on the national currency - Johnson allows that his influence on regional architecture has been pervasive. Perhaps overly so.

"A place like the Old Town is fun, but there's a lot of what you might call Mirage look-a-likes," he says. Johnson, who recently turned 60, is also aware that his sail-like Creek clubhouse (along with the Bedouin tent-shaped Emirates Golf Club clubhouse, whichhis previous firm designed a few years before he left) has inspired a great deal of representational architecture in the city - buildings that deliberately call to mind, say, perfume bottles or aeroplanes. "Arguably that's my fault," he says between sips of tea in a bar at the Creek clubhouse, Dubai's clamorous skyline visible through the midafternoon haze. "I apologise."

Johnson launched his architectural career in the UAE by specialising in a rather dismal sector: the majority of prisons and police stations in Dubai are his. This was in the mid-1970s, shortly after he had arrived in the emirate, when he was young and hungry. "I suppose there was a sort of visibility in this," he says. "If you'd been to prison here, then you'd been to my prison." Besides, he adds, "What did they want? They wanted accommodation for 40 prisoners - well, that's almost like a boutique hotel, isn't it?"

Around the same time, Johnson began working in another high-visibility sector: educational institutions. While seemingly a world away from his subsequent, more illustrious work, these projects (including Dubai College) contained early hints of what have since become his trademark qualities. His police stations, for instance, fused grim utility with delicate Islamic detailing, while his schools were marked by an unusual willingness to violate standard principles of symmetry and logic.

"I didn't really have a house style then," Johnson recalls. "So when I was doing the schools, I thought: 'OK, Dubai has oil, but it also has light.' I had this little idea of making rules and then breaking them. I lined up the classrooms and then shuffled them; I moved them around like cards, so you had all these bright, quirky spaces in between." This "little idea" ended up shaping Johnson's work for the next three decades. His buildings, he says, are not characterised by their materials so much as they are by variations in light and space.

"It's human nature to straighten everything out, but in the Arab world you get these slightly funny angles, these odd spaces," he says, explaining his attempts to capture a local feel without resorting to cliché. "I'm interested in the narrowing of space and the explosion of space, finding interesting ways to bring light into buildings. These are much more important to me than saying, 'Oh, an arch will look nice here, whack it on.'"

While Johnson would never openly say so, his work has helped define the look of modern Dubai and, to a lesser extent, the UAE. In the 34 years since he arrived here, he has had a hand, he says, in hundreds of buildings here. His firm now has six partners, five associates and 170 employees working on projects across the Middle East. The graceful, evocative Creek clubhouse, of course, has been overshadowed by bigger, brasher icons.

"If you said to people, 'What's the most iconic building in Dubai?' they'd have mixed feelings about the Creek clubhouse," Johnson says. "Some people used to think this building was over the top, but not any more, because if you want over the top" - he nods out of the window - "look over there." When asked if he took a moment to look up at the clubhouse sails as he walked in earlier, Johnson replies, "I always do. I always look up." He pauses and adds: "At the point where the sails meet, there's this lovely little patch of sky."