Putting the culture back into the village

Christopher Sell goes on site to see Culture Village in the early stages of construction.

ANALYSIS, Projects

As it continues to cultivate a modern cityscape, Dubai continues to look to its past to shape its future. While efforts have been made to secure or recapture its Creek-side heritage in areas such as Bastakia and Shindagha, newer projects such as the Madinat Jumeirah also demonstrate a keenness to evoke traditional elements in modern developments. This is being taken one step further with Dubai Properties' Culture Village.

Located on the Creek, south of Garhoud Bridge on previously unused land, the project, with an estimated value of US $14 billion (AED50 billion), is being specifically designed to re-establish culture to a city that has embraced progression over tradition.

"The whole area is going to be a heritage zone," explains Farhad Seddiq, project director, Dubai Properties. "We have been given a challenge, which is to build it, and we have to bring players into the market that are culturally inclined."

Current plans being outlined are for a new art gallery in the mould of the Tate or National Gallery, a Fine Art University as "there aren't any currently in the UAE to attract young people", and a museum with a heritage maritime theme. Talks are also being held for an Islamic Art Institute and last year, Dubai Properties signed one of the UAE's most prominent artists to keep a permanent workshop.

"Ideally the project should try and educate people about the local culture through museums and art galleries, but this shouldn't overlook the part outside influence has played in its development," says Seddiq. "Don't forget [that] Dubai is a melting pot of cultures, and has been for a long time, so we don't want to miss out on that." Therefore, Culture Village will incorporate local heritage as well as outside culture, with painters from India or Tunisia, for example.

The masterplan has been divided into residential, commercial and retail zones with hospitality and entertainment sub-districts. The residential district will feature traditional low- to medium-rise buildings offering studio, and one- to four-bedroom apartments, while the commercial zone will house cultural institutions including schools, academies for art, music and other crafts. The retail district will feature hotels, restaurants, craft galleries and a souq, which will be the focal point of the retail district.

Culture Village will be completed in three phases. Phase one will be a mix of residential and commercial and phase two is commercial plus entertainment, with Dubai Properties trying to vary the footprint. Each phase will be approximately 1.2 million m2, although the gross floor area will differ within each phase. There will be an estimated 15,000 residents living in phase one, although this may still change.

To ensure that the Culture Village does not become an isolated development within the multitude of projects in the Emirates, discussions are being undertaken to integrate the project with the rest of Dubai. One of the ideas is to ensure one of the two (or possibly three) planned metro stations connecting with Culture Village will be linked to Dubai Airport, so that the large numbers of passengers who are in transit can easily access the development during their stopover. The Roads & Transport Authority has also invited the developers to start communication on the new marine transportation system, which is being developed.

Construction on the site began approximately a year ago, with infrastructure works currently underway and expected to be completed by the first quarter 2008. This includes canal excavation and dredging. There will also need to be some reclamation of some land as the masterplan features five extensions into the Creek. Besix is the contractor for infrastructure and marine works, with Halcrow the consultant and masterplanner. While discussions are still ongoing with developers, firms involved include Emirates Sunland, which is developing Tower D1, reputed to be 80-storeys and designed to be the Middle Eastern version of the Q1 in Australia, which was the tallest residential building in the world.

To ensure all this work is carried out in harmony was not an easy task. "The site has always been and will always be a challenge. It is located on the Creek, with man-made canals, and challenging shapes and quantities," says Seddiq.

"It was never meant to be developed and there are so many services underground - from telecoms, electricity and underground pipes. With coordination we have achieved this in a significant amount of time."

He continues: "Construction of the buildings is not a challenge. It is the volume, the location and the coordination with other contractors. Coordination with contractors of other investors, the boundaries and the site logistics are big challenges. It is a small site with limited access."

On sourcing contractors to carry out the work, Seddiq explains that Dubai Properties' size gives it an advantage. "We are one of the biggest developers. In terms of appointing contractors, we have our own strategy, which is well studied and we don't do it blindly. For such a major development we have our own strategic partners and contractors, which we can rely on for quality and duration. We start 'sounding them out' well in advance, and once we float the tender, they are ready and we give them an incentive."

While a lot is being done to establish a traditional feel, there is awareness that elements which convey Arabic style must not be overplayed. For example, Seddiq refers to the over-use of wind towers as detrimental to the overall look. "Wind towers will be reduced [from the original plan]. We are trying not to enforce them and they shouldn't be too eye catching. We don't want people driving over Garhoud Bridge and seeing 60 wind towers because one, this is not real; two it is costly and three it is not functional."

Seddiq explains that the souq will not be the only attraction and for Culture Village to position itself as a tourist attraction, it has to be well managed and laid out, with real emphasis on culture, shopping and various other attractions, as well as creating a knowledge centre for Islamic and other art. Culture Village proposes a wider variety in styles and in content of art galleries, museums, theatres, public exhibition spaces, institutions specialising in various disciplines, gardens and many other activities contributing to the promotion of the arts in society and the community in general.

To that end, further research was carried out by examining cultural cities such as London, specifically Covent Garden and Canary Wharf, to assess how vibrant communities are created and how ideas such as pedestrianisation and green areas can be incorporated into the vision of Culture Village. "The purpose of visiting such tourist attractions is not to copy them, it is to avoid their mistakes and learn from the positives," says Seddiq.

"One of the things we noticed about Covent Garden was that it was low-rise and it had the beauty of combining old and new buildings. But you could walk down an alley where there was entertainment all around and suddenly walk into this square, which you didn't expect. That is the feeling we want to create."

While some argue that other modern 'traditional' developments in Dubai can appear contrived, the message from Dubai Properties seems to be that it is keen to avoid a forced or sterile development. Preferring instead a more balanced and proportional approach, which incorporates all the elements needed for a successful community.

"What we are trying to do is a combination of indoor and outdoor, and other areas will have attractions. We are not going to take it as a development where you just put the houses in and people live in it. It is a tourist attraction, a cultural attraction, and a shopping attraction. And it is a knowledge centre for Islamic and other art."

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