Beyond the Burj, an architectural event that seeks to celebrate the unknown Dubai

Taking place this November, an architectural festival hopes to make the discourse around the UAE’s cityscape more inclusive of its community

Who designed the first bank of Dubai, or the ‘Big Ben’ tower on Sheikh Zayed Road? Is living in a tower dehumanising? How is architecture influenced by a transient community?

These are just a few of the questions that Sonia Brewin, cofounder of design firm SVENM, hopes to answer in an upcoming architectural event in Dubai that aims to celebrate the city – as well as creating an inclusive discourse on its creation.

Sitting in Brewin's exhibition space on Alserkal Avenue, where we are surrounded by art foundations, creative spaces and other initiatives, it is hard to imagine a lack of interest in the surrounding make-up of the city. But, says Brewin, it is precisely these people – to which she admits being one of – that the event, 'Arch.Season', aims to include.

As a ten-year resident of Dubai’s art scene, Brewin freely concedes that beyond admiring the Sheikh Zayed road from a rooftop downtown, she had little interest in architecture from a personal perspective. But on engaging with locals in the city, from her peers at Alserkal to students from Zayed University, she started to discover hidden pockets of the city and realise that she, like all residents of Dubai, should have a vested interest in its creation.

"I am an artist and I think in general, when I think of the word architecture it sounds worthy, technical and stiff. So how do you ignite curiosity? How was mine created? I think by feeling I could talk to others and feel welcome to shape opinions, whether professional, or not," says Brewin. 

“Most of us have grown up inside four walls, most have had an experiential lived experience of architecture. So why shouldn’t we have a say in how it is made? Ultimately, I think this is where critical thinking and extending the architectural conversation begins and from there it gets more sophisticated – by just allowing air and a bit of noisy enthusiasm around a topic which affects us all..”

The biennale was conceived in-part due to conversation between Brewin and Meitha Almazrooei, the founder of architectural biannual WTD Magazine. The pair found that their conversation kept returning to the idea of critical discourse on regional architecture – and why there was so little of it.

“One of my recurring conversations with Meitha from WTD Magazine is about philosophies of architecture going into the way the city has been built, so one aim for the Arch. Season is to open up that chat more widely, to see who is making and thinking what,” explains Brewin.

"We have grandiose buildings and infrastructure here like Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and the Palm, which internationally have established ‘Brand Dubai.’ and popular media rhetoric centres on their scale. But what about the flipside of this, which is the immense research breakthroughs that these structures achieved? For me that discourse, which has existed since I’ve been here, could positively be changed by access to a Biennale concentrating on other aspects of our city's architecture."

Through a series of projects, encompassing written and visual submissions of resident’s favourite spots in the city; open houses; a map with a difference and the festival itself – the ultimate aim is to pull out the unknown history of Dubai.

Dubai is an engineered city; I mean we live in a space Star-Trek admired and utilised as a back-drop. The sense that it's all being designed around us is astonishing, although sometimes perhaps hard to fathom

Sonia Brewin, Cofounder, SVENM

The precursor to the festival was a call-out for stories on buildings and favourite places from members of the public. Displayed on the walls of SVENM, the team are continuing to collect more submissions via their website, architecturalbiennale.

The second element to the project is ArtMap, published by ArtintheCity, which is about identifying or illuminating elements in the built environment that are overlooked.

"There are tourist maps in Dubai, that include the Burj Khalifa or the Burj al Arab, but nothing that would necessarily help you know that you could nearby find an Arabesque door, for example, or other vernacular flourishes on an older street," says Brewin.

"At the back of the ArtMap we’ve put a space in which people can create their own map. I find this exciting it's where the spirit of the Biennale starts being participatory like with the story submissions." 

At the initial showing of the stories at SVENM, says Brewin, visitors to the space quickly overcame their reluctance to name a favourite building in Dubai and after just five minutes of walking around the exhibition, had their own fixed opinions of what they would choose.

"Dubai is an engineered city; I mean we live in a space Star-Trek admired and utilised as a back-drop. The sense that it's all being designed around us is astonishing, although sometimes perhaps hard to fathom."

Yet, she adds, on closer inspection the city can be peeled back – and a truly interesting narrative uncovered.

"Slowly I’ve started to understand certain typologies as engineers or architects from a variety of backgrounds have imprinted on the city. Right now Scandinavians and Germans are being selected by clients to create white cubic structures with massive windows, but if you look there have been previous waves of immigration that have significantly impacted the architecture on this wonderfully compressed visual timeline."

"If we can make this something accessible, fun and interesting enough for someone who doesn’t normally have an interest in architecture, I’d say the festival will have achieved what it set out to do." 

Ultimately, the festival is a celebration and an invitation to examine the architecture of the region, towards whatever conclusion that may lead us. Whether it be the manmade wonders of the Palm or the Burj, the traditional doors of villas in Jumeirah or an old macaroni factory off of Sheikh Zayed, it is up to us to think and comprehend how our city could – and should –  be built in decades to come.

The Architecture Biennale is a city-wide summit for architecture. Previewed as 'Arch. Season' in November, it will be created in full in 2018