Regional designers and architects discussed designing contextual and sustainable spaces ahead of 2018 designMENA Summit

Regional designers and architects discussed designing contextual and sustainable spaces ahead of 2018 designMENA Summit

Some of Dubai’s leading industry figures participated in a panel discussion to set forth the agenda for the 2018 DesignMENA Summit

2018 DesignMENA Summit, DesignMENA Summit
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As building and construction activities continue unabated in the region, new trends are evolving within the realms of interior design and architecture. One of the most prominent outcomes of this upswing is the impact of design on the society at large and how it can enhance urban living.

Urban design for people underscored the discussion at the DesignMENA Summit Advisory Panel meeting, which took place at Dewan Architects + Engineers' offices in Dubai Design District. The sixth edition of the symposium will take place on December 5, 2018 at the Grosvenor House, Dubai. Some of the topics from the overall agenda discussed are being presented here.


Samer Touqan, projects director at Dewan Architects + Engineers kick-started the conversation with new developments in the emirate with a strong emphasis on outdoor areas. “Since the past few years, we’ve realised that we could make use of these outdoor areas,” he says. “As a result, there has been an explosion in open-air destinations, such as Boxpark, Wasl Square, City Walk and La Mer, among others.”

The members also pointed out that venues such as Boxpark are struggling to stay afloat. “What are we going to do with such places that don’t succeed, despite having been designed well with an interesting concept?” asks Touqan. Sahar Fikree, founder and creative director of OCD Spaces, opines that such developments are only tailored to boost social media popularity. “I call them Instagram developments that look great, and where you go to take photos and share on social media.”

She continues: “Probably, the scale of their concepts is far too big. There is limited street furniture and no shading devices. All these components should be integrated into the design of the space, without having them as individual elements.”

Christian Mereiau, managing director and partner at MMAC Associates, feels that while it’s good to borrow successful concepts that work well in other parts of the world, developers and designers shouldn’t feel compelled to copy the entire narrative as is. “I think there is a lack of intelligent, locally relevant design which has a sense of architectural and cultural context that befits the city,” he point out. “Not only the clients, but even we, as designers, are guilty of churning formulaic design that may have been successful elsewhere.”

Lama Harb, associate director at JT+Partners, says that design and architecture also have to take into account the shape of the society that we want. “These spaces need to cater to teenagers, and people of all age groups,” she says. “Most of these developments are always graded from a commercial point of view.

Hilda Impey, associate design director, FF&E at Wilson Associates, agrees: “In developing all these so-called iconic projects, we often forget the end-users. It’s the user of these spaces, who will make the buildings iconic. We need to design for people. Buildings don’t work when they are not being used.”

Ahmad Bukhash, director, master planning and zoning affairs at Dubai Creative Clusters Authority, and founder of architecture firm archidentity, shares that even when the authorities review the masterplan, it is important to collect feedback from these development both at the conception stage and after they have been built. “The end-users, both local and expatriates, should be able to provide feedback on the projects that they are ultimately going to live in,” he stresses. “A lot of these developments are already preconceived. Regardless of the fact that they will be used or not, they will still be built. That’s is how these projects are being conceptualised and executed at the moment.”

Touqan reckons that with many buildings in Dubai reaching a stage where they require refurbishment, open communal spaces can and should be incorporated into them.

“There is no refurbishment legislation in place right now,” he says. “A well-crafted regulation with respect to redevelopment projects will address a lot of these issues.”


Fikree reckons that affordability also plays a big part in the urban development of the city. She adds: “The expatriate population has increased, and we just do not have the funds our ancestors had access to.”

Bukhash says that the driving force here now is efficiency. “It’s no longer about the 300m2 units,” he says. “Residential and even hospitality units are now moving into the direction of affordable real estate that is economically viable.”

However, Mereiau feels that there is no harm in having expensive ideas or products. He says: “Things have a value and we should be using them a lot longer. The compulsion to have lower prices is resulting in inferior quality with a lower lifespan and destroying our society.”

Touqan expresses his concern about the diminishing size in architecture. But Mereiau opines that in the new developments, communal spaces are already being incorporated, which mitigates the shrinking indoor spaces.


Impey links the idea of building social spaces to express the context such as the climate and local materials in an honest way possible, by exploring. Fikree points out that vernacular and indigenous architecture offers some good guidelines in this respect. “We’re not building on our history, instead we are bringing in global typologies which are not relevant to this place,” she says. “Vernacular design is also sustainable. Building sustainably doesn’t have to rely solely on technology.”

All panellists agreed that indigenous methods should be reinterpreted in the modern design strategies. Mereiau says that designers should avoid being gimmicky while creating sustainable spaces. “There is a blurred line between gimmicky and sustainable,” he says.

Duncan Denley, managing director, desert INK, shares that he is particularly interested in using local materials. “There is a big disposition that any material from overseas is better,” he says. “This is an issue about educating clients. Often, we lack the numbers and the date to back up what we believe in.”

Denley further says: “We do not need to have green roofs and walls to have biophilic design; that’s very superficial. We can find nature in not just materials, but also patterns.”

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