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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Karl Sharro on flying cars, underground networks and the future of cities in the Gulf

The urban planner was speaking about the 'new Arab city' at Dubai Design Week

Karl Sharro delivered the first keynote speech of Dubai Design Week on Tuesday. Photo by James Barry
Karl Sharro delivered the first keynote speech of Dubai Design Week on Tuesday. Photo by James Barry

Flying cars have long been a staple of science-fiction but urban designer and author Karl Sharro has suggested that they could soon become reality.

In the first keynote speech of this year’s Dubai Design Week, Sharro called for an overhaul in the planning of cities, particularly in the Gulf. Crucial to this, he explained, would be allowing people to travel through cities in three dimensions, effectively replacing traditional roads with a series of tunnels and tubes connecting buildings.

“If you look at the Sheikh Zayed Road [in Dubai], it takes up a big chunk of space, but it also cuts the city in two halves and is not easy to cross,” said Sharro during his talk titled The New Arab City – Volume 1: The Gulf. “If you use tunnels, you can reclaim it, create green space, and put the buildings closer to each other.

Is this how an interconnected modern city might look?
Is this how an interconnected modern city might look? Courtesy Karl Sharro

“But [these routes] don’t have to be underground, they can be up in the air. And if we put them all together, we have a network that allows us to move through the city in a three-dimensional way,” he continued.

“This has been a fantasy for architects for a long time. Traditionally, we build and it’s an explosion, which goes up, and the buildings are not connected. [New] technology is going to move us away from driving on roads. All of a sudden, we can start to think of driving a motorcycle on the 40th floor of a building or better still, of the motorcycle driving itself.”

Karl Sharro: 'All of a sudden, we can start to think of driving a motorcycle on the 40th floor of a building or better still, of the motorcycle driving itself'
Karl Sharro: 'All of a sudden, we can start to think of driving a motorcycle on the 40th floor of a building or better still, of the motorcycle driving itself'. Courtesy Karl Sharro

Sharro, who is a partner at London-based firm PLP Architecture, also explained that he and his team are working on an underground transport system, which uses self-driving cars. “The idea is that you don’t own the car, you order a self-driving car through your app and it takes you to your destination via a network of tunnels,” he said. “You can have the efficiency of public transport, but the [vehicle] still functions as a private car, so it is the best of both worlds.”

One of the major features of cities in the Gulf is the prevalence of shopping malls and Sharro, who also runs the popular satirical Twitter account @KarlreMarks, addressed what might happen to these buildings with the rise of e-commerce. In Europe, particularly, an increasing number of shopping malls are becoming derelict.

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“For some people, there is a negative connotation attached to shopping malls,” he said. “But I think shopping malls [here] are growing into something different to what we see in the West. They have become more active, social spaces […] Anyone who tries to reduce Dubai to the idea of big, flashy shopping malls doesn’t quite understand what’s so special about this city.

“Shopping malls can become places where you can go to the theatres, have primary schools and work spaces. There is something very strong about the enclosed space of the shopping mall acting as a public space.”

Sharro went on to discuss how work spaces can be redesigned to better suit employees as well as suggesting ways of introducing a more holistic feel into high-rise accommodation, including building with timber. He also called on architects in the Gulf to embrace “the native form of modernism” that was prevalent here in the 1960s and 70s, using as an example the Hajj terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.

Dubai Design Week runs until November 17 at Dubai Design District (d3). For more, visit www.dubaidesignweek.ae