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Misfits’ Guide to DUBAI

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Following on from Misfits’ Guide to New York and Misfits’ Guide to Moscow, this third Misfits’ Guide takes a look around this city better known for some of its other buildings. First up is the tall building in the distance in this 1978 photo.


Dubai World Trade Centre


Completed that year, the Dubai World Trade Centre building is 39 storeys and 149 metres (489 feet) high. It was the first ‘modern’ building in Dubai.


Some types of new glazing are cleverer than others but keeping the sun off the walls and especially the glass is generally a good idea in the sunnier climates. This cladding is precast concrete panels having small window openings shaded by the structure. The result is a building that uses only 100kWh as opposed to usual 300kWh of more recent office buildings. Here it is just after completion. I include these next two photographs because they also show the next building I’m going to mention.

Trade Centre Apartments


Little is known about these apartments. They’re not regarded as architecture and many will think them ugly but they’re still there, have been renovated and now have a new life as Dubai World Trade Centre Hotel Apartments. It’s not a huge change of use. The apartments must have been decently planned, solidly constructed and comfortable to begin with, otherwise they’d have been gone long ago. The pool, tennis court and grass are more recent additions.

A small area of glazing and balconies protected from south sun and screened from the western were always there.

I’m still trying to find plans, but we can guess from the elevation that they’re big-brush, single-aspect and a mixture of 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments.


All have internal kitchens and bathrooms. The balcony is at one end of the living room and at the other is a slit window that’s recessed for better self-shading. The sole decoration of the building is shadows.

This is an example of simple yet intelligent design creating a liveable building having an extended life.

The Toyota Building


This building’s real name is the Nasser Rashid Lootah Building but it’s known locally as The Toyota Building for the red neon flashing TOYOTA alternately in English and Arabic. It’s the only flashing neon and the only one in Arabic you’ll see along Sheikh Zayed Road. In New York, the sign alone would have protected status.

The Toyota Building was built in 1974 at what was then known as Defence Roundabout. It’s part of many people’s history of Dubai. For many years the building would have had evaporative air conditioners on all its living room windows but nowadays compressors for reverse-cycle units are more common. The building is notable for two things. Its windows are well recessed and further shaded by the balcony downturns that take some of the sting out of low angle sun, especially on the south side. This single design affectation is still a useful one.


The second notable thing about this building is that it still exists.


Interchange Two has grown around it to make vehicle access extremely tiresome. On the plus side, the construction of the footbridge for Dubai Mall Metro Station has improved [as in enabled] pedestrian access but the building itself remains rental apartments at the cheaper end of the market. The building’s owner says there are no plans to take down the building in the near future. We can’t demolish it now. It’s very old but it’s still popular. Lots of the apartments are rented out.”


Nevertheless, I don’t fancy its chances long-term as it’s about to get a flashy new neighbour designed by world-renowned sustainability expert. Werner Sobek and famous architect Ben van Berkel.  Comprising 60 floors, the development [of which] will feature vertical residential compounds to provide an all-inclusive city, meeting all the needs of its residents, while improving health standards [?] across all parts of the property. 

Fareed Tower


Currently approaching completion, Fareed Tower is a 23-storey residential building, with 20 apartments on 20 floors – one 4-bed apartment per floor. Designed by local practice dxb-lab, the building uses its structure to shade the building. It wasn’t a complicated problem that required a complex solution or one contrived to show how cleverly the problem was solved at the expense of the building. [Yes, I’m talking about O14.] This week, midday sun in Dubai is directly overhead and solar gain isn’t the problem it is in Spring and Autumn, especially from the west.

33 Kuwait Street, Karama


I always admire these apartments whenever I have reason to drive by. The ground floor apartments with their privacy and noise issues show how limited the budget must have been. Still, someone did the best they could to make the building attractive with overhangs and simple shading devices despite little budget for either. The sole decoration is the absence of balconies marking entrances and softening the corners of the building. These absences interrupt the balconies and the roof and parapet above. It’s architectural ornamentation yes, but it’s cost nothing. A+.


Spanning the block, the building has one rear and two front entrances. A central lightwell is crossed by two open passageways, each linking two apartments each end per floor. Apartments in the middle of the building are 2-bedroom apartments and the ones at the ends have a third bedroom filling in the ends of the lightwell. All are dual aspect. Planning for without air conditioning gives very different buildings than planning for with.

20 Khalid Bin Al Waleed Road (Bank Street) Apartments


Walking around the older parts of Dubai such as Bur Dubai and Karama you’ll look down streets and see only a chiaroscuro of balconies, no glass. Infinite variations all do the same.

Much low-rise building still gets built this way. Here’s a street with old one side and new the other. It still works.


The 20 Khalid Bin Al Waleed Road Apartments do the same thing, but with more style.

I’m guessing 16 x 1-bed apartments and four studios off an L-shaped corridor. Like LC at Marseilles, the architect has resisted adding extra additional side windows. What’s curious about this building is the shadow gaps formed by the independently cantelevered balcony structures. It doesn’t look like a simple way to make a balcony and I can’t think of any energy or climatic advantage doing this would produce. [It must become hot in those gaps because they haven’t been colonized by birds.] The curved corners where those horizontal gaps meet the side of the building is the only decorative feature and three of the five sets have been thoughfully placed where we can admire them. Vertical gaps are carried through into the paparapet – a device also present in the previous example. I suspect this is one of those design ideas that made it through because the architect kept quiet about it. Vertical partitions between shared balcony units are recessed to emphasise the shape of the rounded rectangles, and the balustrades are recessed still further for the same reason. Those balustrades are defensive barriers of glazed brick. It’s impossible to tell how old this building is but it’s probably not as old as it seems. The thing is, it will stay this way forever, an unknown and unappreciated modern classic.

Dubai Petroleum Headquarters


This one’s a gem from 1979 just west of the Toyota Building. It was designed by Palestinian-American architect Victor Hanna Bishara(t) better known for his work masterplanning Disneyland Anaheium, and various buildings around Stamford, Connecticut such as St. John’s Towers and One Stamford Forum. Bishara was also responsible for buildings 1 and 2 at High Ridge Park. [more here]


In 2008 there were plans to demolish this building along with several square kilometers of adjacent development but the financial crisis said no. It’s been suggested the buiding would make an ideal art museum and indeed it would. Its location alone makes it infinitely preferable to some remote cultural district. The building has a skylight-lit internal garden but I have no images.


• • •

All these buildings show design intelligence applied to conditions that haven’t gone away. Those conditions are dealt with efficiently and economically and with varying degrees of elegance. But let’s not get stuck in the past – let’s see what’s in the pipeline and that, at time of writing, looks like it’s going to be the future.




  • There’s an old shopping complex called Al Mulla Plaza built in the 80s. It’s responds well to climate of Dubai. No large glass facades and the central open space is shaded.

  • The Trade Centre Apartments were built to house Emirates’ flight crew, dubbed “tampon towers” back in the day. Emirates’ HQ could probably provide historical information if you want it, DWTC current information.