VERSIÓN EN ESPAÑOL
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.
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.
BRIEF HISTORY OF DUBAI
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”.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
SEDENTARY LIFE AND MANSONRY
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.