Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Oh dear.

Dubai has been criticised by Sir Michael Hopkins (renowned architect in the UK) and George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Hopkins has said that "In Dubai, it is really hard because not only have you got this terrible stuff going up around you, but it is very hot and there is very little to deal with architecturally."

I have seen several of Hopkins' buildings in the UK, and the man is a bit of a genius. But possibly a fish out of water here in Dubai. It's reported that he has designed 60 villas at Emirates Lakes.

Poor baby. We can't do anything about the climate. But I understand his point that really great architecture (in the developed world) has a lot to do with the contextual relationships between neighbouring buildings. If this is handled sensitively, then you get towns and cities that hang together and basically 'look right'. And I can't think of any recent developments in Dubai where this would be true, or even relevant.

What Dubai is about, for developers and architects alike, is building big, bold, thrusting whatnots that make visual sense on their own, and do not feel obliged to pay homage to their neighbours.

You could say exactly the same thing about Manchester or Liverpool or any other big city in the 19th century. The fact that these cities seem to have some kind of architectural unity is because of the materials used - brick or stone for the walls, and tile or slate for the roofs. But I do not think that architects in that generation gave any thought to making their building fit in with its neighbours - it was more to do with technology - your rooms were 8 feet high, your floors (planks on joists) would be 9 inches thick, you didn't need to build in space for a/c ducts), your roof was pitched, not flat. These days there is a much greater range of materials and technology available, all over the world. Architects who cling to the idea of 'local materials and techniques' are on a bit of loser really.

Hopkins is right to say that there is some terrible stuff going up. But you can say exactly the same thing about any city on the planet. You will always get a mix that goes something like this:
Bottom 5%, absolutely horrible, pull it down now.
Bottom 5-15%, just plain yukky.
Middle 15-85%, mediocre, not great, not outstandingly horrible.
Top 85-99%, very good-looking buildings.
Top 99-100%, icons.

Now, don't get me wrong about the last category above - icons are not necessarily good buildings. I would cite the Burj Al Arab as one these. A huge number of people worldwide would recognise the Burj from a picture, and would know what and where it is. That doesn't make it a handsome building (not much could really), but it does make it important. Here's my list of iconic Dubai buildings:
Emirates Towers
National Bank of Fujairah (less than 10 storeys, but my goodness it's gorgeous - not big enough to be an icon really, but I just love to look at it whenever I'm in a traffic jam on Bank Street)
National Bank of Dubai HQ
Jumeirah Beach Hotel
Creek Golf Club
Dubai Airport Sheikh Rashid Terminal
Burj Al Arab
Madinat Jumeirah
21st Century Tower (Al Rostomani HQ)

Hopkins says "If you haven't got a building next door that needs to be preserved, there is not that starting point. It is very hard. You have to start with the sun in the desert as a reference point."

I don't know what prompted him to say this, maybe the a/c in his car wasn't working. Maybe he just never wants to work here again. But he is wrong to say that the sun in the desert is the only reference point. And he's also wrong to say that thing about the building next door. Possibly he didn't notice that this is a very new city - there's virtually nothing here over 30 years old. We are not talking about a city that has grown over 200-300 years. When you are designing in this context, the sensible approach is to ignore what's next door. And you also need to realise that there are architects working in this city from all over the world - there's a staggering number of international cultural influences going on, and there is virtually no useful indigenous historical context.

Until 30-40 years ago, Dubai was a few small houses built out of mud, wood and straw, with a windtower for cooling. The windtower theme has been absolutely done to death, and there's precious little else for you to go on. You will see Islamic decorative themes kicking about, but these are common throughout the Gulf.

At the end of the day, I don't see the problem as being unique to Dubai. It's more to do with globalisation. The availability of modern materials and building technologies is always going to overwhelm the traditional. You simply cannot build a 50-storey building out of mud.

And the RIBA President said:
"Hopkins is absolutely right. Dubai is a model of unsustainability. It is exciting for all the wrong reasons. Dubai is like a great theme park."
And your point is?
Yes, it might be like a theme park, but it's not one yet. Conservation areas in the UK are closer to being theme parks, the theme being 'old stuff'. Dubai's theme is 'new stuff'.

Get a grip, chaps.