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Thinking outside the box: Dubai explores the atypical in shopping

Known for its megamalls and international shopping and restaurant brands, Dubai is building a new image with a growing emphasis on smaller, “funky” alternatives.
Namir Hourani of the Marj Group, a company that has the franchise for New York health food restaurants Just Salad, is excited about the potential of its new outlet at Boxpark Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
Namir Hourani of the Marj Group, a company that has the franchise for New York health food restaurants Just Salad, is excited about the potential of its new outlet at Boxpark Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

Boxpark Dubai is not your average strip mall. With 220 shipping containers incorporated into a design by a progressive team of architects, the development is aiming to be a funky alternative to traditional shopping malls.

Known for its megamalls and international shopping and restaurant brands, Dubai is building a new image with a growing emphasis on smaller, “funky” alternatives.

A latest example is Boxpark Dubai, a quirky 18,500-square-metre development that incorporates shipping containers on Jumeirah’s Al Wasl Road.

It is being built by Meraas Holdings, the company behind City Walk and The Beach opposite Jumeirah Beach Residence.

“Frankly speaking, when I first met with Meraas I had no idea what this project was going to look like,” says Namir Hourani, whose investment company Marj Group holds the rights for Just Salad, a New York health food restaurant.

“But I thought the idea for Boxpark was amazing because it’s not a typical mall. It’s about urban, outdoor lifestyle, with parks every couple of buildings. And our concept is not a typical concept either. We’re not a shawarma place, we’re not a hamburger joint.”

Boxpark Dubai is the latest brainchild of Meraas’ architectural division, which aims to design interconnecting urban environments, providing residents with more inclusive spaces to explore.

The company’s architects want to “turn roads into streets” and push towards a more integrated urban plan, designing “interventions into the city”, rather than “isolated developments”.

They speak of creating “moments of exploration” and “addresses”, by developing an architectural language that pays careful attention to scale, lighting and tenants.

Architectural lingo aside, at first glance it is hard to take in the array of aesthetics incorporated into Boxpark.

Every building incorporates a unique blend of stone, metal, composite materials, glass and fabric.

Colourful shipping containers jut out of roofs, while others are stacked, and thick metallic blinds sweep across windows.

Although Boxpark incorporates 220 shipping containers into its architecture, it is a far cry from the temporary pop-up malls seen in such cities as Paris, London and New York. It also bears little resemblance to the average Dubai strip mall.

There are playgrounds next to new concept restaurants so parents can supervise their children as they dine.

Lebanese entrepreneur Mr Hourani says Just Salad’s trademark white reclaimed wood shopfront is missing from its Boxpark outlet because Meraas has restricted tenants from altering the shopfronts.

But the restaurant does have plenty of room to experiment when it comes to its indoor and outdoor space.

“We have a beautiful outdoor space, almost 15 metres by five metres, positioned next to one of the adult parks that has benches and trees,” Mr Hourani says.

The restaurant offers Boxpark customers a choice of three seating arrangements. Outside, there are green chairs designed by Philippe Starck, made of recycled metal. These are coupled with white wood tabletops.

There is also a lounge area and another section with tall bar stools.

Mr Hourani, 33, a father of two whose wife is expecting twins, lives near Boxpark. During construction, he has regularly driven past to check on the development’s progress. When the boarding was removed, he was not only relieved, but “super impressed”.

He admits he had reservations about the location at first, because of the false “general belief” that Jumeirah’s high Emirati population preferred sweet and carb-heavy foods.

However, a trip to a local restaurant serving organic, gluten and salt-free food soon helped to make up his mind.

“I walked in that restaurant and, no kidding, 90 per cent of the customers sitting there were Emirati,” Mr Hourani says.

People, he says, are keen to be outdoors as much as possible in Dubai.

“We all know that we are limited with the amount of time that we are able to be outdoors, just simply due to weather constraints in the summer.

“So, when it does come to the nice seven months of good weather that we have I think that people, as much as possible, are pretty keen to be outdoors.”

The developers are also optimistic in this respect, focusing on the “eight months of the year when the weather’s fantastic”.

Dr Greg Kerr, who heads strategic marketing at the Dubai branch of Australia’s University of Wollongong, turned a few heads himself when he first arrived in Dubai six years ago.

“You might tell from my accent that I’m Australian,” Dr Kerr says with a laugh. “I remember saying ‘I’m going for a walk’ and people in the office were quite shocked, thinking, ‘we’ve got a bit of a character here’.”

But he says it is no longer uncommon to see people out walking. Living in a car-dependent city, residents are embracing shops and food outlets to which they can walk.

Online retailing, he says, is “just going to grow”, challenging traditional bricks-and-mortar shop owners and outlets to find ways to distinguish themselves.

From high-end luxury outlets, to more relaxed, casual ones, Dr Kerr says, “the answer is to add some extra types of value: socialisation, entertainment, relaxation”.

Such values, he says, are largely absent from online retailing. Malls play an important role in socialisation, especially in the hot summer months when “people haven’t got a lot of options”.

“But the rest of the year, people can be outside and I’ve seen this transition. Walkways, kiosks and different types of developments are starting to appear.”

While incorporating shipping containers serves to set Boxpark’s contemporary architecture apart from other spaces, Dr Kerr says it is important that this is not just a fad and that the development must, “from the point of view of the owners and tenants, be sustainable”.

The Meraas architectural team’s design process was a dynamic and hands-on endeavour, working with shipping container makers in Jebel Ali.

They took apart the large steel boxes and rebuilt them in a variety of ways, studying not just their dimensions and compositions but their very essence.

Occupants, they say, should represent the spirit of Boxpark – one that is industrialised, while still “cool, hip and funky”.

At the same time, the planners have tried to accommodate the diversity of Dubai’s multicultural community.

Mr Hourani says Boxpark provides a great alternative to some of the larger, more established developments across the emirate.

“I would still visit Dubai Mall, but with a completely different objective from if I visited Boxpark,” he says.

“Meraas haven’t accepted your traditional retailers. All of the tenants are a mix of funky and cool brands, and even with the traditional ones they’ve picked the right fit.”

halbustani@thenational.ae

Updated: February 23, 2015 04:00 AM

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