Dubai-headquartered Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) celebrated 30 years of delivering architecture and interior design in the Middle East.
The practice has grown significantly since it entered the region, delivering commercial, hospitality and governmental projects. To commemorate its role in shaping the urban fabric of the Middle East, Commercial Interior Design looks back on three of its major projects.
The Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club is undoubtedly one of the emirate’s original landmarks – and one of GAJ’s standout projects. Its iconic status is reflected in the fact the building features on the AED20 note. The design pays homage to the UAE’s seafaring spirit, with its roof reminiscent of a dhow with a lateen sail. Years after completion, it continues to capture the simple elegance of the triangular-sailed ships that once cruised Dubai’s coastline.
Brian Johnson, managing partner at GAJ, says HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, wanted an architectural style for the club that reflected the modernity and heritage of the city. Basing the design on the lateen sail, though, was challenging, he reveals.
“My first sketches all seemed to have more than a passing resemblance to the Sydney Opera House, which has been described as being based upon the shape of a sail. I got round this by taking account of the fact that every surface of the Opera House is curved, so I decided to make every surface of the new building flat, which in fact it is.”
Johnson, who joined the practice in 1989, says the second challenge was that he wanted the building to look like a sail from every direction you looked at it. “No matter how many ways I drew it or how many sketch models I made, I just couldn’t come up with something that worked until I came up with the idea of having multiple sails that would achieve what I was trying to do.”
Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club established GAJ’s reputation for architecture and design that respected traditional Emirati heritage. It has left a mark on the city’s skyline and helped to establish the company in the region.
The appreciation for the UAE’s history and culture that GAJ demonstrated with the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club came in useful for the expansion of Dubai College.
Jason Burnside, a partner at the practice, says he wanted to play with the “charm” of Dubai Cellage by “incorporating sustainable design that doesn’t jar with the history of the school”. Creating a new reception area was the first step. It was envisaged as a contemporary design to reflect the progression of the campus from a series of red brick buildings into a modernist educational space.
Managing energy consumption of the expanded school became a pressing sustainability consideration, Burnside adds. “We worked closely with our in-house MEP team to create a service compound to help improve the energy efficiency of the school. This is a significant investment, but one that will provide a better return on the efficiency of the school.”
GAJ is currently working on the biggest phase of Dubai College’s expansion: the sports hall and drama building. It will require the existing swimming pool and sports hall to be demolished and rebuilt. A two-storey sports and performing arts space will replace it, providing the school with a new swimming pool, spectator area, theatre, music rooms, black box, sports hall and gym.
Hospitality has always been a sector of strength for GAJ and the 53-key boutique resort Al Bait Sharjah continues this form. It was tasked with redeveloping five historic buildings: Bait Ibrahim Al Midfa, Bait Eissa Al Midfa, Bait Abdul Rahman Al Midfa, Bait Abdullah Al Mahmood and Ibrahim Al Midfa Majlis.
Its interior design is based on whether the rooms are part of the historic renovated buildings or the new insertions. Ceilings in the heritage rooms are complete with plaster cornices, timber shutters and doors. More refined finishes with a contemporary take on materiality have been used in the newer hotel rooms.
Coloured plaster walls are finished with subtle details, such as decoratively patterned plasterwork and cornices and polished concrete floors that are reminiscent of the more traditional clay floors. Every room features local Emirati fabrics, patterns and ornaments, while the hotel’s statement pieces include hand-carved decorative timber furniture.
From an urban design perspective, the primary aim of the redevelopment was to create the charm and intimacy of a traditional Arabic village: narrow streets, open courtyards and secluded walkways help to create this experience for guests.
The boutique heritage hotel in the Heart of Sharjah – a government-backed project to preserve the emirate’s history – is a sustainable Emirati luxury resort that combines the heritage of the area with contemporary design.
While The Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club was about presenting Dubai’s modernisation, Al Bait Sharjah celebrates heritage as the country continues to witness change unprecedented in its short history.
For 30 years, GAJ has been not only been witness to this transformation but has played an active role in creating some of the country’s most well-known schools, hotels, government buildings and commercial properties. Through its architecture and design, it has had a positive impact on the social and economic fabric of the UAE, and this is no reason to suggest this will change.