Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

Landmark renovation project will preserve 'footprints of Dubai', say architects

Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab would not have been possible without these iconic buildings, they say

The Clock Tower in Deira is among the buildings and landmarks that will preserved under a project launched by Dubai Municipality. Satish Kumar for The National
The Clock Tower in Deira is among the buildings and landmarks that will preserved under a project launched by Dubai Municipality. Satish Kumar for The National

A clock tower on a frenetic roundabout. A library that offered books to the public for the first time. And a beacon of business that would be the tallest building in the emirate for decades.

These are the modernist marvels that have stood the test of time and paved the way for the unique architecture seen in the Gulf.

The value of buildings like Deira Clock Tower and Al Baraha Hospital was recognised this month when a decree from the government stated that special status would ensure their preservation for years to come.

And according to some architects, those clean angles and linear colours — naturally the colour of sand — are the inspiration for hundreds of thousands of buildings across the Emirates today.

“These buildings were hugely important in setting the footprints for Dubai,” said Husain Roomi, from H2R Design, an architecture firm with offices in Dubai and London.

“They were the source of inspiration that led to the modernisation of the city, buildings like the World Trade Centre set the tone for Dubai moving forward.”

Mr Roomi said that, had those buildings not been constructed, it is unlikely that Dubai would have been such an international success story.

“You have to remember there was not much built in Dubai at that time and thanks to those iconic buildings it is now home to some of the most iconic constructions in the world,” he said.

“They set the direction for the future of Dubai. You would not have had Emirates Tower if there had not been a World Trade Centre in Dubai. Those original iconic buildings created a chain of events that led to Dubai getting the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa.”

Al Ras Public Library in Dubai. Satish Kumar for The National
Al Ras Public Library in Dubai. Satish Kumar for The National

The building design is very much down to the individual architects behind them, said Mr Roomi.

Though certain aspects of their appearance — like the colour of the buildings — are practical choices.

“It’s all about the context in which they were situated at the time,” he said.

Many of the names on the list have a distinctive appearance, many of them share softer, more neutral colours, something that has not always been the case with buildings that followed.

There is a very simple reason for that, according to Mr Roomi.

“It is easier to keep those buildings clean and looking fresh by using those colours. It is about maintenance.”

Al Baraha Hospital. Satish Kumar for The National
Al Baraha Hospital. Satish Kumar for The National

He said aspects of that design are still common in Dubai, citing the example the recently built Index Tower.

Yasser Elsheshtawy, a former associate professor of architecture at the United Arab Emirates University, said the older buildings play a key role in Dubai’s identity.

“They are important as they preserve a layer of the city’s history and as such would help in refuting notions of artificiality or that the city is without history,” said Mr Elsheshtawy, who wrote a book on the emirate’s development titled Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle.

“Otherwise the city risks becoming just another bland metropolis without any character.”

From a purely architectural point of view though, Mr Elsheshtawy feels the impact of the older buildings is minimal.

“The World Trade Centre in particular stands out; but the others are kind of hidden,” he said.

“In fact very few buildings from the 1960s and 1970s actually remain. It is also important to point out that not everything that hails from that period is worth preserving.”

He offered the Sana Building in Karama, which was demolished last year, as an example of a building, constructed decades ago, that failed to provide any value to modern Dubai.

“The World Trade Centre and the Toyota building on Sheikh Zayed Road are really very interesting building architecturally and have value that is important to preserve,” he said.

World Trade Centre. Satish Kumar for The National
World Trade Centre. Satish Kumar for The National

“This value does not have to be purely physical — the World Trade Centre tower is referred to as Burj Rashid, a reference to the previous ruler of Dubai, who initiated this project. This kind of historical or urban memory is important.”

Experimentation has been very much at the heart of Dubai’s approach to architecture, but that has not always been a positive, Mr Elsheshtawy said.

“Given that buildings in the UAE do not have to go through the kind of approval process common in other places, which involves community input and other interest groups,” he said.


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The writing is on the wall for the future designers of Dubai, said Mr Elsheshtawy, as climate change, financial limitations on investments and changing demographics will have a significant effect on the architectural scene.

“Architects, developers and city officials will realise that this kind of approach to building without regard to context and social concerns is ultimately unsustainable,” he said.

“There will be a move towards buildings with greater density, and a more community based approach to architecture and urban development.”

He said that if things continue as they are it will lead to “a relentless expansion into the desert and building as if climate change and environmental concerns do not exist”.

Updated: August 7, 2018 06:40 PM



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