Dubai’s skyline is adorned with record-breaking buildings. From the world’s tallest building – the 828-meter-tall (2,716-foot) Burj Khakifa – to the world’s tallest hotel – the 356-meter-tall (1,168-foot) Gevora Hotel – ambitious architectural projects populate the city.
These buildings are designed to give Dubai a reputation for architectural splendor, part of the city’s pursuit of international recognition – currently exemplified by the World Expo it’s hosting for the next five months.
However, Dubai’s desire for attention is not new. The desert city set out on its quest to become a place of architectural eye candy in the mid 1970s, when construction began on Dubai World Trade Centre, according to architect Todd Reisz, author of “Showpiece City: How architecture made Dubai.”
He is the curator of exhibition “Off Centre / On Stage,” which will run until mid-February next year at Jameel Art Centre in Dubai. It showcases and recalls an older Dubai at the time when it was beginning its transformation into the city of today.
It includes photographs taken between 1976 and 1979 by British architects Stephen Finch and Mark Harris who were engaged in imagining, designing and delivering the city’s future, being both affiliated with John R. Harris & Partners, the British architectural firm behind the 149-meter-tall (489-foot) World Trade Centre.
Reisz said the words “On Stage” in the exhibition’s name refer to “the fact that the city has actually been on stage for decades. It’s used expos and exhibitions as a way to promote itself, and also to entice people to come and live there, to invest there. That’s been the way the city has really been able to grow.”
He added that as early as the 1960s, the leadership of Dubai was promoting it in international newspapers, trying to convince people it was city of the future.
Moving beyond the Creek
When visitors walk into the exhibition, they are greeted with an expansive view of Dubai Creek. Less than 200 years ago, Dubai was a small fishing village and the Creek was just an estuary. By the 1960s, it was an engineered canal, one of the city’s first large-scale infrastructure projects, made to develop Dubai’s reputation as a major trading hub.
“‘Off centre’ refers to the fact that the city for decades had been centered around Dubai Creek,” said Reisz. “Dubai Creek was this defining geographical entity that allowed people to orient themselves. In the 1970s, we start to see that there’s a gradual but unstoppable movement away from the Creek, especially toward the Abu Dhabi border.
“It doesn’t start with the World Trade Centre but the World Trade Centre complex is really the moment where this dynamism is really defined so that the city is leaving the centre.”
‘Looking toward what’s going to come’
Many of the photographs portray the people who were involved directly or indirectly in delivering Dubai’s future – from service industry workers to taxi drivers, said Reisz. Although, this future is ever-changing.
“There’s always a kind of sense Dubai is like one big board that says, ‘please excuse the mess, we’re working on creating something bigger,’” he added.
“Many times, people are looking more toward what’s going to come and not looking back toward how we’ve gotten to where we are today. That, for me, was really important to show. Dubai is not a city that’s risen from the sands, it’s a city that’s risen because of people. People who have made decisions in their lives to contribute to the city in some way.”
It was while writing “Showpiece City” that Reisz discovered the photographs, which are Kodachrome slides, a medium that captures rich colors. “Even in the middle of the day, the colors are just so saturated and attractive that you almost begin to hear the pictures,” said Reisz.
While there are a few aerial shots, the majority of the exhibition photographs were taken from the ground, helping visitors see what it would have been like to walk through the city in the 1970s.
Reisz adds: “Whenever I hear someone say, ‘there used to be nothing here,’ … I want to argue with them. I think it’s really important to understand that there was always something there.
“Whether it was the sparsest kind of farming going on, whether it was trade routes that went across parts of the coast, whether it was settlements that had been there and had been left at some point, it’s impossible to say that there was nothing there. There’s always been something.”