Frank Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago, world-renowned architect, Frank Gehry, was quoted in an international publication saying that architecture in Dubai was ‘cheap, anonymous, and on steroids’.

His comments set off a range of reactions within the architecture community, some in support of Gehry’s frank and forthright comments, while most others in opposition to such labels. In this special section, MEA rounds up some comments made by professionals in the design industry to hear their views on architecture in Dubai.

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Martin Dufresne
Managing director, U+A Consultants
My thoughts are somewhat divided. On one hand, I do think his remarks are not only evidently ironic, but to a certain extent ill founded, especially if we isolate and scrutinise the architectural virtue of a certain number of buildings in Dubai.

Burj Khalifa for one is a wonderful example of an architect’s contemporary interpretation of localised design. As we well know, it is conceptualised not only through Islamic patterns based on a local desert flower, but its form is also reminiscent of spiral minarets found in Islamic architecture of the region.

The Burj Al Arab too, is another great interpretation of local tradition, and passion, the dhow. It must be said that architectural academics may dismiss this concept to have any merit in the process of establishing iconic structures, but we should really acknowledge the popular appreciation validating its relevance in a city, which is still in its infancy, and still identifying its architectural history.

On the other hand, we could easily make the same remark for many great cities in the world. Hong Kong, New York, Toronto, are all guilty of building generic culturally disconnected structures. Most cities are in some ways burdened with ‘replicas’ of the next town primarily due to a severe lack of originality.

An immediate reaction may be that architects are to blame. However it is my strong opinion that although not all architects are distinctively creative to a level of establishing a single unique style on every building they draw, Gehry’s finger should point at the developer for the most part. These non-architects shamelessly impose their ideologies onto buildings forcing architects to compromise on their designs.”

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Tareq Abu-Sukheila
Managing director, Gensler
Dubai’s development began and ended with the intent to serve a commercial purpose – offices, retail establishments, hospitality projects and transportation networks. This jump started the economy and led to Dubai’s development in a really short time frame.

Many developers and property owners approached their projects with certain pre-conceived notions of what they wanted as a finished product ‘look’.

This highly influenced client expectations and there was a great deal of focus on the external aspects in the designs produced during that period of rapid expansion. Designers in many cases were just trying to give their interpretation of what the client envisioned instead of taking a more holistic approach and designing for user experience.

Furthermore, the influx of designers to meet the huge project demand was unprecedented and many of the designers worked with limited context and little first hand understanding of the local culture and historical architecture. In addition, most of them did not know about the city’s future outlook or urban needs, and hence designed buildings from a blank slate which has resulted in what we have today.

There could definitely have been more balance between the design consultants and developers to go beyond the architecture that was achieved, but as the cliché with design goes, there’s always room for improvement.”

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Bart Leclerq
Head of structures, WSP Middle East:
I think Dubai has got its own style and though there are some examples where old shapes are reinvigorated or reused, I do not see anything wrong with that.

To be honest, I really like that Dubai is bold and naughty and that it copies things, shapes, forms and ideas and makes it a little bit bigger. Yes, it is definitely on steroids but there is nothing wrong with it. It shows confidence and it shows cheekiness and boldness.

We cannot have every building as a Frank Gehry building. That would be boring as well. In the whole spectrum, Dubai has got its own style and it is very recognisable as what we have come to know Dubai to be.”

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Chris Brown
vice-president, HOK:
I think Gehry’s comments in the context of the article are an accurate reflection on the difficulties of working in different countries and with different cultures.

I think you could easily find many buildings in Dubai that underline why his comments are not unjust and you can probably find the same proportion in any city around the world but just not built in such a short time frame.

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Sherif Anis
Design manager, Gulf Related:
I do not want to criticise what Gehry said out of respect for him, but I think Dubai’s culture is still evolving. It is by comparison to other geographic locations, a fairly new culture, especially when you consider the fact that it has grown so quickly and expanded its population and ethnic diversity far faster than any other culture has experienced before.

That is Dubai’s culture – it is, like steroids – on a quickly expanding growth pattern and while there may be a lot of mistakes made along the way that is to be expected, corrected and celebrated, not criticised.

I would suggest Dubai is doing precisely what Gehry suggests it is not and that is responding to the place and culture of today – maybe if he stuck around for a while, he might recognise that.”

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