Dubai: amazing taste between soulless skyscrapers

(This article is part of the “Searching of Design” series)

In the Autumn 2016, I had a wonderful opportunity to travel to the United Arab Emirates to participate in the Dubai Design Week. I have to put a disclaimer saying that I’ve never been traveling to a Muslim country and all my previous assumptions were bases on the western world’s impressions and information fed to me through mass media that I will be traveling to an unsafe place, where women are a rarity not only in the business environment but even just walking on the street. I wasn’t completely wrong about the part of being a woman but I never felt unsafe, stared at or harassed. Quite the opposite: I found that the part of society that is not used to a woman traveling alone and representing a company, were trying their best to avoid any interaction or eye contact with me. I started to worry if the taxi drivers are able to see the road while staring at their knees to not accidentally meet my eyes.

My time in Dubai was so full of contrasts and things I had never seen that I couldn’t do anything else but love each minute of this bizarre experience. Between poverty and ridiculous luxury, surrounded by provocative ladies disposing their bodies to the sun (and men) and elegant ladies with black dresses until the floor allowing you to see only their eyes. Depending on what part of the city you choose to spend your time in, you can have a feeling of a strict Arab country or a new version of Manhattan.

Design mindset

All or nothing. The leaders of the country want the world to talk about Dubai and they will do whatever it takes to make this happen. Nothing is made ordinary. If there is anything made then it has to be the biggest/ the tallest/ the fastest. Just to mention few things that confirm this: Dubai has the tallest building on earth “Burj Khalifa” and is in progress to build an even taller one. “Dubailand” attraction park will be twice the size of Disneyworld in Florida -of course aiming to be the largest tourist destination. They build such luxurious hotels that they invented the 7-star rating because 5 were just not good enough. And in my opinion, the craziest plan is the Hyperloop train to connect with Abu Dhabi with Dubai. This train would travel 150km that separate the two cities in just 12 minutes. Right now this commute takes 2 hours and needless to say that a train like this does not exist anywhere else in the world.

Environmental awareness

The priority is to make the world to talk about Dubai. The environmental impact is pushed back in order to make the first happen. I can’t judge their future attempts to improve the situation but I was amazed by the extreme energy wastage on ridiculous things. Ok, I get it- when the thermometer hits 30°C even at night, the AC is quite a nice thing to have despite its energy usage. Their air conditioning is not just inside the buildings, it’s also at bus stops and they are way more pleasant than the ones commonly used in the US. Most of them are extremely silent keeping the room pleasant but not unnecessary cool and would automatically switch off in case the doors or windows are open. But WHY would you build ski slopes in a shopping mall? Or whats up with the light show that illuminates tons of LED lights over the Burj Khalifa (164 floors high) every night to advertise the king and local banks? Really? Why?!

I had to borrow a photo from Google as my IPhone couldn't fit this almost 1km high building in a normal shot

Architecture

Don’t go to Dubai to see beautiful Mosques or other treasures of the Muslim culture. Unfortunately, this is rare to find even in the so-called historic neighborhood. The architecture here is more basic and authentic than the glass buildings in the new center, yet it is rare to spot evidence of Muslim ancient treasures. The city is divided in strict neighborhoods depending on its function. You can really see that it is a man made and structured city that has been growing with specific goals in mind not with a natural flow like cities normally develop. They even call specific neighborhoods in the name of their function. There is the “Design city”, the “market” neighborhood and my favorite: “The internet city”.

Big city life (shot from Global Grad Show movie)
..and just 15min down the street you get this neighborhood

Transportation

I like to walk. This is my favorite way how to explore new cities and I was surely planning to do the same in Dubai, especially after seeing that my hotel is just 2km away from the place I have to commute to every day (The Design City). Turned out no one walks in Dubai. Seriously. If I look outside of the window to the streets- you don’t see people. Only people sitting in their fancy cars. I heard that in 1968 there were just 13 cars in Dubai. Now it’s a never ending traffic jam. I guess it’s too hot to be out in the day and have a casual walk. But the city also has forgotten to include sidewalks, therefore, with our Europian mindset we ended up many times walking next to the cars on the highway because our sidewalk suddenly ended into a wall or a street. Funny but not funny. I heard that the metro is quite well done and they build the whole metro system in just 18 months but as there is still a separation between women and men wagons, I chose to stubbornly walk or take a taxi.

Once we kinda hitchhiked but this story would deserve its own blog post as it involves Russian women, fast driving cars & me thinking that I will never reach my destination alive :)

Interior design

If the facades of the glass buildings seemed soulless, I have to say that I was amazed by the great taste of Dubai’s interior design. I was expecting loads of gold and overdone luxury (although you still can see some of that at the shopping malls) but most of the interiors I saw had the right balance between modern yet cozy, with natural colors, loads of plants and interesting decorations. Nice usage of bronze and copper, different shades of brown with hints of colors at the right places to liven things up. The interiors were well thought and matched the wonderful food scene offering healthy ingredients beautiful presented.

Product design

The main focus is on technical innovation. Low tech solutions don’t leave them impressed but everything that looks like from a sci-fi movie does. People are well educated with the newest technologies and want to understand what is the technology behind the products.

My favorite things spotted

I was amazed by the elegance of modern Muslim ladies. Their outfits are well thought: the hijabs and long coats were from the finest fabrics with all the attention to an elegant but strong make-up, interesting bags, and trendy shoes. Those could vary from the newest Nikes to ballerinas covered in glitters making their appearance as a little shiny surprise while the beautiful ladies move around with their long coats leaving an impression that they float through space. They showed the example how little you need to make your outfit express your personality.

The beautiful diversity of women

Thanks to Global Grad Show for inviting me on this trip and all the amazing people I met along the way.

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