In Dubai, Architect Rem Koolhaas Sees Art in Concrete

Architect Rem Koolhaas with patrons and friends in Dubai. Photos: Joseph Hammond.

The rulers of Dubai have carefully planned the glitz and glamour that the entrepôt is known for today. From the world’s largest tower and artificial islands already in existence to robot cops and a flying-drone taxi service to come, the city-state has always sought to be the city of tomorrow today.

Concrete is the name of a warehouse in Dubai that has been modestly repurposed as a contemporary art space. Despite its name, a large part of the original structure is no longer concrete. It is now covered in a translucent polycarbonate that allows the building to shimmer in the Arabian sun. Its designer: Rem Koolhaas, the Pritzker Prize-winning “starchitect.”

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For all its glamour, what is most remarkable about Concrete is its simplicity. Indeed, Koolhaas believes its real innovations are in its interior. When describing the construction to a group of visiting journalists, he quickly sketches out diagrams showing how the walls can be adjusted in various directions to create a mixed-use space. On one side, for example, tall bay doors evocative of a zeppelin hanger open up on a courtyard featuring a small café.

Koolhaas believes his interior is what matters here.

“No city has influenced us as much as Dubai,” Koolhaas added. The “us,” of course, is his architectural firm, which has made an intense, nearly anthropological study of the countries of the gulf since opening its Dubai office in 2003. Concrete marks his second completed project there; earlier this year, Koolhaas’ firm opened the Qatar Foundation headquarters, a 45-minute flight away in Doha. The Qatar National Library is coming up next.

Concrete is located in Alserkal Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the burgeoning arts district in the Al Quoz industrial area. Little seen by the 15 million tourists who visit the UAE each year, there are now 33 galleries in Al Quoz; the first was the Ayyam Gallery in 2007. There’s also a boxing gym and a chocolate shop. Al Quoz is still gritty: you can easily spot South Asian manual laborers in coveralls trudging between warehouses and auto shops. On one street, I spotted a calico-colored cat pulling itself forward with an unlikely hopping motion, perhaps a survivor of an encounter with a car.

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The repurposing of industrial areas into art spaces is a novel idea in the Middle East. Unlike the high-rise developments along Dubai’s iconic Sheikh Zayed Road and the emirate’s seafront, most structures in the Al Quoz are one or two stories.

“It’s a cool area — and an area which is growing organically,” says Azam, an Iranian artist enjoying a two-month residency at a gallery in the district. “We have nothing like this area in Tehran.”

To be sure, there are still plenty of megaprojects in Dubai. The first phase of the Arabian Canal — at 75 kilometers, the world’s largest infrastructure effort — is complete. Another project is Meydan City, a new community development built around Dubai’s horse-racing stadium, which will also include a canal linking it to the sea—a boon for the elite visitors to the Dubai World Cup each year. Dubai ran out of oceanfront property long ago, so new projects seek to develop the interior of the emirate. Likely to be completed soonest is the controversial Al Berwaz Tower, also called as the “Dubai Frame,” which looks like a nearly 500-foot-high picture frame planted not far from the international airport. (The architect Fernando Donis has filed suit in US court against the municipality of Dubai and ThyssenKrupp Elevator for allegedly stealing his design.)

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But the idea of culture-focused development is itself a growing trend, inside and outside the UAE. The Dubai headquarters of the Pakistan Association is not only a meeting hall but a medical center, offices and a mosque. In Qatar, a fire station reopened as an art gallery, café and residence space less than two years ago. Qatar is also planning a similar project to rehabilitate a grain silo into an art space.

The first exhibition at Concrete features artwork saved from Syria’s still-raging civil war. Taking a stroll through it, there was an interesting oil painting of a Syrian Sufi dervish wearing a fez. On his chest were two medals, one of which was apparently given to the subject during a trip to LA around 1900.

Koolhaas is circumspect when asked if Dubai should pursue more redevelopment ideas instead of the large mega-developments for which it is known and renowned, “This, for the first time, is beginning to be a relevant question,” he says, leaving it right there. Crackling construction equipment rings faintly in the background, echoing a city that is itself forever being built.