Saturday, January 23, 2010



Search for "Dubai + architecture" in Google and you will find numerous fantastic projects that had given this city the reputation of an "urban Neverland". However that is not the real image you get when you visit the place. Yes, Dubai has the Burj Al Arab, the Palm Jumeirah Island, the World islands (a man-made archipelago resembling the world map), one of the most modern metro systems in the world and the Burj Dubai (or Burj Khalifa), the tallest building in the world. But is there is not any Revolving Tower, or the flower-shaped hotel or Zaha Hadid's Dancing Towers, all projects canceled or indefinitely postponed by the crisis.

Dancing Towers. Project by Zaha Hadid.

However, very little is mentioned about Dubai’s traditional architecture and the spectacular and dynamic process of modernization that the emirate has undergone in just a few decades. Even among the ones who criticize Dubai as superficial and frivolous, seem to have little interest about the emirate's vernacular architecture.

This article, therefore, aims to show some key features of the most characteristic domestic residential typology of Dubai: the wind tower, also present in other emirates such as Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, and in countries like Qatar and Bahrain.


Dubai is not "a country" as is commonly mistaken, although it was similar to one until recent years. Before the 19th century it was a small village on the route between Europe and India, occasionally inhabited by nomadic Bedouin tribes who lived in the desert and whose economy was based on diving for pearls. The tribes were in charge of dignitaries called “emirs”, who are a sort of princes, and their domains were called “emirates”.

Dubai in 1822. Model at the Museum of Dubai.

In 1833, a clan living in Abu Dhabi decided to move and they settled in Dubai, becoming an independent emirate. Given the continuous threat from the Ottoman Turks, Dubai and other emirates signed the Treaty of Truce with the British in 1835, offering benefits in exchange for military protection and trade. In fact, in 1892 Dubai became a British protectorate.

Men drinking coffee and smoking shisha, a traditional pipe.

Local woman in traditional dress. Dubai Museum.

In 1935 the Japanese invented an artificial way to cultivate pearls (called Akoya pearls), which brought a negative impact on the economy in Dubai. Consequently, there was a greater interest to shift its economy towards international trade, by developing a major port in the Gulf.
In the 50s there were high poverty rates in Dubai. Its streets were not paved, water was scarce, the buildings did not have air conditioning and there were only two schools for girls. That situation was aggravated by a fire in 1955.

Dubai in 1950

In 1968 the British withdrew from the area leaving the Emirates as a group of principalities arguing among themselves. In 1971 Dubai decides to join another 5 emirates to form a new country, the United Arab Emirates, whose capital is Abu Dhabi (Qatar and Bahrain were also invited to join them but decided to maintain their independence). Fortunately for them, oil was discovered, a resource that completely changed the fate of this small country.

Dubai Creek in 1950

Dubai Creek today. Photo courtesy of Anton


The natural geography of the area was an estuary (a landform consisting of a penetration of the sea in the coast) or creek, which, despite its shallow depth, offered natural conditions for development of a port. Dubai Creek, was extended in the 50s to facilitate the port's functions. This creek divided the original city into two parts: Deira and Bur Dubai northeast to southwest.

Dubai Creek in 1960
Dubai Creek today

The urban pattern is organic, since there was no urban planning and the city grew spontaneously. Using Kevin Lynch’s terminology, mosques served as both symbolic and utilitarian city landmarks, present in the everyday experience of Islam, while the souq or markets were trading nodes, especially for gold and spices, As for the neighborhoods, Bastakiya housed the immigrant population from Bastak, Persia, and were those who introduced and developed the brick-made wind towers made in Dubai.


Due to the nomadic lifestyle that characterized the Bedouins in the last century and given the harsh climate and scarce resources, the architecture tended to be ephemeral. Even in the more stable settlements such as Dubai, the buildings’ lifespan was an average of only 5 years.
The houses of the original population were built in Dubai barasti style, made of dried palm leaves, called Areesh, covered in mats or panels (usually imported from Iran or Oman) and wooden poles (since there are no trees in the desert the wood was imported from India). The wooden doors were also imported from India. No nails were used.

Model of a house in barasti style. Sheik Saeed Al-Maktoum house.

Despite the simplicity of its organization, the design of the houses was very effective to deal with extreme temperatures.

These houses in this re-creation of a fishing village near the banks of Al Shindagha are very effecting in dropping down the torrid temperature.

Wind towers were built temporarily in summer and taken down during winter. Preferably the towers were located over the social area, mounted on poles planted in a square distribution. However, this type of house, despite its relatively low cost, was under continuous risk of collapsing due to fires or storms.


The Persian immigration during the 19th century, brought to Dubai new and more stable construction method , coupled with the increasing development and modernization of Dubai, leading to sedentarization.
The new techniques used underwater stone and coral. The mortars used lime deposits found in the estuary. Coral and shells were also burnt to be used as lime for plastering the walls. The sarooj was a kind of cement imported from Iran and used as waterproof material, often used in the finishing of baths. Interestingly, the stones were arranged diagonally, changing its direction alternately, forming a zigzag pattern.

Different types of wood were used for the structure, or for doors and windows. The wood was imported from the African coast (particularly from Tanzania) and India. Because the sand was not a propitious ground to support large loads, the interior walls tended to be lighter and not have a very deep foundation.


The first houses built of masonry had two stories, organized in simple layouts. One example is the house of Um Al Sheef Maljis Ghorfat that despite having been made in the 50s, was built in the style of the first houses. Just as all vernacular architecture in the Emirates, it is very simple, practical and functional, expressing their technology and designed to meet the demands of a harsh environment.

Maljis Ghorfat Um Al Sheef house

The construction is light, the mezzanines are supported by a lattice of wooden beams that support coral stones.

The interior is a unique room, with windows located on both sides and at different heights, creating cross ventilation when opened. The small circular upper holes allow warm air to escape, which tends to rise toward the ceiling of the room.

To reduce the effect of the heat, the houses were built very close together forming narrow passages (sikka) so that the high walls of buildings provide shade during much of the day.
The narrow passages are opened to small squares, where you can appreciate the volumetry of the houses, harmoniously arranged in a succession of sizes, views, levels and depths.

Spatial sequence of narrow streets and squares.

The big houses are usually organized around a courtyard, and consisted of two stories (not counting the wind towers). This arrangement increased airflow to the rooms while offering a courtyard in the desert climate, a technique used by Arabs for centuries.

At the same time, courtyards, closed galleries and the few openings to the outside are an expression of Islam, extremely private, particularly in regard to women.


The so called barajils or wind towers are the most distinctive element of the architecture in the emirates. They have a prismatic form, and they are open on all four sides forming an X.

All the towers vary in thir design, ornament and layout.

This cylindrical tower in a house in Sharjah, the emirate north of Dubai, is unique in the UAE.

The towers extract the hot air by conduction, such as a fireplace does, and produce refreshing breezes. A ventilation system is mandatory, given the high temperatures and extreme humidity of Dubai.

The typical protruding wooden beams enhance the structure's resistance and at the same time serve as scaffolding to facilitate the tower's maintenance.

Using a model of the Bukash house, Dr Anne Coles and Peter Jackson carried out computer analysis of airflow in the towers. In blue color you can see how the breeze from outside is captured and taken inside the home, even with the doors closed.In green color, the indoor air is sucked and taken out of the house.


In the 70s when the production of oil and port developed began to bring to Dubai development, many families moved into modern houses while the traditional ones were neglected, abandoned or demolished by developers.

However, from the mid-80s an effort to recover, preserve and even to rebuild Dubai-s traditional heritage is being carried out. As a result there are several buildings that have been declared monuments or areas that are recovered as monumental areas.

Moreover, and contrary to what is shown on the internet, most urban architectural developments in Dubai contain elements of vernacular architecture, and although in some cases the results are kitschy, in others there is a serious effort to try to find their own identity.

The Madinat Jumeirah Hotel (adjacent to the Burj Al Arab) and the Lake Panorama Hotel (next to the Burj Dubai) are perhaps too literal in their interpretation of Dubai’s traditional architecture, occasionally resembling historicism and nostalgia. However,, in an urban level, they use the basic layout of the traditional neighborhoods such as Bastakiya and reinterpret them, adding landscape elements such as vegetation and water. The result are fresh and visually appealing spaces.

Madinat Jumeirah Hotel

I think the reappraising of traditional architecture in the midst of the modernization of Dubai is an externalization of the character of its people. That is why it is so common to see a local man wearing his traditional white kandora while driving a Ferrari, or a local woman completely covered in black abaya, carrying a colorful Louis Vuitton purse.

Together with Mr. Abdulrahman and architect Ahmed Bukash, former owners of the splendid Bukash house (used for computer analysis), now demolished by the government to make way for property development. My eternal gratitude for their warm hospitality and generosity.


  1. Hi...Your post really got me thinking man..... an intelligent piece ,I must say. Get more information about Architectural in Dubai .

  2. I'm searching to find why the ends of the wind tower poles were left and not cut off (and indeed in Madinat, fake ones are added). One caption says "The typical wooden beams were outstanding rigidity and served to go the scaffolding in support case" but I don't quite understand that. Could you possibly explain, please?

  3. Neither do I! What a horrible Google translation! Thank you very much and many apologies for my mistake, I hope it makes more sense now.

  4. Very insightful:D I live in Dubai now and just took a day tour in Old Dubai.. while writing about what I learnt during my tour in my blog (a frivolous one about my life and the funny things my son does, nothing insightful like this:)) and researching a little more because I was intrigued by what I learnt, I found your blog:) Thank you so much:)

    Anonymous: During my day tour, I was told that these wooden beams are used as structural supports when building the wind towers. They are supposed to be sawed off once the building is completed. Apparently someone did not saw it off or forgot to saw it off.. eventually, it sort of became a fanciful architectural design and so everyone copied and it became the norm to keep them there:)

  5. Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed old Dubai, a destination not as popular as the super malls but personally much more rewarding. I also didn't know that the reason of displaying the beams was due to fashionable aesthetics rather than structural support... interesting...

  6. In New England architectural circles in the 1950's and '60's (the early days of contemporary architecture there), the older, stuffier designers would refer to appendages such as the poles left protruding from the wind towers as "flying boards". Anything not functional was considered unnecessary, wasteful and Verboten. ;-)
    This article is very interesting, and I do not doubt that some Arab architectural ideas found their way to Puerto Rico and Spanish Caribbean via Moorish-influenced Spain.
    A very clear summary.

  7. Thank you Peter, I agree with you, some features such as the system of patios or the closed balconies are also found in the architecture of Lima, reminiscent of a very conservative colonial past. Best regards.

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  9. Wind towers is really a unique piece of architecture. It also serves a purpose as to why it was created in the first place. Really useful.

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  12. Thank you for some insight about wind tower.
    Got involved in some project about Dubai, and I wondering what is function of that tower. Just aesthetic?
    I think it's something like upstairs gate/door to reach roof plan.
    Now I get clear vision.

  13. Hi. I have recently visited Dubai and am intrigued by the poles protruding from the sides of the many wind towers. I was advised that they were for placing scaffold boards on for easy access but very much doubt this. Could they have been for draping sheets, fronds or some other material that is then wetted, so helping the cooling process. Similat forms of 'AC' were used in India many thousands of years ago.

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