Tasked with creating a cutting-edge villa in the traditional Al Mizhar neighbourhood, AK Design gave the Arabic courtyard a highly contemporary interpretation.
Dubai home shows an ultra-modern approach to Arabic architecture
It's not what most people would describe as Arabic architecture. With its sleek, minimalist lines and stark geometry, it bears none of the hallmarks that we have come to associate with local design. There are no wind towers or mock mashrabiya screens. There's no sand-coloured paint job or overly ornate finishes. The villa is set in Al Mizhar, one of Dubai's more traditional neighbourhoods - but it wouldn't look out of place in one of Europe's trendiest capitals.
In fact, explains Kim Nielsen, the design director of AK Design, the company responsible for designing the villa, it is very Arabic in its approach - just not in the ways we might be used to. "In my opinion, wind towers and arches are not what you would call traditional Arabic design; that is just copying the past as a pastiche that you then put onto buildings.
"My interpretation of Arabic architecture has to do with materials; it's about light and how you deal with light, and the ingress of light into a building; it's about how you deal with the extreme temperatures that occur in this region. Let's face it, for six months of the year the weather is beautiful, so you shouldn't just design a house for the summer period when you close everything off and have the AC on. You should design it so you extend that duration in the spring and autumn, when it gets a little warm but you've still got that natural breeze coming through."
In his former role as part of the design division of the Engineer's Office in Dubai, and his current role as the design director of AK Design, Nielsen has been a major advocate of contemporary architecture - which is perhaps unsurprising given that he originally hails from Denmark. And so, when the owner of the Al Mizhar villa approached AK Design and requested a home that would push the envelope in terms of modern architecture, Nielsen and his team were happy to oblige.
Their response is a highly contemporary take on traditional courtyard housing. The shape of the site, which measures 26m x 72m, played a fundamental role in how the design evolved. "The site was quite unique because it was a very narrow and very long site. In that area of Dubai there is a predominance of these very long, narrow sites, which are not very good for the traditional design of putting a building in the middle of a plot; you either end up with a very large front garden or no front garden and a very large back garden. And the house blocks the whole view.
"What we wanted to do here was incorporate the garden within the house, so we split the living accommodation almost into two tubes and then linked it together so we had a courtyard incorporated into it."
Many of Dubai's more traditional villas are very boxlike, Nielsen points out, and there is often a disconnect between the indoors and the outdoors. Both of these issues were addressed in the design of the Al Mizhar villa. The two tubes, which appear to be sliding past each other, make full use of the entire length of the site. All four bedrooms are located in the southern tube, while the northern tube is home to social spaces such as a dining area, a breakfast area and a majlis. The tubes are anchored by a living room.
"It suits the way that most local families live here: you have your separate sleeping quarters and family room; you have your majlis, which is slightly separated, and you have a dining area that's shared between the living area and the majlis. Your kitchen and maid's quarters are also slightly separate and can be accessed from the side of the house, so you have that element of privacy."
The Al Mizhar villa has all of the features that you'd expect of an Arabic villa, but pieced together in a novel way. "It still follows traditional planning, even though it is done in a different way. The idea is when you enter, you see all the way though. So instead of coming in to a closed box, it's all open," Nielsen explains.
The house is located near Mushrif Park, an old ghaf forest set over a natural underground water stream, and references to the park can be found throughout the building in the form of timber cladding and screening. "That connection is quite important," says Nielsen. Natural stone was also favoured for the interior architecture.
While the client was open to most of AK Design's ideas, there was one area of contention. "We wanted to give something back to the street scene," says Nielsen. "Most Arabic villas have this boundary wall going around them. What we had done earlier in the scheme was set part of the wall back so we could have landscaping externally and give something back to the street scene, because generally when you are driving through streets like this, all you see are boundary walls and gates. That initially met with some resistance, but we reached a compromise where we reduced the amount of landscaping externally but still retained a little."
Even while it was being built, the Al Mizhar villa attracted a lot of attention. AK Design has since been approached by a host of other potential clients - predominantly young, Emirati professionals - who are interested in creating a similarly contemporary home for themselves. AK Design is already developing another house in the same area of Dubai, which is very different but still very modern.
However, while the contemporary architecture trend is undoubtedly gathering pace in Dubai's residential areas, there are still challenges to overcome, Nielsen says. "We have recently had some problems in obtaining municipality approvals, because they have expressed a concern about things not looking Arabic enough, which has taken me a little by surprise. And I think there's a simplified view of what Arabic actually is.
"I think it's good to challenge the existing understanding of architecture all the time and to push it forward, but you have to have a pragmatic approach to it; it has to be something sensible that works within the environment and within the region."