Strategically positioned on the trade route between Europe and Asia, Dubai has long been an important hub for commerce. Boasting oil and natural gas reserves, the world’s largest manmade port and a thriving banking sector, Dubai is a prosperous state and the most populous emirate in the UAE. While wealth catapulted Dubai onto the world stage as a major player in business; riches are also behind its positioning as a world-class architectural destination.
Dubai is perhaps best known for Burj al Arab, a 321-metre white spinnaker yacht sail, dominating the skyline. Built offshore in the Arabian Gulf on a spectacular manmade island, the sail is home to a multi award-winning $650 million seven-star hotel. At night, the sail is illuminated in a dazzling multicoloured light display. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the complex is the submerged Al Mahara Restaurant, which diners need to access via submarine, travelling down through a two-storey tropical aquarium.
The first modern building in the city, the National Bank of Dubai, is located in the eastern part of the city on the banks of the Dubai Creek. Upon completion in 1998, the bank was the fifth tallest building in the city. As with Burj al Arab, the city’s rich maritime history is evident in its sail-like design – the building boasts a large curved frontage made of gold glass, which reflects the creek below.
Continuing the maritime theme is the distinctive Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, a stellar example of modern architecture. Topped by three white triangular canopies – their appearance again distinctly sail-like – it bears a strong semblance to the Sydney Opera House and became an instant design destination on opening in 1993.
Completed in 2000 was the Emirates Towers Complex: two towers on the busy commercial strip of Sheikh Zayed Road. The larger tower is the head office for the airline Emirates, with the smaller being home to a hotel and shopping mall. Of greatest design note is the juxtaposition between the two towers depending on where in the city you stand – from some vantage points, the towers appear miles apart, from elsewhere they appear fused. Wherever you stand, both appear imposing.
At a staggering 828 metres, the world’s tallest tower is Burj Khalifa, which appears to pierce the sky with its needle of fine glass. Often also called Burj Dubai, Khalifa was built at a cost of US$1.5 billion and was unveiled in 2010. The tower broke not only height records, but construction records too, utilising 330,000 cubic metres of concrete, 39,000 metric tonnes of steel and 142,000 square metres of glass. Khalifa is home to a diverse mix of residential, commerce, shopping and leisure facilities, as well as the first Giorgio Armani hotel. While an unequivocal example of cutting edge modern architecture, Khalifa pays homage to a number of Islamic and Arabic traditions evident in the incorporation of onion domes, pointed arches and desert flowers into the design.
Madinat Jumeirah is an Arabian-style complex of hotels and restaurants, conference facilities, spas, malls and markets located a 30-minute drive from Dubai Airport. Inspired by the Arabian royal summer palaces, the complex boasts sand-coloured buildings flanked by waterways and gardens. While complexes like Madinat Jumeirah may take inspiration from Dubai’s past, most buildings in the city are fewer than 20 years old. Those rare exceptions of the past, however, are well worth a visit.
The Bastakiya Quarter is an example of Dubai’s traditional architecture and should be atop any list of architecture heritage site visits in the UAE. The Quarter is a complete restoration of a wealthy neighbourhood settled in the late 1800s by Persian traders. A beautiful labyrinth of narrow laneways and cosy coffee shops, the Quarter is a lovely locale in which to while away an afternoon.
Another example of the city’s restoration work is the Al-Ahmadiya School, a superb example of traditional Islamic architecture. The school, founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Dalmouk in 1912, was in operation until 1962 and is now open as an education museum. Al-Ahmadiya has undergone extensive renovations to preserve the classrooms as they appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. While providing a fascinating insight into education in a bygone area, the school also offers visitors some beautiful design work, notably the intricately carved arches and decorative gypsum panels.
Built in 1896, the palace of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum is located on the historical Shindagha waterfront and was home to royalty until the late 1950s. Undergoing substantial restorations in 1986, the palace reopened as a museum and now displays an enormous collection of photographs documenting the pre-oil history of Dubai. Of design note is the use of ‘wind towers’, an effective early air-conditioning system. Illuminated at night, the rose-coloured sandstone Jumeirah Mosque is the only mosque in the UAE open to non-Muslims. Built in the 1970s in the Fatimid tradition, the Mosque is an essential visit.
The glitz and the glamour of Dubai will compel even those with the scantiest interest in architecture to become connoisseurs. Boasting grand examples of both preserved and modern Islamic, Iranian, Indian and Arabic design right through to spectacular skyscrapers and manmade islands, the emirate ensures that all that steel, sand and stone is put to exceptional use.
Words: Lauren Rosewarne