A city sketches a new identity

With a skyline that captivates the world, Dubai now focuses on connectivity and street schemes

By Karishma Asarpota
00:00 July 26, 2017
PW_170712_skyline_Burj Khalifa_shutterstock

The skyline is a reflection of a city’s identity. As the city is a dynamic organism, constantly growing and breathing, the image it projects of itself is also constantly changing. “Dubai is the leading city and hub in the region which manifests in its every changing growing skyline,” says Ralf Steinhauer, director of RSP Architects Planners and Engineers. Growth and success are synonymous with the transformation of the city.

Above all “the rapidly changing skyline reflects the ‘can-do’ attitude and inspirational leadership of HH Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai”, says Harold Thompson, Middle East director at CallisonRTKL. He adds: “It reflects a relentless desire to elevate Dubai among the ranks of the world’s greatest cities.”

Dubai has come a long way in this evolutionary process with the last 40 years seeing an accelerated change in architectural and urban character: from low-lying mud and stone structures to geometric concrete buildings, man-made islands and glass-clad high-rises that now form much of the new urban areas.

‘Sometimes it is difficult to remember that Dubai is only a young city,” says Darren Haveron, project architect and designer at Allen Architecture Interiors Design. “Other cities are an amalgamation of centuries of growth, while Dubai has had a rapid growth over the last 15 years.”

Global recognition

In the last decade, favourable economic conditions have pushed development at a fast rate and put Dubai on the global map. There has been a consistent pressure to continue developing in the country, although the demand for architectural style is varied. The contrast in visual character of the city’s past and the newer urban areas is evident almost everywhere. Old architectural style is preserved in a small part of Dubai, while new neighbourhoods and commercial hubs are built in a modern style, almost disconnected from the old city centre.

However, there have been attempts to emphasise the connection between the past and the present in projects around the city. “Dubai is perceived worldwide as a futuristic city,” says Firas Hnoosh, principal and design director of architecture at Perkins + Will. “A testament to this is the featuring of Dubai’s skyline in the latest Star Trek movie. Dubai’s skyline has some way to develop to achieve harmony and some needed hierarchy. I believe that Dubai’s skyline will change as the city expands away from Shaikh Zayed Road.”

With upcoming projects such as Burj 2020, Dubai Creek Harbour, Meydan 1, Dubai Opera House and Dubai Water Canal reinforcing the current vision of the city, there is much anticipation of what the future brings.

“As the UAE becomes zero oil dependent, a focus will be shifted to filling the gaps in the sociocultural aspects of the community,” says Darren Haveron. “The Dubai skyline is already captivating at a macro level. Urban design at a micro scale will come further to the foreground as Dubai addresses inter-connectivity and the idea of streets. How podiums meet the ground and interact with their surrounding context, such as green spaces, are essential to keep communities dynamic and desirable places to live, work and visit.

“Qualitative and inclusive design will come to the fore as the advancement and adoption of BIM practices will open up the skyline to vast potential.”

Show of strength

In recent years government-driven master plans and projects have been changing the skyline and creating the path for inventive and iconic designs in architecture and urban spaces.

“Massive infrastructure projects and support developments are on their way in preparation for the World Expo 2020,” says Steinhauer. “The next goals for the UAE and Dubai are certainly 2021, with its 50th Anniversary, and the 2030 master plan vision for how the city will transform. In spite of unstable political conditions in the region and a slowdown of the global economy, the country has shown its financial strength by continuing to deliver world-class projects.”

Ultimately the city is the representation of what its people want. The local community and architects play key roles in characterising the city to what it is today. As more international firms mark their presence in the country, Dubai has transformed into a hub for innovative and unique projects. Ambitious designs and sustainable building technologies have gained momentum in the past decade.

New paradigm

Going forward, “infrastructure projects that focus on accessibility and quality of life, as well as sustainability, economic viability, social equity, health and environmental quality, will have a significant impact on the skyline of the UAE’s cities, especially Dubai,” says Michael Fowler, managing director of ME Aedas. “The skyline will continue to feature iconic nodes to give identity to a place, but more in a human scale. We will see livable, walkable precincts where handsome background buildings will frame the sky and create outdoor public rooms and corridors for residents and visitors to traverse and enjoy. The whole concept of ‘skyline’ is changing.”

Fowler points out that the skyline depended on empty background spaces between buildings to accentuate the silhouette of each tower. “By now development has reached the density that we view buildings as cluster with the connectivity of spaces between the buildings becoming the focus rather than eye-catching buildings competing for attention,” he says. “The new skyline in urban hubs will be much more stimulating, always changing from different angles, almost kaleidoscopic.”

As the city continues to grow, there is often a stark contrast created in the urban character of different parts in Dubai. Separate areas are capable of projecting a different image and feel within the same city. In a sense, this adds another dimension to the way inhabitants interact and perceive places, challenging the traditional concept of skyline.