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Re-inhabitation of Deira and Bur Dubai / Richard Dagenhart

By April 14, 2021May 2nd, 2022No Comments

Re-inhabitation of Deira and Bur Dubai

Richard Dagenhart

The 2006 Dubai Forum for Sustainable Urban Development aimed to find revitalization and redevelopment ideas for the two urban districts, Deira and Bur Dubai, which comprise Dubai’s Central Business District. Organized by the Municipality of Dubai under the Director of Planning. Abdullah Abdulraheem. and the American University in Dubai . under Dr. John Alexander Smith and Dr. Nabyl Chenaf. and supported by several major Dubai companies, the Forum sponsored a competition for ideas, inviting faculty-led student teams from several leading universities across the world.

The jury was an international team of architects. planners and landscape architects notable for their knowledge and experience of revitalization projects in their home countries.

The faculty leaders from each university met in Dubai in November 2005 for a competition briefing regarding the conditions of the two districts, the particularly pressing issues, and current planning efforts. The group also toured Deira and Bur Dubai to gain short but quality first hand knowledge of the district. The faculty and student teams arrived in March 2006 to exhibit their proposals and present them to the jury. The teams’ proposals presented a variety of approaches, from detailed physical policy planning by the Syrian team from the Technical University of Aleppo to visionary architectural proposals from the Chinese team from Shanghai’s Tongji University

tradition and the contemporary through urban design. landscape and architecture. This, of course, is a challenge everywhere as globalization expands. It is especially the case in the Middle East, where design traditions are so different from contemporary practices. Perhaps nowhere is this more vivid than in Dubai. Nothing could reveal the contrast more sharply than the serene beauty of the reconstructed courtyard houses in the Batakya district (the historical residential quarter near the museum) on the one hand and futuristic new projects, such as the iconic Burj Al Arab on the other.

The Urban Context of Deira and Bur Dubai

The urban structure of Deira and Bur Dubai, like cities everywhere, is made up from three parts.

First is the organization of territory into public and private domains, whether made from the lots and blocks and streets of cities in the West or the cellular structure of traditional cities as exemplified by the Middle East. Much of every city’s history and traditions are embedded in this underlying structure, which is the most permanent part of city morphology. What makes Manhattan, Manhattan or what makes Cairo. Cairo is, first of all, each city’s subdivision pattern.

Second is the design of the public domain – the territory that is usually embraced by the people and is the setting for everyday life and public events. The appearance and use of this public domain – streets, alleys, public

The jury selected the project proposed by the team from the Gcorgia Institute of Technology in the United States. This project had one overarching aim: to weave

spaces, public buildings – is different in every city, based on cultural traditions. climatic and historical events. Although the spaces within the public domain often seem to be permanent, in fact they change over time, reflecting changing social, technical and political conditions. How they change – and maintain their local connections – is the challenge for urban design.

Third is the private domain. This is the privately owned land and buildings occupied by diverse uses – housing. offices, retail spaces, warehouses and industry. A notable result of modernity and globalization is that many urban buildings are generic – hence, an apartment building or office building in Los Angeles is not always distinguishable from its counterpart in Shanghai or Dubai. However cach region across the world still has its own building traditions, based on local culture, history, climate and technology. The challenge is to uncover these traditions and adapt the best of them in the present.

Weaving strands of tradition and the contemporary begins with understanding this urban structure. Each of the three parts yields lessons for design and principles that can be utilized by the contemporary built environment professionals.

The Cellular Urban Structure and Design from the Inside-Out

The traditional urban structure of Deira and Bur

Dubai is similar to other traditional cities in the Middle East. This urban structure began with a simple house, eventually expanding into a courtyard arrangement with a surrounding wall. As the family grew to include multiple generations, houses began sharing common walls with adjacent families and adjacent houses. Narrow alleys then separated some of the houses to provide access from the houses to the expanding village. As the village grew and trade increased, souks began to occupy some of the alleys, resulting in a fully developed cellular urban structure. This is an incremental urbanism. growing from the single cell of a house into a city organism.

(Figure 1- the photograph of the early model of Dubai – it is on the situation panel – top left – The writer took this photo of a photo in one of the historic houses on our walking tour during the 2005 briefing)

Later, as the city modernized, some of these narrow alleys expanded into streets to allow automobiles, trucks and public transit. Gradually, courtyard houses were demolished to make way for apartment buildings, offices, hotels and retail spaces. The single and two floor cellular assembly of houses became four, five and six floor modern buildings. Today, a cursory view from a strect in Deira or Bur Dubai reveals no essential difference from other cities across the world – in Asia, Europe or North America. However, unlike American or European cities, or many cities in the Middle East where traditional urban structures were crased with new real estate development. Deira and Bur Dubai retain their traditional cellular urban

structure. This structure is clearly visible in the city plan – a spider web of property boundaries remaining from the tradition of courtyard houses (Figure 2 – Deira and Bur Dubai subdivision map).

It is this cellular structure that is the most permanent part of Deira and Bur Dubai – not the buildings or streets or landscapes – and it gives these two districts their defining characteristic. Retaining this urban structure is the most important foundation for sustainable redevelopment of Deira and Bur Dubai – in other words, it is the framework that can connect new development to important local history and traditions

This cellular structure teaches an important lesson and forms the first urban design principle for Deira and Bur Dubai: PRESERVE AND ENHANCE THE TRADITIONAL CELLULAR URBAN STRUCTURE – STREETS, ALLEYS AND PRIVATE BUILDING PARCELS – AND BUILD WITHIN IT, DESIGNING FROM THE INSIDE-OUT.

The Public Domain as a Public Living Room

The traditional public domain of Deira and Bur Dubai was probably like most cities in the Middle East, known mostly from old photographs – a casual space, occupied informally, and rarely embellished except in occasional entry courtyards of mosques. The public domain was treated only as utilitarian spaces, with craftsmen and shops spilling into and from the souks and alleys, or as simply providing access to private houses and their family

courtyards, (Figure 3-photograph of old Dubai souk.). More recently, the major streets have taken on much of the same utilitarian character – for moving cars, trucks and buses – not settings for pedestrian enjoyment either to walk to work, to shop or for leisure.

Deira and Bur Dubai retain much of this tradition of an informal and, frequently un-kept. public domain. Alleys have broken pavings or are unpaved. Alleys and public spaces are primarily places for trash to accumulate and for merchandise from surrounding shops to be stored. Also these spaces are used for ad hoc automobile parking or storage spaces for delivery carts. (figure 4-4 deteriorated alley condition) Streets that are given over to traffic are usually hostile to pedestrians. (figure 5).

The public domain – the alleys and streets and public spaces — are Deira and Bur Dubai’s public living room, as important to today’s city as the traditional courtyard was to the family. (figure 6-diagram of the public domain). Recent projects like the restoration of the Bar Dubai Souk (near the Abrar stop), the creation of the xxx mosque courtyard (this is the beautiful courtyard in front of a mosque in Bur Dubai near the above souk), and the Bastakya historic sector are notable first steps. But there need to be more. This establishes the second lesson and urban design principle for Deira and Bur Dubai: DESIGN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN OF STREETS AND ALLEYS AND SMALL OPEN SPACES INTO A PUBLIC REALM – DEIRA AND BUR DUBAI’S PUBLIC LIVING ROOM – FOR RESIDENTS, VISITORS AND TOURISTS.

The Private Domain and Incremental Building

Although the current appearance of Deira and Bur Dubai bears little resemblance to historic photographs, the underlying structure is the same, (figure 7 – oblique air photo of Dubai). Many of the apartment buildings, offices and retail spaces, built during the past 30 years or so for Dubai’s changing population, are now poorly maintained. structurally deteriorating, and even obsolete. It is doubtful that many meet modern building and housing codes. However, the land is still valuable, luckily making the traditional urban structure an impediment to large land assemblies and big projects. Older buildings will be replaced by newer ones, but within the same land parcels or small assemblages of adjacent parcels.

The historical development processes of Deira and Bur Dubai – the transition from traditional courtyard houses to urban apartment and commercial buildings – teaches an important lesson and creates an urban design principle: DESIGN AND BUILD IN SMALL INCREMENTS ON THE EXISTING CELLULAR PRIVATE BUILDING PARCELS TO PRESERVE THE SCALE, CHARACTER AND DIVERSITY OF DEIRA AND BUR DUBAI Following this principle will sustain the qualities and character of Deira and Bur Dubai and contribute to the creation of public realm as Dubai’s public living room. (Figure-7a-the private domain map)

Urban Design Tactics for Deira and Bur Dubai

Deira and Bur Dubai’s three-part urban structure leads to a focus on tactics – a collection of individual projects that take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Tactics are incremental, deployed ad hoc, aiming toward now and inventive possibilities, but always within the context of the place. Four groups of tactics make up the proposal for the Rc-Inhabitation of Deira and Bur Dubai: Green, Cool. Inhabit. Connect

Green Greening reinvents Deira and Bur Dubai’s utilitarian public domain into a green living room.” This brings the desert Oasis or waha – a place of refuge that is calm, refreshing and marked by trees and shade, a place to relax or gather with friends – into the city to become the public realm and places for everyday life. There are three major actions, all of which occupy existing public lands, including streets, alloys, public parking and publicly owned vacant land parcels. All threc, taken together, are important for making historic Dubai attractive for new residents, visitors and tourists. An URBAN ARBORETUM, PARKING GARDENS and OASES or WAHAT

URBAN ARBORETUM All of the streets in Deira and Bur Dubai become an URBAN ARBORETUM, with trees of different species

lining both sides of each street parallel to the Creek and perpendicular to the Creck. In addition to providing shade. air cleansing, and traffic calming, the different species along different streets will also provide wayfinding for visitors and tourists. “Follow the palms to the Creek.” Thc URBAN ARBORETUM will provide an overall framework for the “green living room” and a demonstration of sustainable development – the URBAN ARBORETUM will be both useful and beautiful, but it must proceed responsibly with species that are in themselves sustainable in the Gulf climate figure 8 – urban arbore images from the green panel)


Municipal parking lots are necessary, but they should become PARKING GARDENS to provide places not just for parked cars but also cooling shade for the surroundings, places for children to play when the parking lot is empty and places to sit and relax around the edges. These gardens will accommodate small and large spaces, extending the greening of parking lots that has been developed in newly constructed areas outside the historic center. Each PARKING GARDEN should embody a uniquc landscape design, with visitors recognizing that parking in the green living room is more about art and beauty and ccology, than mere convenience. (figure 9 – parking garden images from the green panel)


Courtyards are the primary features of Middle Eastern house forms. This tradition is the foundation for new urban housing as Deira and Bur-Dubai are re-inhabited. The one or two-level traditional house, surrounding its family oriented courtyard, is reinvented. The courtyard house is simply lifted to make a penthouse on the top two floors of an apartment building. Apartments on lower floors are designed around interior courtyard-like spaces, much like family rooms or multi-functional rooms in contemporary housing. These apartments below the penthouse can be designed either as flats or double height loft units. Commercial uses occupy the ground floor. These unit types are then assembled into reinterpretations of traditional unit types – Tower Houses or Courtyard Apartments..

TOWER HOUSES are apartment buildings that re-invent traditional tower houses, like those in Yemen. These buildings would be built on small sites or joined together in rows for sites with long street frontages and small depths. The top two floors would be a penthouse unit, designed as a traditional courtyard house simply lifted on top of the building. Below the penthouse would be either flats or loft units, each with its own outdoor space joined with its internal courtyard/family room space. Just like traditional courtyard houses, the apartments would maintain the courtyard in the center with the surrounding rooms filling the site to make common walls with surrounding buildings, figure 16-tower plan, section and sketches).


Implementing these tactics in Deira and Bur Dubai would be like conducting an orchestra – Something here, something there, softer, louder, a little surprise. The first step would be to select a site for an oasis/waha and hire an internationally prominent landscape architect, perhaps in partnership with a young Gulf landscape architect. After the first one is complete, the same process can continue, with many different landscape architects participating. The second step would be an international wind tower competition involving teams of architects, engineers and artists. The winners would be retained to complete design, testing and construction of the wind towers, which would be placed in the new cases and along the Creck. This process would continue with a second competition. The locations of the oascs/wahat and the cooling towers would be the targets for new housing design and construction, following the new design guidelines. The emerging green living room” in Deira and Bur Dubai would provide an incentive for current property owners to upgrade their buildings, infill vacant parcels, or demolish and rebuild. Implementation is a process of orchestrating design tactics, chigure 19).