Is architecture in the Gulf reconsidering its priorities?

Rashid bin Shabib, Brownbook’s founder and urbanist, is making his dreams of a recycled, 1970s Dubai a reality – urging others to follow his lead of 'urban intervention'

“Memory is an asset that we tend to undervalue,” the Emirati urbanist, designer and publisher Rashid bin Shabib says, sitting in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery’s Magazine restaurant on Sunday. “Imagine yourself losing your memory constantly. Now imagine it happening to a city.”

The building we’re in, designed by Zaha Hadid, is made up of sleek white curves. It’s attached to a restored munitions depot, built in 1805, and is surrounded by the quintessential Englishness of Hyde Park: the Princess Diana memorial gardens are a short walk away.

It’s the perfect place for this conversation, and for the panel discussion Bin Shabib has just finished chairing, which looked at innovative ways in which the past and future can interact in architectural and urbanist design. The polymathic Emirati — who, with his twin brother Ahmed, publishes Brownbook magazine and runs a design and research studio called Cultural Engineering — has brought together three international architects to talk on this topic.

Cyril Veillon, Daniel Elsea and Asif Khan discussed projects in Oman, Russia and Korea, and debated the degree to which design prototypes can be applied internationally and when they must be reconfigured to fit a local context. Bin Shabib was particularly interested in how existing buildings can be restored and repurposed, which led to our discussion of the importance of cultural memory.

[Khazzan Park] could easily be in Monocle as one of the coolest places in Dubai, but it could also resonate with old ladies who come and touch the rocks and say, ‘I remember when my house was made with this.’ 

Asif Khan, Architect

“There are about 20,000 buildings in Dubai from the 60s, 70s and 80s,” he said during the talk, “and these can mean so much more than trying to build something new.”

He discussed his attempt to restore an old military barracks near the Burj Khalifa, a project that didn’t come to fruition due to economic constraints. “The whole notion of the legacy of the architecture in Dubai, and in the Gulf, is extremely under-studied,” he added. “You have works by masters from all over the world” – including Japan, Iraq and Jordan.

Other panellists and guests praised the Bin Shabibs’ own work, particularly a new urban community space created in partnership with Cadillac, with a library, gallery and cafe, in Dubai’s Khazzan Park. The building was designed using reused local materials, such as recycled native coral stones, shipping containers and reclaimed wood from dhows.

“It feels like a utopia,” said London-based architect Asif Khan. “I was totally inspired by seeing it. That place could easily be in Monocle as one of the coolest places in Dubai, but it could also resonate with old ladies who come and touch the rocks and say, ‘I remember when my house was made with this.’ She would feel welcome there.”

Audience member Karim Khwanda echoed the sentiment: “The Bin Shabibs have said, ‘We’ve got a rich local indigenous culture, let’s revisit those roots.’ I’ve seen three or four of these projects, and they are absolutely inspiring. It makes you feel that Dubai is beautiful. Dubai has a lot going for it that’s very specific to Dubai, and I appreciate that as someone who appreciates diversity.”

Restoring and recycling existing buildings and materials is also a step towards a more energy-efficient and less wasteful practice, which is an element that informs Bin Shabibs’ practice. This mirrors a shift more generally in the city’s evolving urban landscape.

“I think there’s a shift in scale which puts Dubai in a very interesting position,” Bin Shabib said. “All of a sudden high-rises and wide boulevards don’t seem to be commercially viable any more.” This move towards thinking about cities on a more intimate, human scale not only provides links with the past, it’s also a necessary shift towards a more sustainable mode of design.