All in context

John Robertson, CEO and director of John Robertson Architects, on contextual architecture and the unique appeal of Abu Dhabi.

John Robertson
John Robertson

John Robertson, CEO and director of John Robertson Architects, on contextual architecture and the unique appeal of Abu Dhabi.

What is your architectural background?

Architecture has always been my great passion in life. It's as much a hobby as it is a business, so it's really no hardship to work long hours and devote your life to it. From an early age I enjoyed drawing buildings and working with Lego and things like that.

I'm interested in producing architecture that has some sort of reference to the Arab world.

It sounds strange but it's always been what I wanted to do with my life. I suppose the more I've gotten into it, the more I've enjoyed it and the more I see and study buildings, I feel my own work improves and matures.

How did your practice begin?

I was 36 and I decided that if I didn't start at that age, I probably would never do it, and I also felt I had sufficient clients and supporters who would back my own practice. I joined with John Hurley [in 1993]-we were called Hurley Robertson Associates.

John sadly passed away [in 2004] so I continued under my own name. Today we're about 55 people, and we've got our main office in central London. The majority of our work is in central London although we're just opening an office in Abu Dhabi, and we have a representative in Dubai.

What are you working on at the moment?

We're working in India for a developer called ANC Infrastructure and Developments. They're an Indian developer who has done a lot of work in Dubai and we're working in Chandigarh, Delhi, and looking at something for another owner-occupier in Kolkata. In truth we're more in India than in the Middle East right now.

Will that change?

Our work will grow in the Middle East. The difficulty we've had is that developers are not particularly interested in commissioning a London-based architect until we have our offices open.

When did the Dubai office open?

About a year and a half ago. It was really a reconnaissance trip for us to gain a little bit of exposure to the Middle East market and so we could understand what was involved. It's looking very positive.

And what have you learned from the office?

You hear different things about the Middle East market. It is competitive, and we are interested in that side of it. We're not afraid of that.


There's obviously a lot of work on and we want to position ourselves in the same way as we have in London, as being a niche practice that produces very high quality work and takes on projects we think we can deliver extremely well.

That's been the success of our work in London and Europe. We don't go for volume, we go for individual projects for corporate and developer clients who relate to our work and understand our work.

That's what I'm keen to try and promote in the Middle East.

We're not against icons by any means. But we don't think every building needs to be iconic.

What direction will your work take in the Middle East?

What I'm interested in doing is trying to produce architecture that really relates to context and most importantly, has some sort of reference to the Arab world.

We're not just producing what I call imported Western architecture. It's got to be that subtle blend of work which we can bring to the market. That seems to be getting a good welcome.

We've been invited by quite a number of clients to submit RFPs and we're getting a lot of interest from some of the major developers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for our delivery service. These are the reasons for wanting to get involved in the Middle East.

The other area we specialise in is producing energy-efficient office buildings. If it's a speculative office block, we'd put more effort into how its space is planned, how the core works, how the building grid works, whether the floor plate is efficient, rather than whether it's an iconic symbol.

I call it an empiric approach-it's a scientific base to the way buildings are planned. We put a lot of effort into making the floorplans efficient, making sure the column grids are orthogonal and we try to design the building from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

Why are you looking at an Abu Dhabi instead of Dubai office?

We're intending to open in Abu Dhabi and make Abu Dhabi our base. We have quite a lot of interest from developers in Dubai and had indifferent success about winning some of the bids and getting a presence.

I feel more confident that for the next generation of the work in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi, rather than Dubai, will be a centre that's more in sympathy for the work we want to do.

Everyone says they want iconic buildings, but the whole of Dubai, for example, is full of iconic buildings. The result is that they've created an architectural landscape of no context.

Abu Dhabi is more contextual. If you look at the buildings built in the 1970s oil boom, they've built the city within an American-style grid system so the traffic seems to move more freely, the boulevards are wider, the cornice is attractive.


Abu Dhabi has learnt some lessons from Dubai and has laid out a more coherent masterplan wherein architects can work in defined plots and produce buildings that relate to the city in its context.

Ultimately, that makes it more of a coherent city to live and work in, rather than Dubai, which is very fragmented.

I feel that [Dubai] lacks an overall coherent masterplan as to what the city is to be about in 20 or 30 years time.

Is that one of the challenges of working working in in the region?

What interests me about the Middle East is the challenge of 'condensing'. European cities have developed over thousands of years.

Cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are evolving over 20 or 30 years and we're interested in seeing how we can help contribute to producing a contextual masterplan both at the macro scale for the city but also at the micro scale for our buildings.

It's the creation of context that interests me. It's not just about producing tall buildings or iconic buildings, it's about the spaces between buildings, the landscaping-what I call the 'sticky people places', where people meet.

These are the issues that are important ones for architects to try and grapple with. It will take time for these issues to fully evolve.

Does that mean there's too much focus on icons in Dubai?

We're not against icons by any means, there's a place for icons in a city. But we don't think every building needs to be iconic.

If you look at European cities, their success is that they have a lot of good 'background' buildings, both historical and modern.

It's the relationship of these buildings to one another and the landscaping, and to what I call the 'people places', that makes the cities liveable and enjoyable places to be.

Of course, if you add in some fantastic iconic buildings, then you have centres of attraction and architectural inspiration that makes the city the rich city that it is.

If you go to Florence or Venice you have some great Palladio churches in among some very low-rise buildings. It's that blend that I think is something that needs cultivating in the Middle East.

I think the preservation of any of the historic buildings like at Bastakiya and trying to relate buildings of size and scale to their surroundings is important.

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