Paris-based architects Roland Castro and Sophie Denissof, recognised throughout Europe for their work alongside two French presidents, are turning their attentions to the UAE.
Castro Denissof & Associes has just opened an office in Abu Dhabi and is set to work across the region after an invitation from commercial developers and engineers ADCECO.
“They’d worked alongside French architects before and they wanted to continue to do so,” says Castro, who has received France’s highest decoration, The Legion of Honour, for his architectural work.
“But my first thought was ‘what can I bring to Abu Dhabi – I hate malls’.”
The firm’s projects have included a major regeneration of Paris, working directly with President Francois Mitterand and a masterplan for the city developed for President Nicolas Sarkozy.
It has also been heavily involved in improving impoverished parts of French towns and cities with both partners saying they feel a strong compulsion to use design to change people’s lives for the better.
Another project envisaged a tower with vegetation on its floors inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the legendary wonders of the ancient world.
So for two people with a love of their home country and a commitment to its future it wasn’t an immediate decision to accept the offer
Castro, a man who gesticulates with all the non-verbal eloquence associated with the French, explains: “We did have some preconceptions about what architecture is like in the UAE.
“In France it is viewed as detached and separate from the urban environment and its people.
“Also as an architect I have a passion to change things in my country of France. I had to think – do I care so much about the UAE?”
Denissof, formerly married to Castro but now purely his businesses partner, largely shared this view.
“For me, the doubt was about architecture and its role in connecting to the memory of a particular place,” she says.
“Here (the UAE) seems to have come out of nowhere – at least this is how I first felt. It has very little connection with the past – there are lots of objects, lots of buildings, but little that connects any of them with the people or history.”
The building heritage of their homeland was a factor which always influenced their work as Denissof explains.
“France has a heavy history that is difficult to get yourself out of.”
But their notions were turned around when they first came to the UAE.
Denissof says: “The first change for me was meeting Emiratis and realising they were not simply interested in commissioning towers.
“I was surprised by the responses from some people to the central market project by Norman Foster in Abu Dhabi.
“Many just did not like it at all. They felt the heart of the city had been totally eradicated.
“That was when I thought that we could make a difference here.”
Castro and Denissoff contacted former colleague Jean-Michel Culas, who they knew had previous knowledge of the Middle East and asked him to run the Abu Dhabi office.
The practice is going through the final stages of the registration necessary for it to begin working.
Denissof says: “The real challenge we are taking on is how to use urban planning to create a truly liveable city.
“There are many standard malls and hotels here but what is lacking is a truly regional identity. That is what we want to create.
“We intend to try and transform the way design is approached here. We want to stop erasing the past and just rebuilding. We want to revitalise what is already here and reconnect the future with the past.
“We also want to ensure that we create places of leisure where people can interact with one another.
“That is what drives us at the moment and we realise there are enough people living here in the UAE who share this view.”
Castro says: “We have been most warmly welcomed here and that, to me, is very important. People we have met include members of the administration, other prominent Emirartis and the French ambassador.
“There is a group of people in high enough positions who want to make changes. So we can do it.
“I prefer honour and glory over money – but if they want to give us money as well, then why not?”