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Global icon demands local perspective

International Union of Architects president Gaëtan Siew talks about his desire to see more locally inspired buildings in Dubai.

What do you think should make a city such as Dubai?

When you build higher and taller the tendency is to focus on buildings and you forget about the in-between spaces. What makes the cities of Europe places people want to go on holiday to? It's the quality of public space between the buildings, such as the squares. But where are these here? I've noticed it's mainly roads and buildings. And even if the buildings are beautiful, and sometimes they are, it doesn't necessarily make a city.

Where do people go to just sit down in the city and socialise? For most of the year you have to socialise in an air-conditioned space. You can go to a small village in Italy, for example, and even in winter people will be sitting outside together, having a cup of coffee and enjoying life; you can't do that so much here.

The problem is, there is an element missing - that is what makes a city livable and what makes people enjoy the city, it's the open public spaces.

So apart from open public spaces, what do you think is the key to creating a livable city?

An interesting study was conducted by an Italian sociologist, who asked: what is a creative city? A creative city invests in two things: talent and diversity, such as different cultures and nationalities. Cities such as Naples and Lisbon are investing much more in this than they are on buildings.

Do you think, therefore, that Dubai should take more time to invest in culture rather than buildings?

You will always attract people here, but there will be a limit, especially if other cities nearby are competing. Abu Dhabi is investing in culture with the Louvre and the Guggenheim. Dubai is two steps ahead and maybe they don't feel the need to invest in new areas, so many projects are already being built.

Architecture here is very western, and some developments include copies of cultural icons from around the world - do you think this suggests a culture of plagiarism?

In this region, they tend to associate modernity and a degree of development with global symbols. And this could be because they think their own identity is not good enough. It's a complex that much of the underdeveloped world has always had everywhere. Maybe because of the absence of external signs of culture they feel they should import other cultural symbols instead of inventing their own.

Developers are now being encouraged to feature old-style Arabic architecture in the hope that this will inject a sense of identity into Dubai. How do you feel about replicating old styles?

This is not necessarily what needs to be done, as it can look fake. Most of the architecture here is created by architects who are foreigners and do not have in-depth knowledge of Arabic culture or the Islamic world, so sometimes they don't get the essence - they just take the images, or they create modern architecture and then try to ‘Islamisise' it.

How can Dubai use architecture to create its own identity?

There is a balance between modernity and the past. Through modern architecture, some countries have been able to capture the essence of their own identity, without necessarily replicating the architecture of the past. In Paris there is the World Arab Institute, a museum about Arabic culture designed by Jean Nouvel. This is a very modern building, but a very Arabic building. It is typical of Ottoman architecture expressed in a modern way - this is just an example but I'm sure that, given the opportunity, architects could imagine very modern ways to express Arabic identity. When tourists go to a hotel for a holiday they don't want to see the same Hilton or Sheraton everywhere they go.

In Asia, for example, they have designed hotels that are very modern with a lot of luxuries, but where you can still feel the identity of the Asian culture. I am sure the same can be done here.

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