Reimagining the past: Old Dubai

Located along the shores of Dubai’s Creek – the Old Dubai – ‘Al Seef’ is a neighbourhood designed by the locally based GAJ Architects. The aim of the project was to showcase vernacular Emirati architecture, reflect local traditions as well as the environmental, cultural and historical context, acting as an open-air, inhabitable museum. 

The masterplan replicates the fabric of traditional towns with wandering alleys, hidden courtyards and narrow walkways. Attention to detail was the key for a challenging project like this to be successful. 

The Bedouin tribes that inhabited the area of present-day Dubai, nomadic by nature, used to live in woven tents made of animal hair and palm fronds before settling in houses made out of mud or coral rag – limestone blocks composed of ancient coral material, cut into blocks and cured to be used for construction. 

Buildings have been designed as if they had always been there, withstanding the test of time through aging techniques and degradation percentages. The colour of the plasterwork is based on traditional Dubai sandstone. Each house is uniquely designed to tell the story of a particular moment in time. Some buildings are simple, with darker plasterwork to reference the style of the 1960s, while others have intricate details to indicate a later date, when the local economy started to flourish. 

The wind towers called ‘Barjeel’ preserve the memory of hot desert summers, before the era of air conditioning. This type of construction became more common as the living conditions of merchants and local families who settled along the Dubai Creek gradually improved. Originally, the design of ‘Barjeel’ towers was developed in Ancient Persia, in order to generate a downward flow of air cooling down the temperature of the house.

From the street level, one can easily imagine that the neighbourhood is made up of freestanding buildings and clusters. However, the internal circulation is woven between houses, carefully hidden by thatched roofs and fabric canopies, portals and tunnels. Above the street, the hallway of a deconstructed hotel is made up of walkways and bridges opened to the sky. Pergolas and porticos inspired by vernacular Emirati architecture create a threshold between temporary nests and the common space of the walkways. Dining spots are placed along the street, inviting the guests to share a meal or a cup of tea.

Many elements are reclaimed objects previously used by locals. Every item or appliance, from furniture to light switches, seem to have been carefully chosen, as pieces of a puzzle, to echo a past era and create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, a place to daydream. 

Beyond the mud walls, the shiny skyline of Dubai rises unceasingly higher and higher, touching the sky.