Interview: Kaveh Dabiri speaks to designMENA about creating OMA’s Concrete building in Dubai

OMA has inaugurated its first project in the UAE after having been present in the country for 14 years. Concrete is a multi-functional cultural space designed by the Dutch firm’s Dubai-based team, led by partner Iyad Alsaka. The space opened in Alsekal Avenue, located in Dubai’s industrial area of Al Quoz, which houses 25 different art and gallery spaces.

Concrete addresses the district’s growing need for a centrally located public space capable of hosting a diverse programme, complete with a brief from Alserkal Avenue – the client behind the project- to create a space that comes alive.

Four former warehouses were combined to create what Concrete is today: a 1,250m2 events hub with the ability to accommodate public events, exhibitions, performances and lectures, all at the same time.

Kaveh Dabiri, who led the design of the project, said the brief dictated a design that enabled maximum flexibility, both in terms of event types as well as the number of events that could take place simultaneously.

Kaveh Dabiri led the design for Concrete as part of OMA Dubai.

READ MORE: In pictures: Concrete is OMA’s first built project in Dubai

“In order to provide maximum flexibility, we proposed four full-height walls, which both pivot and slide, with tracks integrated in the ceiling,” Dabiri explained. “The walls create a fully transformable space, which can be divided from one to four separate event spaces, in various configurations.”

These walls are sound proofed to allow various events to take place simultaneously without any disturbances.

Photo by Ajith Narendra/ITP Images

At 8.1 metres tall, maximising the space itself was another design focus which the team accomplished by pushing the back of house and office programme to the rear of the building, which houses toilets, a green room and pantry, alongside office spaces which are located on the second level of the building.

This consequently allowed a large portion of the exhibition space to be released towards the front, in direct connection with The Yard, an outdoor space in Alserkal Avenue that hosts events such as talks and movie nights. By installing a full-height operable façade that also acts as the doors to the building, the team was able to blur the boundary between indoor and outdoor space, using The Yard as an adopted courtyard for Concrete.

The front façade is made using polycarbonate sheets, a material that is almost signature to OMA projects. Being a translucent material, it allows maximum light to be transmitted into the space, once again connecting indoor and outdoor areas.

Photo by Ajith Narendra/ITP Images

With the front façade complete, what was left was the U-shaped shell of the building.

“In order to give Concrete a strong identity as the central events space of Alserkal Avenue, we proposed wrapping the existing warehouse in dark concrete, mixed with mirror pieces as aggregates, without changing the form of the existing shell,” Dabiri said.

“The use of mirror pieces in the concrete mixture is quite unprecedented,” he added. “It makes the façade sparkle under the light and even reflect on the surrounding warehouses.”

The rough concrete texture was created by UAE-based contractors, and later sprayed onto the façade. During the building inauguration, Rem Koolhaas, founder of OMA, marked the signifance of Concrete being a truly ‘Made in Dubai’ project.

Photo by Ajith Narendra/ITP Images

“The building is totally produced in Dubai; it is not a foreign ideal; and that I think is significant,” he said.

“In a way, Concrete is the black sheep of Alserkal Avenue,” Dabiri explained, adding that the material became such a strong part of the building’s identity that it even marked the official name of the structure.

“While the U-shaped shell is wrapped in dark rough concrete externally, we used smooth and light-coloured concrete inside so that it can be used for exhibition purposes to hang art.”

Photo by Ajith Narendra/ITP Images

The dark and light concrete also adds a striking contrast between the internal and external walls, as well as a being a reflection of the situation on either side of the building.

Although no extreme modifications have been made to the building, the team was challenged by the existing structure. Modifications had to be made to the front-side of the building where it was originally slanted. Dabiri explained that the idea was to express the building as if it were sliced at the front. In order to achieve the severe cut shape of the building, the front façade had to be flattened with the help of structural modifications.

Photo by Ajith Narendra/ITP Images

The majority of both new and existing utilities of the building as well as thermal insulations, have been integrated within the cavity of the U-shaped concrete wall that makes up the shell of the building.

However, unexpectedly, one of the most complex areas of the building is the ceiling.

“The ceiling is a very complex part of this project where different elements and systems are superimposed,” Dabiri explained. These include the movable wall tracks, lighting system, skylights, AC, projectors, and fire-fighting systems. All these elements are integrated in a modular ceiling, finished with perforated aluminium panels.

“The ceiling is both the canvas of transformability for Concrete as well as being a reflection of all that is happening inside,” said Dabiri.

Look out for our interview with Rem Koolhaas which will be published this week! 

Koolhaas gave a public lecture in Dubai, addressing how Dubai forced OMA to reinvent its ideas on urbanism, the importance of outdoor design, the projects that never happened for OMA in Dubai and the wider region as well as what Qatar is doing right in terms of development.


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