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[Finally!] Exploring the United Arab Emirates (Part 2, Dubai and Sharjah)

Updated: May 12, 2019

Etihad Museum by Moriyama & Teshima, in Dubai (2016). Photo ©Darren Bradley

After Abu Dhabi, the next stop on the tour was Dubai… the almost mythical Emerald City in the Arabian Desert.


The Burj Khalifa, designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, is presently the world's tallest building. I actually had drinks there, on one of the upper floors, but I never really had the time to photograph it properly. The only photos I have of it were taken with my iphone, while moving, through a bus window. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I’d also seen plenty of photos of this city, of course, and heard so much about it. From what I’d read and seen, I thought it was fairly small - a short strip of new, glass high-rises arranged along the main expressway, surrounded by a few residential neighborhoods. Instead, it turns out that the place is huge. That short strip of towers is actually fairly long, and seems to go on forever. Then, when you finally do come out of it, you notice there’s another cluster of towers in the distance… and another one beyond that. I guess three million people take up a lot of space!

Like Abu Dhabi, there is a sense here that everything is brand new and there are construction cranes everywhere. Vast new tracts of land are being carved out of the desert regularly, for new developments. And it seems like every new development is in Phase 1 or 2 of an extremely ambitious, multi-phase project that will eventually be 10x larger than what is currently built.

Here's the master plan for the Dubai Design District (aka d3), which we visited. The only part built so far is the wedge-shaped section on the right side of this concept rendering.

Unlike traditional cities, these master-planned developments seem to exist as independent, stand-alone communities rather than part of a civic fabric. Investment appears often to be the product of a joint private-public partnership.

"Nailed it!" Artists Tofer Chin (L) and George Byrne (R) pointing out the Burj Khalifa, while exploring a new development called Dubai Design District (D3). Only Phase 1 of 3 phases has been completed to date. This consists of 11 office buildings, which also house shops, restaurants, and a small design school. I don't know who designed this phase, but the follow-on Phase 2 has been designed by Foster + Partners. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The advantage to this method is that it allows for much more ambitious and innovative ideas within the development. I find it fascinating because outside of Asia and the Middle East, you really don’t find many examples of this anymore. In the post-WWII period, governments throughout Europe, North and South America launched ambitious plans to re-invent our cities and how we live. Examples include Milton Keynes in England, La Défence and the “villes nouvelles” around Paris, Brasilia, Don Mills in Toronto, and even Albany, New York.

Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. Also known as "Brasilia on the Hudson". Photo ©Darren Bradley

Today, those ideals of how to re-invent communities and civic spaces have largely been abandoned in the west… replaced by a sort of cynicism about development that is more piecemeal and far less ambitious.

But some developing countries like China and the UAE have continued to embrace this idea about creating better ways of living through master-planned architectural developments. The goals are still about improving community and ways of life, but also include new, 21st century ambitions like creating carbon-neutral footprints (such as Masdar in Abu Dhabi).

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The other key difference is that these new developments are initiated or supported by private development money, rather than public money, as was generally done in the West in the post-War period. Still, in many ways, I see these projects as the successors to those ambitious, failed utopias. It remains to be seen whether these models will find more success in the long term. In the meantime, they are fascinating and well worth exploring. I love the idea, and exploring them was fascinating.

There is a darker side, though, and a certain risk of creating “islands” of wealth that don’t interact with the larger city, alienated from the general population. The most healthy and dynamic cities have traditionally been those with a true urban fabric, and a diverse mix of people at all socio-economic levels interacting in close physical proximity.

Interior atrium of one of the buildings at d3. This is the new design school that has been established. We got to tour the classrooms and see some of the student projects. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo of our group at d3, by Haitham Al Mussawi

Spotted at d3 in Dubai... Seems plausible...

Still, Dubai has made a lot of investment in its city (or cities, as it were), creating civic projects like the marina district as a public community space, and the super-sleek elevated light rail line to link the various communities. And even those new developments in the UAE, the general public is encouraged to visit, explore, and spend time.

Dubai Marina

Dubai's elevated light rail metro line, which connects the airport and various parts of the city. Sadly, I never got to use it.

This private-public partnership has also created a lot of wonderful cultural spaces, such as the Jameel Art Centre. This space is one of the first contemporary arts institutions in Dubai. It's situated on the Dubai Creek, just upstream from the old city center in an area that had not previously been developed. The centre’s multiple gallery spaces are home to curated commissions, projects, and solo and group exhibitions, drawn both from the Art Jameel Collection and through regional and international collaborations.

Jameel Art Centre appearing to glow against the dusty sky, as shot with my iPhone through a bus window. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Jameel Art Centre is intended as a hub for educational initiatives and cultural events, and includes an open-access research library dedicated to artists and cultural movements of the Arab world. It also includes project and commissioned spaces, a roof-top terrace, writer’s studio, members’ lounge, restaurant and shop.

Jameel Art Centre. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The building itself is a specially-commissioned, three-storey, multi-disciplinary space designed by UK-based Serie Architects, in collaboration with Wael Al Awar and the team at local Dubai-based ibda design.