Quality patrol

Mohamed Al Assam waxes nostalgic about changes in UAE architecture and dividing Dewan A&E.

Mohamed Al Assam.
Mohamed Al Assam.

Mohamed Al Assam waxes nostalgic about changes in UAE architecture and dividing Dewan A&E.

How did your architecture career begin in the UAE?

I'm of Iraqi origin and graduated from the Baghdad University School of Architecture, which, at that time, was considered one of the most prominent and respected schools of architecture in the Middle East.

Then, I moved to the UAE in 1976. It's incredible when I look at all the pictures of Dubai and compare what it was then to what it is now. It's a bit like seeing your child growing; you don't feel it because it grows with you, but one day you realise, it's become very big.


I started my practice in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah in 1976, then, I took on the Dewan name in 1984 and moved to Abu Dhabi. In just a few years, we managed to become one of the five major architecture firms in Abu Dhabi.

We grew from there and now, in Abu Dhabi, we're considered #2 in volume of projects, but maybe #1 in reputation for professionalism and quality of work.

In 1998, we decided to expand our operation and return to Dubai. Again, in a very short amount of time, we've become one of the most reputable firms in Dubai. Right now, we have around 270 employees and around US $20 billion in volume of work.

How has architecture changed since you've been in the UAE?

Well, the quality [of buildings] is improving. If I think back to 30 years ago, the country used to be much less modern than it is now. It took time for clients and the leadership to understand the importance of quality in the built environment.

The UAE used to be a much poorer country than it is now. It's always had the oil but other resources weren't as accessible or plentiful as they are now.

In the late 1980s, there was a big change in terms of quality awareness. International standards were adopted and the leadership undertook a mission to put the UAE on the map. That automatically led to need for better buildings and better projects.

The country has expanded so much. Architects from all over the world have come here to work and that has brought talented people and some not-so-talented people. This has affected the quality of buildings and scope of projects.

A lot of people are still not very educated in terms of architecture and construction so that affects what passes for quality work.

As a young architect, who or what inspired you?

Of all the pioneers of modern architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius inspired me when I was young. These were the great architects we studied and learned from.

We also looked into the history and heritage of ancient Arabic architecture. Some of the best buildings in the world are part of the Muslim world.

What is your preferred style?

I don't know if I can put a name to my style. What am I? I am a person from Iraq. My roots are very deep in the history and culture of this region but I am also a part of this modern world. This should reflect in the architecture I produce.

Because you and Zaha Hadid are both Iraqi architects, do you feel a creative camaraderie with her?

Only because we are both Iraqis. I'm not in favour of Zaha Hadid's design. I have a different perspective; a different vision. She's a great architect and she's produced some of the world's best designs, but it's not my school.

How has Dewan been able to move into new markets and become successful in a relatively short period of time?

There are a couple reasons for this: hard work, quality of designs, level of professionalism and, perhaps, a bit of good luck. You always need good luck.

Has the November 2007 mandate for green buildings changed Dewan's way of doing business?

It's a very positive thing. It's something we should be proud of as architects and as a country. It means that the UAE will be one of the leaders in the world in terms of energy conservation.That's great. This is a trend that is happening all over the world and, outside the developed world, the only country that is taking serious steps to have green buildings is the UAE.

Now we're beginning to see big developers-like Nakheel with their Waterfront development and the Jebel Ali Palm-requiring LEED Gold certification.

In Abu Dhabi, there is the Masdar City, which will accommodate 50,000 people, and its mission is to achieve zero carbon and zero waste. We've been working with an American firm on a project in Masdar that is seeing the first energy-positive building. If you think about that, we're not just saving energy, we're producing a 3% surplus of energy.

What are some of your favourite Dewan projects?

Our first project, the Baniyas Tower in Abu Dhabi, is still considered one of our best projects. We took great care in the quality, materials, techniques and construction of that building, and even though it was completed more than 20 years ago, we think it is still very relevant to the Abu Dhabi context.

We are very proud of our work on the Green Community project; we're also very proud of our work on Ibn Battuta Mall as well.

The Fairmont Hotel in Abu Dhabi, which is still in the design phase, promises to be a wonderful building. There is a huge mixed-use development in Ajman that we did the masterplanning for, which is a very nice project too.

Are you still involved in the day-to-day architectural side of the business?

Because of the constraints of managing the firm, I share less in the design aspect but I'm never fully removed from the process.

We have a mixture of about 20 very good designers; some focus on cosmopolitan modern designs, while others focus more on Arabian heritage and traditional architecture. We like to think that Dewan represents a mixture of traditional and futuristic forward-thinking architecture. As architects, this is very difficult to achieve.

Which non-Dewan projects impress you?

That is a difficult question. So many good architects in the world work in the UAE, so there are plenty of projects to choose from. While I don't totally agree with the interior of the Burj Al Arab, it has become an icon for Dubai. From that perspective, it is one of the most impressive buildings in the world.

Some architects suggest that Dubai lacks a harmony because of the eccentricity in its architecture. Do you agree?

Why should a city have harmony? I don't think a city needs its own uniform harmony. Let a city have surprises. Building one in a series of similar buildings is not pleasing to the eye.

Dubai is a cosmopolitan place and that characteristic should be reflected in the architecture. A city like this should reflect all types and styles and traditions.

I don't mean to suggest that all the buildings in Dubai are great because of their dissimilarity. Some of them are crazy and unnecessarily wild, but again, that's the character of Dubai.

What are some of the biggest challenges working in this field, in this region?

Like in any other place in the world, the first challenge is speed. Everyone is in a rush to have their projects finished before all the others. The second challenge is lack of human resources. We're competing with China, Russia and other parts of the Middle East for the top architects in the world.

Do you see mistakes being made in regional architecture?

We are human beings. Humans make mistakes. We have to understand that. There are some projects with small mistakes and others with fatal mistakes.

One thing I don't like in this region is that some architects, in order to attract clients, are designing buildings that are too extraordinary or too unusual. Some of the designs are funny. To me, that idea is just wrong. It's not an architectural mistake, it's just conceptually wrong.

Has it been difficult to divide your company between various shareholders?

Emotionally, yes. It is something we have to do eventually though. If we want Dewan to continue after I retire or leave Dubai, it is necessary. Otherwise, we'll be just like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe in that the architecture is only related to the man. Once he stops, it stops.

Walter Gropius, for example, became an architectural collaborative. Norman Foster became Foster+Partners; HOK, SOM, they all became partnerships and that's how they've continued to produce great projects.

What is the future for Dewan?

We are changing Dewan from being owned by a single person [me], to an institution with partners, associates and profit-sharing.

Because of our past success, we've drawn interest from financial institutions looking to invest. We were recently contacted by Ithmar Capital and we've signed a partnership deal, which will give Dewan a boost in the market, financially and geographically.

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