With unbridled ambition and deep pockets, Dubai plans to refashion itself as a design powerhouse. But can design ever truly flourish in the world’s most opulent city?
Few cities inspire as many divergent passions as Dubai does. It’s an instant city that sprung up from the desert and nearly depleted its aquifers as its inhabitants sprinkled their lawns in 40 degree heat. It’s a city that diversified its economy to finance, tourism and property development and nearly lost it all when the global economy crashed in 2008. And while it has the world’s biggest mall, the world’s tallest tower and the world’s longest indoor ski-slope, most people would agree that these superlative feats of engineering, construction and organisation do not mean Dubai is also renowned for good design.
However, a lack of something, be it skyscrapers, tourism, or massive desalination plants, never bothered Dubai’s rulers. ‘Throwing money at it’ – the 21st century of equivalent of brute force – worked until now and the emirate’s approach to refashioning itself as a Middle East’s design hub is no different. First there was Design Days Dubai, a fair for collectable design editions, akin to Design Miami or London’s Pad in 2012. Then came Downtown Design, a furniture fair launched in 2013, and the first edition of Dubai Design Week was launched in 2015, together with the first phase of the city’s very own design district, d3.
The Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation by Foster+Partners, to be completed in 2018
Now in its second year, the Dubai Design Week once again returned to d3, which – according to my more-seasoned fellow press-trippers – looks exactly as it did last year. Which means half-empty, although it was later announced that Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid Architects and Foster + Partners are set to open regional offices in the district. The second phase of d3, which will include more artist workshops as well as a new, purpose-built design school, by Foster, is set to complete and receive its first students in 2018. The Dubai Institute of Design Innovation, DIDI for short and pronounced dee-eye-dee-eye (and not dee-dee, we were constantly reminded), will feature a transdisciplinary curriculum developed in conjunction with Parsons and MIT and enrol up to 550 students a year.
The Global Grad Show, curated by Strelka’s Brandan McGetrick, is also back at d3 for its second run, and exhibits more than 140 works by graduates from the world’s top 50 design schools. The offerings are further complemented by reliable brands, such as Ikea, which celebrates 25 years in the United Arab Emirates, and Hay, which showcases its accessories. A short walk away, Downtown Design is a relatively small fair, but does feature a few noteworthy exhibitors, all of which are, ironically, other design weeks (Reykjavik, Beirut, Taiwan). Among its mostly luxury offerings, the Italian Trade Agency managed to put on the most offputtingly opulent show. Back at d3, Santiago Calatrava was asked to deliver a keynote speech, presenting an emotive argument for iconic architecture accompanied by schmaltzy video visualisations.
Despite early days, Dubai Design Week does draw substantial interest from local audiences
In a city that has exactly one maker space and one collaborative workspace devoted to artists and designers, and which according to its own government’s research will need at least 30,000 designers by 2020; it would seem that such reliance on imported talent is a misstep. But luckily, there is more to the story, and the organisers are doing many things right: the central installation in d3, sponsored by Swarowski, was designed by the young, Dubai-based Zainab Al Hashemi. The district also hosts Cairo Now!, an exhibition of Egyptian graphic and product design since the unrest unleashed by the Arab Spring. It is relevant, timely and informative, even if the content wears a bit thin in places. Another standout was a Abwab, a cluster of six pavilions in which designers from Algeria, Bahrain, India, Iraq, Palestine and the United Arab Emirates presented installations exploring human experience, all with a highly localised tinge. And while one of the keynote speeches was given by Calatrava, he was, once finished, met with a barrage of intelligent and cautiously critical questions. Even better, the other keynote was delivered by the young Aziza Chaouni, a US-educated architect who has just finished restoring the world’s oldest library in her hometown of Fez, Morocco. Overall, the event was well visited by the locals of all ages, with secondary school students in particular abundance.
India’s installation in the Abwab pavillion investigated the role of emotion and memory in design
While still in its infancy, Dubai Design Week, by virtue of the city’s hub position – as well as the Emirates’ relative stability and fabulous wealth – can become an effective platform to chart and showcase the region’s diverse design scenes, and has already made attempts at doing so. Furthermore, the small indigenous scene can only benefit from consulting and communing with outstanding educational institutions and international design and architectural powerhouses. Dubai has proven that it can make grand visions and more-or-less fulfil them in a relatively short amount of time, given enough cash.
The question is whether the already well catered-to Emirati citizens, with their relatively carefree lifestyle, will ever have the need for, and to, design; and whether the new design school will also serve the children of the large migrant population on which the city now relies for construction and services. These are the real challenges that need to be addressed if Dubai is serious in its intention of becoming a true crucible for homegrown design talent. If the correct solutions are proposed, generous financing can only help. If left unaddressed, all the money in the world won’t make a difference.
Dubai Design Week took place from 24 to 29 October 2016
Cairo Now!, an exhibition at d3, offered a look at Egyptian design after the Arab Spring
Above: Hexalite, installation by Zainab Al Hashemi