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The Story Behind the Architecture of Dubai

Dubai has become known for towering shiny new developments: hyper-modern and set against the sparkling teal water. The history of the place, however, includes buildings that date back from the beginning of the 19th century. Let’s discover the full story behind the architecture of Dubai!

Located in the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula on the coast of the Arabian Gulf, Dubai aims to be the business hub of Western Asia.  It is also a major global transport hub for passengers and cargo. Oil revenue helped accelerate the development of the city, which was already a major mercantile hub. A centre for regional and international trade since the early 20th century, Dubai’s economy relies on revenues from trade, tourism, aviation, real estate, and financial services. Oil production contributed less than 1 percent of the emirate’s GDP in 2018. The city has a population of around 3.4 million (as of 2021). Dubai’s original architecture, dating from the late 19th century, was influenced by Iranian, Indian, and Islamic designs. The hot and humid climate, religious and social customs of the inhabitants, and available selection of construction materials were crucial considerations in building styles. Long before traveling to Dubai, visitors’ imaginations are often captured by the city’s modern architectural wonders. While many may not be familiar with Arabian wind towers or courtyard houses, most have heard about the enormous sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, the indoor snow resort Ski Dubai, and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (formerly known as the Burj Dubai). When the World Trade Centre was erected in 1979, it stood as the sole skyscraper in a mostly empty desert. Many observers scratched their heads, wondering what the point was of a high-rise in the still sleepy town. Even as late as 1990, most of Sheikh Zayed Road remained an empty sandpit. But today, the World Trade Centre appears antiquated next to the sleek high-rises that stretch as far as the eye can see. Before the financial crisis of 2009, it was estimated that up to a quarter of the world’s construction cranes were located here. While construction has slowed significantly, Dubai’s skyline is now longer than that of Manhattan. This wealthy emirate played home to among the most innovative and ambitious architectural projects in the world, some of which were completed, and others of which have been canceled or placed on hold as a result of debt concerns. So, let’s look at how these buildings came to be, and some of the most striking, historical and contemporary, buildings. 

The History of Dubai

The history of human settlement in the area now defined by the United Arab Emirates is rich and complex, and points to extensive trading links between the civilisations of the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia, but also as far afield as the Levant. Archaeological finds in the emirate of Dubai, particularly at Al-Ashoosh, Al Sufouh and the notably rich trove from Saruq Al Hadid show settlement through the Ubaid and Hafit periods, the Umm Al Nar and Wadi Suq periods and the three Iron Ages in the UAE. The area was known to the Sumerians as Magan, and was a source for metallic goods, notably copper and bronze. 

The area was covered with sand about 5,000 years ago as the coast retreated inland, becoming part of the city’s present coastline. Pre-Islamic ceramics have been found from the 3rd and 4th centuries. Prior to the introduction of Islam to the area, the people in this region worshiped Bajir (or Bajar).  After the spread of Islam in the region, the Umayyad Caliph of the eastern Islamic world invaded south-east Arabia and drove out the Sassanians. Excavations by the Dubai Museum in the region of Al-Jumayra (Jumeirah) found several artefacts from the Umayyad period. Dubai is thought to have been established as a fishing village in the early 18th century and was, by 1822, a town of some 700–800 members of the Bani Yas tribe and subject to the rule of Sheikh Tahnun bin Shakhbut of Abu Dhabi.

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In 1833, following tribal feuding, members of the Al Bu Falasah tribe seceded from Abu Dhabi and established themselves in Dubai. The exodus from Abu Dhabi was led by Obeid bin Saeed and Maktoum bin Butti, who became joint leaders of Dubai until Ubaid died in 1836, leaving Maktum to establish the Maktoum dynasty. Dubai signed the General Maritime Treaty of 1820 with the British government along with other Trucial States, following the British campaign in 1819 against the Ras Al Khaimah. This led to the 1853 Perpetual Maritime Truce. Dubai also – like its neighbours on the Trucial Coast – entered into an exclusivity agreement in which the United Kingdom took responsibility for the emirate’s security in 1892. The main purpose of this relationship was to ensure the passage to British India, by excluding the pirates who then raided the country’s coast on the Persian Gulf. Both Great Britain and the Emirates have historic association in terms of co-operation in the areas of law enforcement, defence, training and military technology. 

In 1901, Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum established Dubai as a free port with no taxation on imports or exports and also gave merchants parcels of land and guarantees of protection and tolerance. These policies saw a movement of merchants not only directly from Lingeh, but also from neighbouring areas. An indicator of the growing importance of the port of Dubai can be gained from the movements of the steamer of the Bombay and Persia Steam Navigation Company, which from 1899 to 1901 paid five visits annually to Dubai. In 1902 the company’s vessels made 21 visits to Dubai and from 1904 on, the steamers called fortnightly – in 1906, trading 70,000 tonnes of cargo. The frequency of these vessels only helped to accelerate Dubai’s role as an emerging port and trading hub of preference. Dubai’s geographical proximity to Iran made it an important trade location. The town of Dubai was an important port of call for foreign tradesmen, chiefly those from Iran, many of whom eventually settled in the town. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was an important port.  Dubai was known for its pearl exports until the 1930s; the pearl trade was damaged irreparably by the 1929 Great Depression and the innovation of cultured pearls. With the collapse of the pearling industry, Dubai fell into a deep depression and many residents lived in poverty or migrated to other parts of the Arabian Gulf. Despite a lack of oil, Dubai’s ruler from 1958, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, used revenue from trading activities to build infrastructure. Private companies were established to build and operate infrastructure, including electricity, telephone services and both the ports and airport operators.

After years of exploration following large finds in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, oil was eventually discovered in territorial waters off Dubai in 1966, albeit in far smaller quantities. The first field was named “Fateh” or “good fortune”. This led to an acceleration of Sheikh Rashid’s infrastructure development plans and a construction boom that brought a massive influx of foreign workers, mainly Asians and Middle easterners. Between 1968 and 1975 the city’s population grew by over 300%. Oil revenue, flowing from 1969 onwards supported a period of growth with Sheikh Rashid embarking on a policy of building infrastructure and a diversified trading economy before the emirate’s limited reserves were depleted. Large increases in oil prices after the Gulf War encouraged Dubai to continue to focus on free trade and tourism. 

The Landscape

Dubai lies directly within the Arabian Desert. However, the topography of Dubai is significantly different from that of the southern portion of the UAE in that much of Dubai’s landscape is highlighted by sandy desert patterns, while gravel deserts dominate much of the southern region of the country. The flat sandy desert gives way to the Western Hajar Mountains, which run alongside Dubai’s border with Oman at Hatta. The Western Hajar chain has an arid, jagged and shattered landscape, whose mountains rise to about 1,300 metres (4,265 feet) in some places. Dubai has no natural river bodies or oases; however, Dubai does have a natural inlet, Dubai Creek, which has been dredged to make it deep enough for large vessels to pass through. Dubai also has multiple gorges and waterholes, which dot the base of the Western Al Hajar mountains. A vast sea of sand dunes covers much of southern Dubai and eventually leads into the desert known as The Empty Quarter.


The Architecture of Dubai 

The main features of the original buildings developed in Dubai were simplicity, functionality, durability, and suitability for the climate. Early structures were made of stone, palm leaves, and palm tree trunks, with mud substituting for mortar. The majority of Dubai’s first inhabitants lived in barastis, huts made with palm fronds. Later, the strongest available materials, coral stone from the sea and gypsum from the creek’s salt marshes, were used for the emirate’s four common structures – watchtowers, mosques, souks, and houses. Islamic emphasis on privacy and modesty factored into the design of courtyard homes, many of which were connected to wind towers for cooling in the summer months. Buildings were erected close together to create shaded and breezy pedestrian walkways.

With Dubai’s oil discovery came an unplanned construction boom that created a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Construction often paid little attention to traditional Islamic architecture or to the environment, and Dubai was not yet courting the world’s attention by building the biggest and the best. Many glass towers were erected requiring enormous amounts of electricity to keep cool. Dubai’s eclectic collection of skyscrapers began in 1979 with the construction of the Dubai World Trade Centre. The iconic structure defied the norms of traditional architecture and ventured into newer designs and building techniques that seamlessly combined functionality with pleasing aesthetics. In recent years, builders have become somewhat more conscientious about both the environment and Arabic heritage. Master planning overseen by Dubai’s rulers is leading to more harmonious development. The most efficient heat-resistant materials are increasingly used in construction, and more architects are incorporating traditional designs into their work. Madinat Jumeirah is an excellent example of a thoroughly modern development that celebrates Arabian style. Dubai’s leaders are also making a serious effort at last to protect the emirate’s architectural past, reconstituting the Bastakiya old quarter near the creek and opening museums and cultural centers to commemorate the early days. 


Dubai’s 10 Most Interesting Buildings

1. Cayan Tower

The design of Cayan Tower, a helical skyscraper that marks the Dubai skyline, is at once remarkable and subtle. The residential tower is a pure expression of the idea that a building’s form should directly follow its structural framework. While the skyscraper’s floor plates are all identical, each is slightly rotated against the story below it, producing a full 90-degree twist over the course of the tower’s 307-meter rise. The benefits of this unique form, besides the aesthetic ones, are manifold. Wind load and solar heat gain are reduced compared to a rectilinear building of the same height, and a greater number of tenants are afforded desirable views of the nearby marina and gulf. Positioned perpendicular to the sea, the tower is carefully configured to provide excellent views from every level, while preserving waterfront views for residents of neighboring buildings. It meets the marina at street level with retail and an arcade that is part of a continuous promenade along the waterfront.

Designed with Dubai’s arid desert climate and urban heat island effect in mind, prefabricated metal panels on cast-in-place concrete perimeter columns and repeating staggered screen panels filter direct sunlight to the units. Deep window sills also minimize direct light and provide a screen-like effect on the exterior of the building—shading both interior living spaces and terraces.The structural engineering team used wind tunnel testing and three dimensional computer modeling to analyze the building’s stresses. The team also devised innovative construction techniques, including a “jump form” system—a unique construction formwork that takes advantage of the building’s repetitive form to make the process more efficient. A cylindrical concrete pillar at the center of the building strengthens the structure; the rotation at each floor occurs around this central mass.


2. Dubai Museum 

The museum was opened by the Ruler of Dubai in 1971, with the aim of presenting the traditional way of life in the Emirate of Dubai. When entering, one can see the fort constructed and the various displays that go along with it. From the fort, there is a path to the galleries, which display the general culture of the land, especially in the 1800s. It includes local antiques as well as artifacts from African and Asian countries that traded with Dubai. It also includes several dioramas showing life in the emirate before the advent of oil, in addition to artifacts from recent discoveries as old as 3000 BC.

In 2007, Dubai Museum received 1,800 visitors daily, with a yearly total of 611,840. In March 2008, the museum had 80,000 visitors. The most popular times are from August to April. The museum received over 1 million visitors in 2013. The total area of Dubai museum is 4,000 square meters. Al Fahidi Fort was built in several phases. The oldest tower was built around 1787, and is believed to be the oldest building in Dubai that still exists today. The fort was used to guard the landward approaches to the town from the raids of neither ruler’s palace, a garrison, and a prison. Al Fahidi Fort is square-shaped with towers occupying three of its corners. It was built of coral rock and mortar in several phases. Just off the southern wall lie a reconstruction of the old city walls. Next to them stands a tall dhow (traditional boat) in the middle of a large courtyard that covers the underground galleries. Two cannons guard the main gate to the fort on the eastern wall, adorned by flags of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.


3. The Dubai Frame 

The Dubai Frame building is a gigantic photo frame, conceptualized to be a bridge between old Dubai and new Dubai, and is located in Zabeel Park. There’s nothing like this structure anywhere in the world. This is an architectural feat that is expected to draw in millions of tourists each year, and it already has become one of the most popular attractions in Dubai with the Dubai Frame ticket booking being sold out every day. So, what is special about this place? There was a competition held in 2009 for the design of Dubai Frame by ThyssenKrupp Elevator International. The current design was shortlisted from 926 entries, and the eventual winner was Fernando Donis. He envisioned a structure from which one could view the many ‘emblems’ of Dubai, instead of adding another building to the already packed skyline. This creative thinking won him $100,000, and gave the world the Dubai Frame building. The core materials used to create this behemoth are reinforced concrete, aluminium, steel and glass. As mentioned before, the 25 metre middle section of the 93 metre bridge is completely made of glass, which is quite thick and can take tremendous amounts of weight. Lot of hard work and precision has gone into the position of the Dubai Frame. It had to be positioned in such a way that old and new Dubai attractions and landmarks would be either side of the frame.


4. Dubai Old City 

Records show that Dubai was a walled city in the early 1800s. The Al Fahidi Fort was built around the same time Dubai became a dependency. The wall on the Bur Dubai side extended from Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood through Al Fahidi Fort, ending at the Old Souk. The history of Dubai dates back to 3000 BC or the Bronze Age. During the 5-7th centuries AD, Dubai became a famous trade route connecting Oman to what is now known to be Iraq. The livelihood of the people of Dubai during that time was based around pearling, fishing and building boats. The trade routes became very famous and soon started receiving footfall from Europeans and Portuguese. Walking through the old streets that so greatly contrast the modern skyscrapers and record-breaking wonders, it’s possible to see simplicity and history come to life. It’s vital for those who want to better understand the growth of Dubai to have a look at its starting point, where the city began to thrive and surprisingly stayed practically the same, regardless of the development all around.

The Bastakiya quarter truly exudes tradition and history. One of the oldest neighborhoods still standing in Dubai, the area was built in the 19th century by the Iranian community who arrived in the Emirate due to trade via the Dubai Creek. The buildings in Bastakiya tell their own story, they were built using coral and shells and still remain the same since to this day. The community has now become a cultural hub for both Dubai residents and visitors.


5. Burj Al Arab 

The Burj Al Arab is a luxury hotel managed by Jumeirah hotel group, it is one of the tallest hotels in the world, although 39% of its total height is made up of non-occupiable space. Burj Al Arab stands on an artificial island that is 280 m (920 ft) from Jumeirah Beach and is connected to the mainland by a private curving bridge. The shape of the structure is designed to resemble the sail of a ship. It has a helipad near the roof, at a height of 210 m (689 ft) above ground. The Burj Al Arab was designed by the multidisciplinary consultancy Atkins, led by architect Tom Wright. The design and construction were managed by Canadian engineer Rick Gregory, also of WS Atkins. Construction of the island began in 1994 and involved up to 2,000 construction workers during peak construction. It was built to resemble the billowing spinnaker sail of a J-class yacht. Two “wings” spread in a V to form a vast “mast”, while the space between them is enclosed in a massive atrium.Engineers created a ground surface layer of large rocks, which is circled with a concrete honeycomb pattern, which serves to protect the foundation from erosion. It took three years to reclaim the land from the sea, while it took fewer than three years to construct the building itself. The building contains over 70,000 m3 (92,000 cu yd) of concrete and 9,000 tons of steel, one of which are for the skeletal structural frames. Burj Al Arab has attracted criticism as well “a contradiction of sorts, considering how well-designed and impressive the construction ultimately proves to be. The contradiction here seems to be related to the hotel’s decor. “This extraordinary investment in state-of-the-art construction technology stretches the limits of the ambitious urban imagination in an exercise that is largely due to the power of excessive wealth.” says a critic. 


6. Burj Khalifa 

Known as the Burj Dubai prior to its inauguration in 2010, is a skyscraper with a total height of 829.8 m and a roof height of 828 m. The Burj Khalifa has been the tallest structure and building in the world since its topping out in 2009, supplanting Taipei 101, the previous holder of that status.  Construction of the Burj Khalifa began in 2004, with the exterior completed five years later in 2009. The primary structure is reinforced concrete and some of the structural steel for the building originated from the Palace of the Republic in East Berlin, the former East German parliament. The building was opened in 2010 as part of a new development called Downtown Dubai. It was designed to be the centrepiece of large-scale, mixed-use development. The decision to construct the building was based on the government’s decision to diversify from an oil-based economy, and for Dubai to gain international recognition. The building is named in honour of the ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan; Abu Dhabi and the UAE government lent Dubai money to pay its debts. The building broke numerous height records, including its designation as the tallest building in the world.

Burj Khalifa was designed by a team led by Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm that designed the Sears Tower in Chicago, a previous record holder for the world’s tallest building.  The design is derived from the Islamic architecture of the region, such as in the Great Mosque of Samarra. The Y-shaped tripartite floor geometry is designed to optimize residential and hotel space. A buttressed central core and wings are used to support the height of the building. The structure also features a cladding system which is designed to withstand Dubai’s hot summer temperatures. It contains a total of 57 elevators and 8 escalators.

At a certain point in the architectural and engineering process, the original Emaar developers experienced financial problems, and required more money and economic funding. Sheikh Khalifa, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, granted monetary aid and funding, hence the changing of the name to “Burj Khalifa”. The concept of profitability derived from building high density developments and malls around the landmark has proven successful. Its surrounding malls, hotels and condominiums in Downtown Dubai have generated the most revenue from the project as a whole, while the Burj Khalifa itself made little or no profit. Critical reception to Burj Khalifa has been generally positive, and the building has received many awards. However, there were numerous complaints concerning migrant workers from South Asia who were the primary building labour force. These centered on low wages and the practice of confiscating passports until duties were complete.


7. The Jumeirah Beach Hotel 

The hotel, which opened in 1997, is operated by the Dubai-based hotelier Jumeirah. The hotel contains 598 rooms and suites, 19 beachfront villas, and 20 restaurants and bars. The beachfront area where the Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel are located was previously called Chicago Beach. The hotel is located on an island of reclaimed land offshore of the beach of the former Chicago Beach Hotel.  The locale’s name had its origins in the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company which had floating oil storage tankers on the site long before Dubai started its current modernisation. 

The old name persisted after the old hotel was demolished in 1997 since Dubai Chicago Beach Hotel was the public project name for the construction phase of the Burj Al Arab Hotel until Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the new name. When completed in 1997, the Jumeirah Beach Hotel was 93 metres high making it the 9th tallest building in Dubai. Today, it is ranked lower than the 100th tallest building. Despite its lower rankings, the hotel remains a Dubai landmark.


8. The Opus 

The newly opened ME Dubai hotel at the Opus by Zaha Hadid Architects features furniture by Zaha Hadid Design and curving sculptural balconies. Set in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa district, the Opus is a mirrored glass building occupied by a hotel, offices, serviced apartments and several restaurants. Completed externally last year, the ME Dubai at the Opus is the only hotel in the world that can claim to have had both its exterior and interiors designed by the late Zaha Hadid. Externally the building appears to be a giant cube with an amorphous hole pushing through its centre, although it is in fact a pair of towers connected at the top and bottom to create the void effect.”The precise orthogonal geometries of the Opus’ elemental glass cube contrast dramatically with the fluidity of the eight-storey void at its centre,” explained Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) project director Christos Passas.A four-storey atrium sits at the base of the two towers. Above the gap, a three-storey bridge starts 71 metres from the ground. The ME Dubai hotel, which opened in March 2020, has 74 bedrooms and 19 suites. Its lobby sits directly under the Opus’ signature void, which forms its glass ceiling. Three stories of galleries with projecting balconies ring the perimeter of the space.


9. The Green Planet 

The Green Planet Dubai is an immersive science center based on the Equatorial Rainforest’s of the world. The architecture is based on a fragile origami cube that shields and protects a living biome within the shape of a cylinder. The exterior cube houses the support spaces required to sustain a living environment designed to accommodate over 3,000 species of tropical plants, mammals, insects and fish within the desert setting of Dubai.  Its mandate is to provide the people of Dubai an opportunity to experience and gain a deeper understanding of the fragile ecosystem of the Equatorial regions and how these regions of the world need to be protected for our sustainable future. The concept for the visitor experience was developed to show how the various species that inhabit the rainforest can be found in the vertical zones of a Kapok tree; from it flooded river bank setting to its upper canopy.

Visitors enter The Green Planet at grade level and begin their journey through a flooded rainforest river, containing an aquarium and grotto with fresh water fish, set within eroded riverbanks of the Amazon, containing ferns and mosses from the region to gain insight into the foundation of the Kapok trees emergence within the Rainforest and how the river is the progenitor for the evolution of co-dependent species above. Upon the completion of this immersive aquarium experience, visitors ascend to the upper reaches of the Building via high speed lifts to emerge at the upper branches of the Kapok tree where they descend down a series of spiral ramps around, and within the biome, to discover the varied habitats of tropical rain forest, from the butterflies and birds within the canopy of the tree, to the snakes and leaf cutter ants on the rainforest floor. Upon the completion of their visit, guests then cross over the river they began their journey and descend down to grade via escalators to the Visitor Centre and lobby.

In addition to accommodating 750,000 annual visitors, The Green Planet was designed to include an educational learning center with laboratories and classrooms where students attend class and conduct experiments both in class and within the Biome in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Biological Sciences and habitat preservation. These Ministry of Education approved studies have been developed in conjunction with the Centre to foster conservation efforts in the Rain Forest Regions of the World.The project required the assembly of a worldwide team of specialist engineers, scientist and animal husbandry experts under guidance of Grout McTavish Architects to create an authentic Rainforest in an extreme dessert setting that is Dubai.


10. Jumeirah Mosque

The Mosque is a visual treat to eyes with its traditional appearance amidst all other modern and futuristic architectural marvels in Dubai’s skyline. The mosque displays the Fatimid architectural style which is majorly associated with medieval Islamic designs in Egypt. Despite its bulky size and intricate craftsmanship, the mosque looks modest. The construction of Jumeirah Mosque began in 1975. It was completed four years later in 1979. This is one of the very few mosques in UAE that allows non-Muslim visitors. Jumeirah Grand Mosque was a gift from the Late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former Ruler of Dubai and father of the current Ruler of Dubai HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The style of the architecture originated from Syria and Egypt and can accommodate approximately 1500 worshippers.


Dubai is a complex place, shaped by a relationship to natural resources, and a unique geo-political situation that has shaped its trade relations with the rest of the world. It is, however, also an authoritarian government, and deeply oppressive to many of its peoples. The architecture that has arisen there since the oil boom has been representative of a hyper modern accelerationist movement towards maximal growth as quickly as possible. It is both strange and fascinating, as well as beautiful in many ways. 

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