Every city has an industrial zone, a messy, noisy place where necessary things are made and repaired. Dubai is no exception: its Al Quoz district is a grid of roads lined with cement works and concrete plants, steel fabricators, glass fitters, truck repair shops and workers’ accommodation blocks. What makes Al Quoz distinctive, though, is what it makes: this is the cradle of the city, a place preoccupied with Dubai’s single industry, the construction of an even bigger, taller and slicker Dubai.
Yet as the city matures, that single-mindedness is starting to dissipate. While in other cities the cycle from industry to dereliction to reuse and gentrification takes a century or more, parts of Al Quoz are already turning into an arts district, barely a generation after it was built.
Alserkal Avenue has become Dubai’s densest and most fascinating arts district (albeit without much competition), a grid within a grid of tin sheds repurposed as galleries, foundations, studios, cafés and workshops. The neighbourhood now houses everything from vintage car showrooms to boxing gyms and theatres.
So when architects OMA came to build a vast new art shed in the centre of the site, they stuck to the successful language of industrial architecture and built a huge hangar of a building. “Concrete”, as it is called, uses the materials of the edge-city factory rather than the stuck-on stone and glass that is the hallmark of Dubai’s burgeoning property-driven growth.
Keeping the bones of the former warehouse building (itself on the site of a former marble-cutting workshop), OMA have created inside that fabled, glowing unicorn of Modernism, the flexible space. A full-height rotating wall allows almost infinite variations in the configuration of the interior from one huge volume to four smaller (but still pretty big) separate spaces capable of holding simultaneous events or shows. The front façade is made up of similarly rotating doors that enhance the Zeppelin-hangar feel and allow the gallery to open up to the small square outside, the space with its café that has become the heart of the emerging arts district. A cladding of cheap translucent polycarbonate imparts a sheen to the structure that makes it stand out just enough from the blue-printed corrugated steel of its neighbours.
The architects were lucky to have a rather beautiful industrial context: not the usual rusty, ad hoc sheds of back-lot workshops but modular structures with a subtle structural rhythm. Their mass and the walkable grid gives the neighbourhood a more urban, contained feel than the glassy visages of Dubai’s more familiar commercial buildings.
Inside, the 12-metre-high space is capped by a black steel gridded ceiling, strips of slender lighting and skylights that filter a cooled version of the Gulf skies into the structure. At the side and the rear, something rather different is going on. Here the walls have been disco-pebble-dashed - sprayed with dark concrete studded with fragments of mirror. The sloping, knobbly walls recall the shaded alleys of the historic city, while the bits of broken mirror bring little sparkling chunks of sky down into the streets.
When I visited, a couple of hundred workers were clogging every corner of the building in the usual last-minute rush to complete. The galleries were crammed with scissor lifts to fix the ceiling and one fellow was meticulously hand-polishing bits of embedded mirror, though even the architect (OMA partner Iyad Alsaka) didn’t seem to know why they didn’t just hose it down with water. The process looked like some kind of carefully choreographed conceptual performance.
And in a way the whole structure is like a theatre’s backstage - with its huge doors, ceiling grid, functional finishes and endless variation in spatial configuration, this is an architecture of performance. The big event is the transformation; the moment between exhibitions becomes as dramatic as the shows themselves. After all, OMA has a long history of creating space for performance, from the restrained Wyly Theater in Dallas to the sci-fi Taipei Performing Arts Center and now the nascent Factory in Manchester. Its experience with Prada is also relevant: it has not only designed catwalk shows for the Italian fashion house, but also one-offs such as the Transformer in Seoul, a multifunctional object that can be rotated by crane to become a cinema, museum or event space.
OMA and its founder, urban theorist Rem Koolhaas, have been at their most successful and inventive when they have been able to use their near-obsessive research to transform existing places. Koolhaas has referred to the burden of creating an icon being lifted from architects’ shoulders when they are able to reuse a structure rather than having to create something new, a way of avoiding the imperatives of “starchitecture”. Here, in Dubai, that looks like a more rational strategy than ever. OMA has carried out deep (and fascinating) studies of the Gulf over the past couple of decades and has been commissioned to design dozens of buildings, almost none of which has happened. That its first built success there should be on an industrial estate at the edge of the city seems the perfect vindication of its ideas.
Culture, like construction, is an industry and the growth of Alserkal Avenue, with its galleries, studios, non-profits and private museums, is about Dubai’s ability to act as a condenser for Middle Eastern and North African art. The opening show in Concrete, Syria: Into the Light, is a collection of Syrian art focusing on the face and the body; it encapsulates the potential for exploring political, personal and social themes through art in a region that often shies away from controversial expression.
On the evidence of Concrete, OMA’s architecture is equal to building the intellectual and curatorial infrastructure needed to put on shows that can stand out in this city of the spectacular. The industrial setting is as telling as it is functional. Like everything in this fast-changing landscape, this is a building both about Dubai itself and about a contemporary world in which the making of culture rather than commodities is becoming an increasingly desirable industry.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.