The BurJuman Shopping Centre

When Interior Design Works: The BurJuman Shopping Centre

The BurJuman Shopping Centre.
The BurJuman Shopping Centre.
The BurJuman Shopping Centre.
The BurJuman Shopping Centre.

I grew up in Hong Kong, and when I left in 1997 it wasn’t for fear of the Big Red Reaper, who was apparently stropping his claws just north of Fan Ling Golf Club. The fact was I’d been working there for six years and felt it was time to experiment with pastures new.

I felt Hong Kong was small and I wanted to try a city where things were big. A mature city. I heard London calling. Or maybe New York. It was almost secondary where.

The main thing was to go to a ‘real’ city. So off I trotted, into one of the most difficult and exhausting periods of my life. I simply couldn’t come to terms with London and, infuriatingly, I couldn’t even understand why.

Then, on a miserable February evening in a St. James’ pub, an old Hong Kong chum quietly provided my Eureka moment. “London is just too big,” he said, wearily rubbing his eyes. “I can’t seem to fit it all inside my head.

In Hong Kong, I know where everything is, why it’s there, and how to get to it,” he lamented. “It has all the variety, excitement, history and culture you could want, and it’s all so accessible. In London it’s spread out over 700 square miles of what’s mostly urban sprawl!”

Within a month of that conversation I was here in Dubai, happily able to fit my new city ‘inside my head’.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the scale of it and I could feel my way around it. I could get from one side of it to the other in half an hour, and yet it still had that buzz and excitement that I loved about Hong Kong. I liked it.

I still do. And I had learned a valuable lesson: that bigger is not necessarily better.

So, what’s the point? Well, I think it’s a story that has some resonance in Dubai when it comes to our obsessive proliferation of shopping malls.

Let’s start by looking at the latest, the greatest, the granddaddy of them all: the iconic Dubai Mall.

In a game of ‘Shopping Mall Top Trumps’ this monster would Ace everything. Usable space? 12 million ft². Highest point? 2,300ft. Retail outlets? 1,200. Special feature? Largest indoor aquarium in the world… and so it goes. It’s incredible and, what’s more, it even looks great.

It presides over some genuine competition, too. For your credit card’s big day out, you can mix it up with the giants Ibn Battuta, Deira City Centre, Mall of the Emirates, Marina Walk, Dragon Mart and the Outlet Mall.

Or, for a coffee morning and a few specifics, you could visit their cousins, Jumeirah Village, The Dune Centre, Jumeirah Centre, Jumeirah Plaza, Emirates Towers Boulevard, The Oasis Centre, to name but a few.

So it is interesting, then, that when we tested my little theory with a straw poll of friends and colleagues, male and female, young(ish) and old(er), most people state unhesitatingly that when they really need to spend a day shopping, they still prefer to go to the BurJuman Centre.

In terms of Top Trumps, the BurJuman Centre is not what you’d want as your last card. In fact, I don’t think it’s in the record books for anything. At a mere 800,000ft², it is dwarfed by Dubai Mall.

It is also rather unremarkable as an entertainment destination, boasting no cinemas, ski slopes or bars. Unlike Ibn Battuta (the self-proclaimed ‘largest themed shopping mall in the world’) it is an odd blend of quite incongruous styles.

And bearing in mind that in Dubai an ‘era’ is about five years, it can actually claim to have a foot in two distinct time periods.

But there is a lot about the BurJuman that simply works. The first, and most obvious, is the human scale of the overall space, and the spaces within it. It is on a manageable scale, so it allows you to have an easy location reference in your mind as you walk around.

The old section, which (delightfully) they didn’t make any effort to change when they added the extension a few years ago, has a nostalgic feel.

It harks back to a more sensibly-proportioned and more sedate Dubai, before we started suffering from Guinness-itus and believing that if it wasn’t in the record books, it wasn’t worth building.

The BurJuman’s layout, however, is conveniently linear, so you always retain a sense of where you are. After all, it is
a lot easier to gauge how far you are along something, than where you might be inside it. But what makes it all so user-friendly is the fact that there is, quite literally, a high end and a low end.

And this translates geographically to the level of retail outlet. Cartier, Saks, and Shanghai Tang are at one end, and Hallmark and the Watch-House are at the other. How refreshingly simple! And how civilised that the BurJuman offers both.

To suggest that the BurJuman is in any way unsophisticated would be untrue. You have as broad and as good a choice of outlets as any of the mega-malls, but there’s a logic to it.

And the fact is, when your wardrobe needs an overhaul, what you want is choice and convenience in a comfortable environment; you’re probably not that bothered as to whether your shopping experience is ‘themed’.

A friend of mine once said that after a day out at Ibn Battuta Mall, he wasn’t surprised they’d named it after a guy who travelled 75,000 miles, over 30 years, through most of the known world and beyond, and that a day spent shopping there had given him some sympathy for him.

But there is a lot more to the BurJuman than just an appealing sense of scale. The curved walkways have a nice ‘street’ feel to them, and on all levels you have shops to your left and right, without overlooking a colossal atrium.

This eliminates the irritation of seeing the shop you want and yet having to walk 30 yards, across a bridge, and 30 yards back again. From a design point of view, a curved corridor will always create a greater sense of anticipation and drama than a straight walkway, however grand.

Furthermore, the walkways repeatedly split into two, away from a central feature area, curve back on themselves, and then meet again further up. The focal areas in which they converge are generally populated with either exhibitions and displays, or comfortable and convenient cafés and coffee shops.

This creates a sense of both continuity and direction, and also a feeling of your overall shopping experience being broken into bite-sized chunks. There’s plenty of scope for a disinterested partner to relax at ease while 20 garments are tried and rejected five shops back.

The fact that the layout is linear, and the focal areas so recognisably different, interesting and comfortable, thankfully negates the necessity for those terrifying ‘You Are Nowhere’ directory boards you see in the mega-malls.

There is also an interesting use of materials and finishes in the BurJuman extension. There is much emphasis on creating a softer feel than you would normally expect in a shopping centre, and this comes together with some seriously intricate floor and ceiling details to create a sense of being in a rather large living room.

But, perhaps more than any of this, the BurJuman’s contrasting mix of old and new, high and low, attracts a full range of people from all of Dubai’s walks of life. And yet it manages to do this without ever feeling too busy.Perhaps the fact that it is not designed to overwhelm is the reason for its sustained popularity.

After all, for those of us who actually live in Dubai, there is only so much of the biggest, fastest, glitziest, costliest, tallest and shiniest you can stand, before you say ‘for goodness sake, just give me something that works’! By Justin Penketh

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