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Future Architecture in the UAE: A hybrid of tradition and technology

By Ali J. Al-Sammarrai

In the present day, architecture has become more complex and there are many variables to be taken into consideration before a building is placed on a site. Considerations range from the sensitivity of the proposed building to the site, to its engagement with daily life activities. Contemporary architecture should be sensitive to the place, where it facilitates daily activities and makes them more pleasant, and its people. When a project is in the design stage, consideration of a building’s relationship to the environment includes past, present and future concerns of the surrounding context. Dubai is one of the leading cities in the region, with a very fast growing economy which produces an even faster growing architecture. This paper looks into how exterior spaces in architecture engage with people and culture, and takes Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) as a case study for this research, as it is one of the most important architectural works that deals with public and open or outdoor spaces. The paper carries out an analysis of the exterior public spaces around the gate village precinct buildings, and how well they function for the public; it also studies how these spaces respond to the surrounding environment. In the end the paper answers the question of how well the building considers and engages cultural context in its design.

The paper introduces the context in the UAE, and defines what the architecture’s role was before modernization of the region.  It utilizes information from Peter Jackson’s (2007) study of the architecture of Dubai and how it functioned to help the people live in pleasant conditions even in the heat of the summer. The book explains the use of physics to induce natural ventilation, the building techniques, and functions of the architectural elements in the daily lives of the people. The exterior spaces of the DIFC precinct buildings will be put against these cultural characteristics to reveal the strength of reference to cultural aspects in the design.


The types of evidence used in the paper range from interviews and personal investigations of the building (materiality, design, circulation, public flow, and architecture’s functions to produce favorable outdoor spaces) to research and architectural theorists’ studies. Investigations of DIFC involved studies of public flow and access, and the use of materiality as well as the use of traditional techniques for exterior spaces. This building will serve as an ideal example because it is made by architects based in the region, namely Robert Mathew Johnson-Marshall (RMJM) Dubai which, according to their statement about the project, is designed “to provide a mix of uses in a people friendly environment,” and it is a place for everyone to use as it is a collection of galleries and gathering spaces (RMJM, 2013).


This research helps me in my future works of architecture in taking into consideration people and the culture. How does this research change my view towards my own future architectural studies? It might steer my considerations more towards people and less towards my personal desires, and create an architecture that is not selfish but one that welcomes all people, and appreciates the history and culture of its environment. My current project, which is a culinary arts institute in Sharjah, will carry forward the idea of architecture accessible for a rich variety of people by providing a rich variety of spaces. All people, regardless of their social class, can come into the institute and observe cooking being done, or simply socialize in the outdoor spaces of the architecture. The project is situated in the city of Sharjah near the blue gold souq on one end and the urban city on the other. Hence, the architecture will respond to both typologies by using advanced technologies of the urban city to reinterpret the cultural aspects of the souq. The project will be an architecture that responds to technology, history, context, and program simultaneously, taking into consideration Jackson’s (2007) and Serajeldin’s (1989) architectural concerns.


Traditional Architecture in the UAE

Architecture in the UAE is the result of a years-long process to adapt to the hot climate of the region and satisfy its cultural needs. Although modernization has taken over the majority of the city in present times, there are a few areas that illustrate architecture that’ is sensitive to the area. Al-Bastakiya is not only responsive individually but holistically the layout of the clustered houses is oriented towards the direction of the wind. The shaded Sikkas (narrow alleyways) in turn receive pleasant airflow along their paths for users (Jackson, 2007).











Figure 1. Al Bastakiya: site plan                             Figure 1.1 Al Bastakiya: proportions 


Al Bastakiya, a heritage area near the creek in Dubai, is a compact cluster of buildings (Fig 1 and Fig 1.1) with strategic placement of its overall composition and individual houses. The overall orientation of Al Bastakiya is responsive to wind direction and sun path, to allow maximum wind flow and minimum exposure to sun. In the hot days, and due to the water’s low heat gain and loss, a cool breeze flows from the creek to the land, and since the sikkas (narrow alleyways) follow the direction of the wind they maximize air movement through the cluster. On cold winter nights, air flows from the land to the sea due to the pressure difference, and the warm sea air replaces cold air providing warmth for the residents (see Fig 1.3, an analysis of the wind flow and temperatures in different seasons).  Al Bastakiya is located near the creek to maximize exposure to wind (and trade). The houses/buildings are made from local materials: corals, mud and areesh (palm fronds) are primary building elements. They range from two-story to three-story high with openings overlooking the exterior placed above eye level to preserve privacy. Their close proximity to each other produces alleyways as narrow as 0.8m known as sikkas. The building materials used in Emirati traditional architecture are cheap and adapt well to the climatic conditions. Thick walls of limestone and corals, which are readily available locally, create an ideal insulation that helps retain coolness on hot days and warmth on cold nights. The use of areesh (palm fronds) not only helped keep privacy for the family but was also used to allow ventilation in the summer where the windows of the house were open to allow for ventilation from the outside to the courtyard and vice versa (Jackson, 2007).












Figure 1.3 Wind Analysis - Bastakiya                                          Figure 1.4 Wind Flow - Bastakiya


According to Coles and Jackson (2007) and after conducting climatic measurements, the results suggested that the effectiveness of the wind-towers depended on primarily wind speed and direction, and the orientation of the towers’ vents in relation to the direction of wind.











 Figure 1.5 Wind tower: Wind flow diagram


The houses and the wind-towers were placed to generate a maximum flow of air circulation into the interior, as they make use of “differential air pressure effects” to achieve natural ventilation, minimizing the effect of the heat of the sun (see Fig 1). The orientation of most of the windtowers in Bastakiya coincides with the prevailing north-west strong afternoon sea breeze. The towers have open vents to the north, south, east, and west to optimally expose their diagonals to the breeze. Another consequence to the arrangement of the houses in this way is their alignment with the creek.


Fig 1.4 shows the velocity of the volumes of air moving around the courtyard house. Air speeds are greatest in and beneath the windtowers. Where doors and windows are open, the moving air spreads into the courtyard.


The layout of the Emirati traditional architecture is introverted and contains courtyards and wind tower(s) that work as devices to create airflow in the house and form a private exterior space for the family. Temperature regulation was one of the primary concerns that the architecture responded to best by its configuration and material use. One of the reasons that courtyard houses performed well in high temperatures is their disconnect with the outside and creation of their own micro-climate. The wind towers in the houses of Al-Bastakiya dragged air into the house and cooled it down by the use of a water pool at the bottom of the wind tower, wasting no energy to deliver cold air into the interiors (Jackson, 2007).


Contextual sensitivity in the UAE

Ismael Serageldin (1989) notes the importance of architecture in society, and how greatly intertwined it is with people creating their identity. With regards to the phenomenon of the loss of regionally responsive architecture, economic and social hierarchy dictate the overall image of society. The large steel and glass buildings along Sheikh Zayed road are an example of insensitive buildings; not only do they waste energy by acting like giant greenhouses, but they also lack identity and one can place these buildings anywhere without knowing what they relate to or to which region. Sensitivity to context and culture is crucial at all times, and the author claims that the past should inform our present, and the present should predict the future of the architecture. People’s activities and needs should be facilitated by the architecture that otherwise would not be sensitive. Hence sensitivity is not only formal or experiential, but also makes daily activities easier and more pleasant (Serageldin, 1989).


Architecture should have symbolic content of the heritage of the region that does not have to be direct, however enriching to the cultural and environmental context in present and future. It should provide, as Serageldin states, “authentication” as well as a leading example to other inappropriate and kitsch buildings; it should also use technology and modernism in different ways to achieve and improve the effect of traditional architecture. One of the key points is the reconfiguration of Western technologies to suit our needs, as we are surrounded by, as Serageldin calls it, a “flood of western technology” that is applicable to the West. It is hence alien to this part of the world and does not function as well to clone the same techniques and use of spaces and materials in the UAE (Serageldin, pg. 18, 1989,).










Figure 2 Wind Tower                                                                Figure 2.1 Traditional Wind Tower


DIFC: Building Analysis


















Figure 2.2 Sheikh Zayed Road

Dubai International Financial Center’s gate village contains six precinct buildings that were designed as an extension to the existing gate building. RMJM Dubai, the design firm responsible for the project, created the precinct buildings to provide an elegant backdrop to the existing gate building. They were designed with special numerical relationships to create a harmonious connection with the existing building. The six buildings are exactly half the height of the gate building and the distance between the gate building and the precinct buildings is exactly the height of the gate building, which sets a united overall harmony in the configuration of the project. This project was created to provide a “mix of uses” in a people friendly environment. The uses range from dining, gathering, and conducting business meetings to socializing and spending leisure time in the outdoor landscape. People also use the spaces to enjoy new art installations or view the galleries as they walk around. On holidays people gather and play sports on the large exterior spaces around the gate building. Programmatically, the spaces bleed into each other to allow for multiple activities to happen in single space (RMJM, 2013).


The wider context and heritage of the UAE have, as RMJM claims, been influential to the design of the project, to create its exterior spaces.










    Figure 3.1 DIFC Progrrammatic diffusion: cafe's bleeding to circulation


The idea of interstitial colonnade spaces between the rooms and the courtyard in a traditional courtyard house served as a precedent to use shaded colonnade spaces between the interior and the landscape. A similar arrangement can be seen in a Bastakiya house; as the diagram shows (Fig 6) typical courtyard houses open up to the courtyard incrementally. In a courtyard house, one has to pass through the interior to the semi-exterior and then to the exterior space. The semi-exterior space, a shaded colonnade to the courtyard, is used as a transition from inside to outside and its main use is for circulation. The buildings in DIFC reinterpreted the use and function of the semi-exterior space. They borrowed the idea of the interstitial semi-exterior space and due to the scale of the project it was used as the primary gathering exterior space for restaurants and cafes. The space is used for multiple purposes, such as dining, gathering or circulation that are made pleasant even in the hot climate. Traditional building elements were borrowed to help control the temperature of the outside such as the use of fabric and mashrabiya (Mashrabiya is the Arabic term given to a type of projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the second story of a building or higher, often lined with stained glass), which were used to provide shade and lower temperatures of the exterior spaces.











Figure 4 Tent Structures                                                                        Figure 5 Gathering Spaces


When one analyzes the plan of DIFC and the space configurations, a strong resemblance of the traditional courtyard house is noticed. The arrangement of the six buildings around the gate building creates an overall courtyard house, where the negative space forms a more private outdoor space. The six surrounding buildings form the “rooms” in the courtyard house, where the interior spaces such as offices and restaurants are found. The relatively close proximity of the smaller buildings to each other creates, like with the sikkas, a higher air flow into the exterior space(s) and courtyard condition of the DIFC. These observations were confirmed after interviewing Andy Shaw, who was a principal architect of the project at the time and is currently an  acting director at RMJM. Shaw explains that the project uses the traditional Emirati courtyard house as the basis in the design, where the project was perceived as a big courtyard house that has been broken down to pieces. The resultant pieces were harmonious with the existing fabric of the city, and related to the neighboring buildings in terms of height and size. After questioning Shaw about the excessive use of glass and heat reflecting marble, he stated that the buildings in the initial proposal incorporated less glass and had no marble as cladding; it was the desire of the client to have glass, modern looking buildings.











Figure 7.1 Bastakiya couryard house: spaces open - closed


In Fig 7, the plan of DIFC shows the strong resemblance to the Emirati courtyard. The DIFC gate building becomes the sculpture or “tree” of the project, which is surrounded by the precinct buildings. The buildings are pushed apart to invite the public and create passage ways. The passage ways link the inside with the main street(s) and the large roundabout. A major east-west axis is created by the circulation that pierces through the gate village and frames through the gate a view towards the city on one end and the Emirates Towers on the other (see Fig 7.2, Fig 7.3). The site hence integrates the city, streets and roundabout with the gate building and the discussed covered spaces of the buildings. That link is strengthened further by the secondary circulation between the buildings and the main streets making it a welcoming porous work of architecture.


The lower levels of the precinct buildings are made of granite, marble and dark woods. Granite and marble have a high reflective characteristic, and they are costly as they are mostly imported from overseas. Hence, the use of granite and marble does not respond well to the climate; while it is aesthetically pleasing, it reflects the heat back to the exterior spaces that makes it difficult for users to walk close to the façade.











Figure 7.2 Framed View                                           Figure 7.3 Framed view: Emirates towers


The buildings are full height glass, air-conditioned, modern structures, and Serageldin’s (1989) concerns come into play. The use of glass facades has been implemented by the western traditional way which by its nature admits light to accumulate heat, whereas Serageldin’s (1989) concern applies; the use of glass should have been used differently in this region. Although the designer attempted to do this by placing shading devices, they appear only in few places which leave the rest of the façade as heat absorbent and eventually energy is wasted to preserve cool temperatures. The architect utilized the roof of the buildings to create a habitable space placing shading devices that make the roof pleasant for people to use. References to the mashrabiya in the Bastakiya courtyard houses can be seen utilized in modern ways. The screens, which are slats of arrayed dark wooden pieces, have a configuration that produces similar experiential conditions of visual privacy. They also allow for air to pass through, enhancing outdoor ventilation and sometimes indoor ventilation in the winter when windows can be open. The materiality, texture, form, and configuration of the screens in essence reflect that of the mashrabiya. However, their uses have been reinterpreted and utilized in unorthodox ways: sometimes the screens are placed horizontally to provide shade and privacy, and sometimes they are placed horizontally to provide transparency and shade (Example shown in Fig. 8). The image below shows the use of a mashrabiya-like structure to create different conditions for users to navigate through the buildings or to inhabit the roof. Some of the precinct buildings have the east and west facades made of solid wall which is a better strategy than placing reflective glass due to the insulating nature of the material. The exposed building facades are made of glass to preserve the lightness of the buildings. However the design would have been improved if this language of integrated light glass, the tectonic mashrabiya-like structure and the heavy solid walls, was carried across all the buildings in DIFC.


Comparison with Serageldin's (1989) Concerns:











   Figure 8 - Modern uses of Mashrabiyas - horizontal application                                Figure 8.1 Mashrabiya


DIFC falls within the scope of Serageldin’s (1989) article; the buildings by RMJM adopt the techniques and culminated architectural experience of the region and apply it in a modern way. The use of the inner porch condition in the traditional courtyard house is evident in the design of these buildings, where shaded multipurpose exterior spaces were created using a similar idea and technique. The use of slats that function as the mashrabiya is another successful attempt, where they are used not only vertically for vision but horizontally for shade and aesthetic. Aside from the big glass facades, the buildings’ overall design and use of material is sensitive to the culture and the climate of the UAE.


Buildings’ Spaces and Use

The spaces within the buildings are used for a variety of activities. The shaded colonnades serve as dining and gathering spaces and circulation zones, while the open landscape serves as entertainment zones for people of different ages. The sikka-like configuration serves as a navigation tool for people to move between art galleries; hence it not only facilitates circulation but also becomes an extension, or a common link between the galleries. That is evident in the sculptures and artworks one finds when moving in these zones.










Figure 9.1 Use of circulation space

Interviews and Common Issues/Points

To get a better understanding of the space and its functionality, interviews with ethnically and socially diverse people  were conducted. The interviewees were three different people with different professions (and consequently social status) and ethnicities or cultural backgrounds. The interviewees were Madushan Seneviratne, an IT employee at an oil drilling company, Saeed Mohammad al Mulla, director of one of the companies in the building, and Balqees Hindash, a university student. They were asked to give their opinions and criticisms on the space (refer to questions asked at the end of the research). Although they, as regular users of the building gave different preferences on the spaces of the building(s), and had different opinions on whether the DIFC gate village creates a social boundary or segregation, they all seemed to have similar concerns that relate to the use of the space. All three interviewees use the space to gather with friends, have lunch or dinner after work. Some of them spend the weekend with friends in the cafes and restaurants especially between September and March when the weather is less harsh. The unfavorable summer heat seems to have been addressed by the users; Madushan’s suggestion to improve the space is to add exterior fans around the gathering spaces, while Saeed’s and Balqees’ criticism of the architecture is the unpleasant humidity and heat in the summer; where sitting outdoors might be possible in the summer evenings, it is next to impossible during the daytime. Balqees retreats from the heat in the summer by sitting by the water features around the buildings, and she believes adding this element around the exterior spaces is a strong factor in regulating the exterior micro-climate and surrounding temperature.









 Figure 10. Water Features around the building                    Figure 10.1 Water features around the buildings



The traditional architecture in the UAE is a result of a long process of experimentation of building by the people to regulate the hot climate and provide pleasant living conditions. Ismael Serageldin (1989) points out that architects should use past building techniques and investigations and utilize them with modern building technologies to produce unorthodox architecture. He emphasizes that such architecture respects the past, applies the issues and building variables of the present times and looks to the future. The DIFC gate village is a series of buildings that tie together the cultural aspects of the region and reinterpret it in modern ways, such as the use of mashrabiyas, the influence of traditional courtyard houses in Bastakiya on the plan of the project, and the creation of exterior spaces similar to those inside the courtyard houses. Strong influences of the courtyard house elements have been used in DIFC that allow exterior spaces to offer pleasant environments for their users. The exterior public spaces of the precinct buildings show references that are specific to the region; traditional architecture in general and the courtyard houses specifically were influential in the creation of outdoor spaces that function well with climate, that is, provide favorable exterior conditions for most of the year. The spaces incorporate the use of mashrabiya-like structures and water features as means of temperature regulation. Although the buildings lack some environmental considerations such as use of appropriate materials (use of granite and marble for example) and excessive use of glass, overall it is successful in providing modern, contextually responsive exterior spaces that provide pleasant conditions for its users. People’s responses on the use of the space point to the potential success of these exterior spaces and their important presence in people’s lives. The precinct buildings respect the cultural past of the UAE, and fit in with the present fabric of the city by the use of modern technologies; they set a precedent for future architecture of the UAE. This research opens the door to further investigation of how the future architecture of the region should be to set a signature distinct from the rest of the world. Another aspect this research leads to is the utilization of traditional practices in architecture and how technology could enhance their efficiency; for example, projects could incorporate the knowledge of the wind and sun, and use techniques like that in the courtyard house’s wind tower, but incorporate modern technologies and materials to create better functioning natural ventilation systems, which would create a radical difference in consumption of resources.  Further studies and reinterpretations of traditional architecture could be used to derive new types of spaces that allow for unprecedented experiences.


Supporting Material

The questions that were asked to the people interviewed are the following:

  1. Do you enjoy the exterior space? Does it provide favorable environmental conditions? Elaborate.

  2. What is the most appealing aspect of the building to you?

  3. How do you use the building primarily?

  4. What would you wish to add to this building so you would visit it more often or enjoy your presence in it?

  5. Do you like the material palette of the gate village in specific and the building in general? If not what would you suggest as a user?

  6. Is the building easily accessible to you?

  7. Does the building create social segregation in your opinion?

  8. What is your biggest criticism of the design?

  9. In what way is the building lacking?

  10. What can be done to improve this building?

  11. Do you know what the intention of the architect was in designing this building?



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Fig 1.1 Al Bastakiya: proportions. (2013, 12 06). Al Bastakiya: proportions. Retrieved from http://images.

Fig 1.3 Wind analysis| Bastakiya. Jackson, P. (2007). Windtower. London: Stacey international.

Fig 1.4 Wind tower: wind flow diagram. . Jackson, P. (2007). Windtower. London: Stacey international.

Fig 1.4 Wind flow| Bastakiya. Jackson, P. (2007). Windtower. London: Stacey international.

Fig2. Wind tower. (2013, 12 06). Retrieved from

Fig 2.1 Traditional wind tower- air regulation(2013, 12 06). Retrieved from             3E05-4985-A8A31768CDAF2C68/0/Ritz_Dubai_IFC_00103_Home.jpg

Fig 2.2 Shiekh  Zayed road. (2013, 12 06). Shiekh  Zayed road. Retrieved from                5l9wUlsERUg/TwxnH9fOBdI/AAAAAAAAI_o/s7_kpegTN-o/s1600/Sheikh%2BZayed%2BRoad11.JPG

Fig 2.3 Shiekh  Zayed road. (2013, 12 06). Shiekh  Zayed road. Retrieved from                5l9wUlsERUg/TwxnH9fOBdI/AAAAAAAAI_o/s7_kpegTN-o/s1600/Sheikh%2BZayed%2BRoad11.JPG

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Fig5. RMJM. (2013, 12 06). Dubai international financial centre, dubai, uae. Retrieved from

Fig 6. Courtyard house section and spaces. Jackson, P. (2007). Windtower. London: Stacey international.

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Fig 7.3 Framed view: emirates towers. (2013, 12 06). Retrieved from   dubai-difc.jpg

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Fig 9.1 RMJM. (2013, 12 06). Dubai international financial centre, dubai, uae. Retrieved from

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Serageldin, Ismail (1989), “Architecture and Society”, In: Space for freedom: the search for architectural excellence in Muslim societies. Aga Khan Award for Architecture; London; Boston: Butterworth Architecture.





Ali Al-Sammarraie is an architecture student in his fifth year at the American University of Sharjah. His research interests include design and drawing that combine architecture, art, and society. In Fall 2014, Ali was an international exchange student in Louisiana State University, USA, where he entered his project in an architecture competition for a 20-year vision plan for the city of Baton Rouge and won first place. He has a great interest in religion, society, and science and tries to tie them back to design.















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