Dubai’s Design Evolution

A timeline of Dubai’s architectural development

Dubai’s architecture has been driven by climate, creativity and enterprise. It is perhaps one of the world’s most captivating cityscapes. On the one hand there is the Old Town, home to winding alleyways, traditional souks and fascinating, classic Arabian-style dwellings; and on the other, there is the sprawling modern metropolis that has risen from the desert sands over the past few decades – a shining example of modern architecture at its very best.

Dubai's Design Evolution

As Dubai has evolved from a small fishing village to a transit point on the trade route between Iraq and Oman and, finally, into the major international city it is today, so has its shape evolved.

Remnants of Dubai’s fishing-village past in the Old Town

In the late 1800s, one of the chief concerns when building houses in the hot desert climate of Dubai was to find a way to keep the living environment as cool as possible. In aid of this, early buildings in Dubai were built very close together, and the covered pathways created in between was each known as a ‘sikka’. A sikka allowed shaded passage between properties and also encouraged the wind to funnel into the narrow path, creating a rudimentary, natural form of air-conditioning.

Dubai's Design Evolution

And the natural AC did not end there, as some of the larger, more luxurious early Dubai homes would usually have a central courtyard, with a pool or water feature known as a ‘howz’. The open courtyard would allow the warm air to escape and the water would help cooler air circulate throughout the home through the process of evaporation.

Walls were traditionally thick, windows were small and wind towers were often added to catch the desert winds and syphon the cooler air they brought into the homes, simultaneously pushing out the warmer, stale air.

A prime example of this old-style Arabian architecture is Al Fahidi Fort, which was built all the way back in 1799 and is now the oldest building still standing in Dubai. When it was first built, the Fort was used as a residence of the ruler and designed to be a shelter in case of attack, and nowadays it is home to the Dubai Museum – a fitting place to learn more about the history of the emirate.

The beginnings of a metropolis on Sheikh Zayed Road

During the 1970s, just as Dubai’s fortunes changed completely with the sudden massive financial boost that the discovery of oil brought, so did the architecture of the emirate. During this decade the foundations for most of the infrastructure that still remain in the city today were laid down.

Instead of being all about keeping the natural elements at bay, the huge influx of residents saw a shift in focus, with accommodating more people in smaller spaces and creating modern business facilities becoming the top priorities. To this end, in 1978 the 39-storey Dubai World Trade Centre was built. Designed by British architect, John Harris, it was the city’s first genuine skyscraper.

The world’s tallest building and beyond

The great and good of modern architecture have flocked to Dubai since: Tom Wright of WKK Architects created arguably the city’s most iconic building in 1999, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab ; internationally renowned Adrian Smith designed the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in 2009; and architectural powerhouse Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) penned the stunning Cayan Tower in 2013.

Dubai's Design Evolution

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