Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Dubai Architecture: Where Ancient Meets Modern

Dubai Architecture
Photo shows a view of Dubai’s Museum of the Future. Karim SAHIB / AFP

Camille-Jean Helou

Dubai is perhaps most well-known for its architecture of excess. Record-breaking buildings, and gravity-defying marvels of engineering, mark its impressive skyline. The iconic “Dubai style” is instantly recognizable, with its anatomical similarity to Western buildings, its superficial references to traditional Islamic architecture, its overreliance on extensive landscape-modification, and its penchant for luxury in all things.

Dubai architecture reflects the mind-set of its leaders. Buildings in the small city-state stand in defiance of both climate and Western expectations. They are at once a brazen celebration of wealth and a prudent investment in future prosperity. This approach is not without its merits, yet it is staggeringly wasteful from a utilitarian and environmental point of view.

Western-style detached buildings, massive water-features, and outdoor green spaces (terraformed at great material cost), cement Dubai’s reputation as having transcended the technical limitations of its desert environment, thanks to its immense oil-wealth.

Dubai Architecture
A yacht sails along the skyline of the Emirate of Dubai with Burj Al Arab (R) and Burj Khalifa (L) in the background, on April 21, 2022. Giuseppe CACACE / AFP

Overcoming the desert by modern means is a recurrent theme in contemporary Emirati culture. Yet historically, when resources were less available (before the 19th century), the greatest form of architecture in the region, was also the most in tune with its environment. The history of Dubai’s architecture is long and complex, spanning across millennia and consisting of the amalgamated contributions of many different civilizations.

Human presence in the region can be traced as far back as the Stone Age (6000-3200 BCE). But large well-constructed permanent settlements would not be established there until the Bronze Age (3200-1300 BC). Coastal and oasis towns developed along shipping and inland trading routes (always in proximity to reliable food and water sources), prospered from the export of metallic goods, notably copper and bronze. Out of necessity, the most prominent structures were defensive, walls and watchtowers of stone and brick, surrounding residential, religious, and storage buildings of lesser resilience. Extensive trading with neighbouring civilizations (such as Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, and the Levant) sparked an intermingling of cultures that left its mark on the archaeological remnants of bronze age Dubai towns.

During the Iron Age (1300-300 BCE) improvements in water-extraction and irrigation allowed for new towns to emerge. People could move further inland, without having to rely on sparse naturally occurring oases. Long underground aqueducts (qanat) were carved into solid rock, to ferry cool water from buried water-wells, all the way to the surface. A true marvel of ancient engineering, and a testament to the resilience of the region’s people. We can learn much about the architecture of the period from major archaeological finds uncovered at Al-Ashoosh, Al-Sufouh, and Saruq Al-Hadid. Buildings show a significant improvement in stone masonry. Increased trade means construction materials imported from further away. Decoration is still effectively non-existent, due to the characteristic resource-scarcity of desert environments, and the general culture of utilitarian simplicity that was beginning to take form in the region.

Pre-Islamic artefacts can be found in archaeological sites across Dubai, originating from as late as the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

Dubai Architecture
Photo shows the tip of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower behind a mosque on the Gulf emirate’s main Sheikh Zayed Road. Karim SAHIB / AFP

Islam spread to the region when the Umayyad Caliph of the eastern Islamic world invaded south-east Arabia and drove out the populations that called it home (661-750 CE). Though heavily inspired by other traditional Islamic styles, Dubai’s Islamic architecture distinguished itself with the noticeable absence of ornamentation. Building exteriors were often simple geometric shapes directly resulting from internal spatial composition. Earth-toned walls were left bare, stones were cut flat, and imported wood beams were kept in their natural state (only treated for weather resistance). Whether from necessity or preference, builders chose to forgo superficial decoration, choosing instead to pursue artistry through perfecting the arrangement of necessary architectural elements. Only a small number of mosques exhibited any form of ornamentation.

By the 18th century, Dubai was a cluster of small towns (inhabited by the Bani Yas tribe, under the rule of Abu Dhabi. In 1833, tribal feuding culminated in the Al Bu Falasah tribe seceding from Abu-Dhabi and taking Dubai bloodlessly, before declaring it an independent state. The leaders of this historic exodus established the Al Maktoum dynasty that still rules to this day. At that point, Dubai’s architecture was still exclusively traditional, with narrow alleyways, judiciously placed shading structured, and courtyard houses topped by cooling towers. Designs were deeply rooted in Islamic, Arabian, and Persian culture. City planning reflected a strong Bedouin heritage. Construction materials and techniques were chosen with climate in mind.

In 1892, Dubai became a protectorate of the United Kingdom via treaty, after years of intermittent conflict between the Western imperial power and several neighbouring states. Later, in 1901, Dubai was declared a free-port by its ruler, Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum. These two events greatly intensified Dubai’s interactions with the West. The small city-state, caught in the whirlwind of international politics, struggled to retain its cultural identity. At that point, Western influences began to appear in local architecture.

In the 1950s, Dubai expended massive resources on upgrading the nation’s infrastructure. In 1959, the nation’s ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, commissioned British architecture firm, Halcrow, to craft the city’s first master plan. The result was unsurprisingly a Western approach to urban planning that does away with narrow shaded alleyways and incentivizes the construction of tall detached buildings.

In 1966, oil was discovered in Dubai, sparking a construction boom that would radically change the country’s architectural makeup, created a hodgepodge of architectural styles implemented with little regard for climate or custom. Glass towers were erected along main roads, and then further inland, requiring massive amounts of energy for cooling. Investments in tourism meant large outdoor green spaces, with artificially-irrigated imported trees. Historic buildings and quarters were razed and replaced with decontextualized modern architecture that felt inherently alien to the locals.

Having grown in wealth and influence, Dubai joined the United Arab Emirates in 1971, thereby revoking its treaty with the UK. But Western influences remained entrenched in the Emirati mind-set. During the early 1970s, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, then ruler of Dubai, commissioned the creation of many iconic modern buildings by Western architecture firms, most notably British architect John R Harris.

By the end of the 1970s Dubai’s population had nearly quadrupled. In response to this unprecedented demographic growth, the city was expanded haphazardly, with little attention paid to community-building, environmental impacts, or infrastructure limitations (which are arguably the most important priorities in urban planning).

In the 1980s and 1990s, Dubai decided to intensify its investments in tourism, and has since emerged as one of the world’s premier travel destinations. The architectural output of this period is characterized as pseudo-traditional. Modern structures decorated with superficial Islamic motifs that are as if pasted on, with no real impact on the building’s actual composition. Decidedly kitsch designs that are of more use in attracting tourists rather than benefiting the local community in any way.

Dubai Architecture
A general view shows the Dubai’s Port Rashid on the Gulf in the United Arab Emirates. Karim SAHIB / AFP

In recent years, Dubai’s leaders are becoming more mindful of both environment and architectural heritage, in their approach to urban planning. Traditional buildings are being restored (such as the Al Fahidi fort built in 1799, and the neighbourhood of Bastakiya built in 1890) and architects are being encouraged to incorporate aspects of traditional construction in their work (not merely as decoration, but rather as primary components of the overall design approach, such as the Madinat Jumeirah resort, built in 2004).

But these changes are not nearly enough to reverse the prevalent trend of building modern glass towers and American-style suburbs in the desert. The main features of traditional Emirati architecture (use of local materials, passive cooling, clever light-control, and natural insulation) remain underutilized in modern-day Dubai, despite the fact that they’re still the best suited for the environment at hand.

After all, the traditional Emirati house was tested and improved for centuries by the people of the region. It evolved with every iteration, to better fit its users’ needs and preferences. So there is much to learn about living comfortably in a desert, from the study of the few houses that survived the city’s rapid modernization.

The traditional Dubai house is a cluster of rooms arranged in two stories around a few courtyards of varying sizes. Near the most important rooms, stand wind towers to provide passive climate control (instantly recognizable by their small open windows, flat roofs, and wooden beams protruding from every side). Internal spaces are segregated on the basis of privacy, with the most public rooms accessible first, and private quarters concealed further inside. Outer walls are bare, topped with defensive crenulations. Most windows look inwardly, onto courtyards and passage ways. Decoration is non-existent, but proportions are considered carefully, so as to be pleasing to the eye.

In coastal neighbourhoods, walls were made of coral stone extracted from nearby reefs, assembled in irregular sized blocks and set in thick mortar, then plastered. Roofs were typically flat, comprised of wooden planks spread in a staggered pattern over slender wood beams, and treated for weather-resistance. Floors were either clad in plain tiles, or finished with a compacted argillaceous earth mixture that was dense enough to be polished. Mangrove-wood was imported from East Africa. Wood beams were typically 3 to 3.5 meters long. This limitation imposed a rigid grid-like geometry on coastal Dubai houses. That’s why these traditional designs look like 3 meter wide cubes combined in a variety of ways. To deviate from these proportions would have been inefficient and wasteful.

In oasis towns, the unavailability of coral and stone meant that walls were typically built of mud-bricks, reinforced with palm wood beams, and plastered to resist the elements. The most expensive structures used a row of stone at the base of their walls, to protect against water erosion. But the most modest dwellings were constructed entirely of palm-wood. Roofs were pitched at a wide angle, comprised of palm fronds, split and interlaced to form a kind of thatch, supported by palm trunks installed as beams. Floors were exclusively earthen, typically carpeted. Screens of palm wood protected against the ravages of sunlight, and running water combined with efficient ventilation created a cooling effect. Oasis towns were often laid out concentrically, in a manner reminiscent of Bedouin encampments.

In mountainous regions, at the east of the country, walls were constructed of irregularly shaped rocks (that get progressively larger from top to bottom), cut with a high level of precision, installed without mortar, and left exposed from the outside (though they were often plastered from within for the sake of cleanliness). Roofs were typically flat, comprised of palm fronds and locally sourced wood. Floors were either clad in stone tiles, or carved into solid rock. Despite differences in materials and construction techniques, most traditional mountain homes were very similar to their costal contemporaries. But there were some that diverted from the prevalent style by being circular, or even carved in solid rock and partially buried.