Rue Kothari grew up in the hubbub of London’s vibrant North End, but as a young architecture enthusiast, she’d spend her weekends soaking up the vast visual displays of creativity and innovation in the city centre. From the rich, Neoclassical façade of the National Gallery to the Brutalist Barbican Centre, the British capital’s architectural splendour provided her with plenty of inspiration.
So it’s not surprising that in 2003, when the polished magazine editor – now also the fair director of Downtown Design, one of the biggest trade fairs in the Middle East – first arrived in the sweltering, developing emirate city of Dubai, she was instantly beguiled by the bold artistic vision of its urban planners and the vim and vigour being injected into its city blueprints. “The place was absolutely under construction. There were these pockets of the old city, and other pockets of striking, modern new development,” she reflects. “What you [got] a sense of was the raw ambition and excitement. There was really just so much opportunity.”
Fast-forward 15 years, and this former fishing village can lay claim to one of the most recognisable skylines in the world: silvery spires, sprawling shopping malls and soaring skyscrapers sprouting from wind-rippled sand dunes. At dusk, the jagged skyline takes centre stage in a dazzling light show. Otherworldly towers – ranging from the needle-like Burj Khalifa to the recently built cuboid-shaped Opus by the late starchitect Zaha Hadid – glitter against the inky night sky, beacons amid the vast emptiness of the Arabian Desert. The ludicrously large Dubai Fountain also comes alive, creating a spellbinding symphony of light and music visible for miles around.
Dubai’s transformation traces back to 1979, with the construction of the Dubai World Trade Centre – then its first high-rise building. Other skyscrapers soon followed, with each new build eclipsing the previous in both ambition and scale. Not content with merely growing upwards, though, the city also strategically expanded outwards by embarking on a number of historic land reclamation projects, such as the artificial archipelago of Palm Jumeirah and the canal city of Dubai Marina.
More recently, the world has appeared to take notice of Dubai’s pioneering design DNA. Last October, it was crowned a Unesco Creative City of Design for its “[commitment] to placing] design and creativity at the heart of its policies”. This accolade marks a first for the Middle East, with Dubai joining the likes of forward- thinking cities such as Berlin, Singapore and Shanghai. Building on this momentum, the government has rolled out a four-year initiative that it hopes will further cement its design ambitions. “By joining Unesco’s network, Dubai aims to harness talents and innovations to foster creativity and design and build a sustainable, inclusive, cohesive and ‘happy’ city,” shares Huda Al Saffar, head of partnerships at the Dubai Municipality government wing.
Indeed, this notion of smart design as contributing to residents’ happiness is one that Kothari has faith in. “This may seem like an abstract concept… but it really is a virtuous one,” she says. “It’s essentially about the city being liveable. Is it safe? Is it well-connected? Does it have enough green space? These are issues for designers to solve, and I think that [the government’s] goal is for Dubai to eventually be named the world’s most liveable city.”
Nearly four years ago, Kothari took over as fair director of Downtown Design, an annual trade fair that features brands looking to develop their businesses in the region. This year’s event is part of the much-hyped Dubai Design Week (12–17 November), a premier creative festival that attracted over 60,000 attendees last year. Kothari still recalls the elation she felt after working on her first festival when the event’s success far exceeded its organiser’s expectations. “We doubled the size of the fair that year and… [generated a] real buzz amongst the international press,” Kothari says. “Before that point, I think there had been a reputation that Dubai was all about superlative luxury…and I was keen to subvert that notion.”
The Dubai Design District (or d3) is a purpose-built creative neighbourhood that aims to provide individuals and businesses alike with 112,000m2 worth of design-focused boutiques, showrooms, galleries, event venues, offices and co-working spaces. The first phase of the district was unveiled in 2015 and the second is due to be completed next year. “With a growing number of design brands and studios opting to locate their regional and global offices in the emirate in recent years, [the city] has begun attracting an influx of creative professionals, significantly enriching the regional talent pool,” says Mohammad Saeed Al Shehhi, d3’s CEO.
When Kothari wrapped up her very first Downtown Design, she got the sense that at that particular juncture, all of the raw talent and excitement humming around the Middle East’s design scene had coalesced. “Design is one of the most powerful tools of communication that we have. It’s a universal narrative that transcends boundaries of social, political and cultural differences… and Dubai has become the gateway to opportunity for designers in the Middle East,” she says.
Despite all this, Dubai’s design industry faces some challenges. One of Kothari’s earlier jobs in Dubai was helming Harper’s Bazaar Interiors. In her first issue, the magazine spotlighted “Made in Arabia” designs, championing the undiscovered creatives of the UAE, yet she had a “very tough time” finding them. Today, these same names are the backbone of the region’s homegrown industry: people such as the avant-garde product designer Khalid Shafar and Lebanese architect Fadi Sarieddine.
Kothari also believes the city’s youth can sometimes be a challenge. “We haven’t had the luxury of time… and we often get international press coming over and making unfair comparisons between, say, Paris or Milan and Dubai,” she says. “It takes decades and centuries to develop a design culture.”
Design is one of the most powerful tools of communication that we have. It’s a universal narrative that transcends boundaries of social, political and cultural differences… and Dubai has become the gateway to opportunity for designers in the Middle East
That being said, Kothari is also hopeful for the future of Dubai’s design scene, especially with the increasing options open to young creatives. “Ten years ago, most young creatives had no idea that design was even a career choice, let alone a viable vocation. Now, they are able to explore how they can lend their talents to… different design disciplines,” she says. “However, with a gap in manufacturing expertise and a lack of natural resources, there is still a real need to find ways of prototyping in an effective, cost-efficient way.”
In fact, according to a 2016 report by the Dubai Design & Fashion Council, the city will need at least 30,000 design graduates by 2019 for the sector to really thrive moving forward. Fortunately, this is a demand that the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI), which opened its doors earlier this September, is well placed to fi ll. Tucked inside d3, the colourful complex sprawls over 9,300m2. Studios in each block are clustered around a central atrium, providing an open-plan environment to foster student interaction among different disciplines.
The private, non-profit institution is the first in the region to offer a four-year Bachelor of Design degree, which has been developed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Parsons School of Design in the United States. “What DIDI promises is to educate the next generation of designers, as well as build a design ecosystem [for the future],” shares Mohammad Abdullah, DIDI’s president.
Take a walk around d3 today and you’ll find cutting-edge architecture rendered in glass and steel, interactive art installations, cafés and a sense of sheer energy emanating through the area. You might even come across one of the events d3 plays host to, which include not just Downtown Design and Dubai Design Week but also Fashion Forward Dubai (25–27 October), which will showcase both established and young talents from the Middle East.
Next year’s opening of the Museum of the Future will add another exciting dimension to the city’s design ecosystem. As its name suggests, the S$187 million project will provide visitors with a glimpse of what the future holds via innovation labs and exhibitions focusing on health, education, smart cities, energy and transport. It’s quite the architectural feat as well; conceptualised by local practice Killa Design, the torus-shaped structure draws on advanced aviation techniques for its distinctive façade, which is made up of 890 joint-free fibreglass and stainless steel panels and embellished with Arabic calligraphy. And in 2020, the region will welcome the Dubai National Design Center – which Al Saffar envisions as a nexus of innovation.
But what do the city’s existing creative professionals think of these grand initiatives? Kothari believes that as in any big city, government and commerce are essential for a blossoming design scene to thrive. However, in Dubai, investment from big business and the public sector often comes before a more organic movement has developed. “Historic cities have had time to develop their understanding and appreciation of design over hundreds of years, whereas Dubai has had to employ a defined strategy,” she says. “East London was once a creative hub because it was affordable for artists and designers. Then it grew and became cool, and then big business moved in and drove prices up. In Dubai it’s the other way around – to support our young creatives, we need commerce.”
Historic cities have had time to develop their understanding and appreciation of design over hundreds of years, whereas Dubai has had to employ a defined strategy
Despite these concerns, it is clear that Dubai’s status as a global design player is on the rise. “Our design movement is dynamic and ambitious… while we may not have had the luxury of time, we are more than making up for it with impassioned intent,” Kothari says. “If the government continues to support emerging regional designers and provide them with opportunities to learn, and engage with the international industry, then the future of ‘Made in Dubai’ is very bright.”
Additional reporting by Claire Knox, Delle Chan and Rachel Eva Lim
Photography by Anna Nielsen and Ashim D’Silva
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This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine