“We’ve seen a lot of groups applying a conveyor belt approach to design,” said Duncan Denley, managing director of Desert Group’s design consultancy, desert INK. “They approach things the same way for every project, so the result’s inevitably the same each time. The Block is a good example of how we like to do things a little diﬀerently.”
Recruited to bolster the landscape conglomerate Desert Group’s design capability, Denley led the launch of desert INK in 2015. In the three years since, the boutique landscape studio has won a number of awards and high-profile commissions across the GCC, including the upcoming Sustainability Pavilion for Expo 2020. Its growing portfolio includes collaborations with leading international and local architectural practices including Grimshaw, 5+, RMJM, NORR, Dewan and U+A. The team focuses on inherently sustainable practices, such as local material sourcing, reusing site-found materials and pioneering the use of native plants.
According to Denley, desert INK’s vision is to “create exciting places that enhance people’s lives”. Its completed projects, like Akoya Oxygen Sales Centre with Damac, speak to this credo – and The Block is another example.
Recently completed, The Block was constructed over a seven-month period along the creek in Dubai Design District (d3). Repurposing eight hundred 30-ton concrete blocks left over from the canal construction, the urban park features recycled materials, countless play areas for children, an outdoor gym, sports facilities and food and beverage outlets.
“The best spaces evolve over time, as people take ownership of them,” said Denley. “The park is a canvas which will really come to life with people, artwork, events and performances. We’ve used the blocks for so many things from climbing walls to jump boxes in the gym. At one point we simply polished one sloped surface of the block to create a slide. It’s all about using what’s available in a place that makes landscapes unique and sustainable.”
Throughout the park, nooks and crannies invite visitors to explore, play and rest. While the right side of the park features volleyball nets, table tennis stations, an outdoor gym and an urban beach, the centre and left side of the park include a plaza, enclosed rock-climbing zone, skate bowl and basketball court.
Spanning the 400m site, native plants populate the sandy patches, including date palms and Leptadenia – the latter of the two has not yet been widely seen in urban settings across the GCC.
“We wanted to use as many recycled materials as possible, so we’ve constructed seating platforms from spent scaffolding planks and repurposed scaffold poles to create gym and parkour equipment,” explained Denley.
“That’s also why you see the bolt-together industrial warehouse structure and shipping containers being used to create the food and beverage outlets; they are easy to reuse in the future. The aluminium mesh selected for the plaza area as well as the toilet block cladding were chosen because they’re cost effective, reusable and look great powder-coated with bright colours. Recycled car tyres are used in the play area and for the ground as a soft safety finish in the rock-climbing zone.”
Partnering with iGuzzini for the lighting fixtures, desert INK also worked with a skatepark designer to ensure the skate-ability of its design, which also features a skate track that loops around the park for those intimidated by the bowl.
“Not everyone is a pro-skater, so we wanted to ensure that all abilities are catered for,” said the park’s lead designer William Bennett.
“The blocks were on their way to a landfill when we visited the site, but when we stood between them, we knew straight away that these blocks would be the defining characteristic of the park and we would save the resource and cost of disposing them. To fabricate these blocks for the design wouldn’t have made any sense, but because we had them, we used them,” added Bennett. “And I think that’s a good example of why we’re diﬀerent and how we approach things. We prefer to have things around us to inspire us, whether it’s the amazing views on the site or the topography.”
desert INK has a number of projects around the world in the pipeline, including a boutique hotel in Ibiza, numerous resorts around the GCC and EXPO’s Sustainability Pavilion.
“The next few years will be incredibly exciting for us,” said Denley. “The Sustainability Pavilion will pioneer an entirely new form of landscape which will change the current approach by cultivating native plant seeds from the regional deserts and mountains.”