Design in Dubai: Unreal Real Estate

Forget strife in the Middle East: The biggest story right now in Dubai is real estate. To start, there’s the most mind-boggling housing project is on the planet, the The Palm, the luxury home development made by dredging sand from the ocean floor and turning it into palm-shaped tracts of luxury housing.


Forget strife in the Middle East: The biggest story right now in Dubai is real estate. To start, there’s the most mind-boggling housing project is on the planet, the The Palm, the luxury home development made by dredging sand from the ocean floor and turning it into palm-shaped tracts of luxury housing. It will soon to be followed by The World, a similar land-fill project in which zillionaires can each buy the ‘island’ of their choice — Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Africa, etc. — for about $10M each. Some 40% of the world’s dredgers are now in Dubai. That means there’s a lot of property to move, so the city has become one big real estate showcase.


Everywhere you look, there are signs advertising condos. The airport. Billboards on the highways. On the Emirates airline entertainment channel. In endless free-standing kiosks at the Mall of the Emirates. There’s The Lagoons — a tract that advertises “a lush waterfront landscape” on Dubai Creek. There’s the Fairmont Palm Residence, which touts a luxury 4 bedroom villa for 18,000,000 AED. (about $5M). And there’s Palazzo Versace Dubai, a 130,000 square meter hotel and condo complex, which will include 215 suites, restaurants, and a day spa, all of which will be furnished with an exclusive line of products from the Versace Home Collection. That ‘lifestyle’ sideline has been the engine behind the recent turnaround in Versace’s fortunes.


There will also be 169 exclusive condominiums, of which 50% have been sold prior to release.Who’s going to buy all these? Who knows? Maybe they should talk to Michael Shvo. But prices are escalating, just like they did in Miami before the recent crash of the overheated market there.

Rashad Bukhas, the head of all Dubai museums, says that two years ago, condos were selling for about $250 AED per sq ft. Now? $1200 AED per sq. ft. for the same type building. The area around the Emirates Tower, he says, will soon be the most expensive square mile in the world.

Dubai is handy for Iranians, who can’t get into the US from Iran, but could get in if they had a Dubai address. And it’s great if you’re working for Halliburton or SOM. No taxes! Golf! Tennis! Horseback riding!

The downside of all this growth? Horrendous traffic. As Greg Brandeau, CTO of Pixar, said, “This is like Sim City in real time.”


Build massive malls and office towers, and you’ve got problems with pollution and congestion, etc. In 2007, Dubai will spend $30M AED on public transit. “We run, and we look back and remedy,” says Bukhas. By next year, all government buildings will be green. All water comes from the sea via desalination plants. Energy is either solar – or, soon, nuclear.

By Dubai standards, Miami is Florence. At least, Miami – apart from its legitimate claim, now, of being one of the world’s great art and design cities – has some history. OK, so Art Deco hotels aren’t exactly St Peter’s Basilica, but they’re authentic, and they’ve been loving and precisely restored.

When Dubai went to reach into its own history for an architectural vernacular to express its style, it came up a little short. There were these odd little wind towers – a sort of pre-AC attempt to survive the brutal heat – so they have made them into a signature element, much like iron filigree from the French Quarter says New Orleans. Then there are a few little patterns they revived to use as decorative elements in hotels and condos to signify “historic Dubai.” But the pickings are pretty slim. In their haste to build, the Emiratis did what many cities — most recently Shanghai – did, and wantonly tore down their historic areas, only to wish they had preserved them instead. Less than 1% of metropolitan Dubai is ‘historic.’


Alarmed by the lack of an authentic ‘old town’ to show that the city didn’t spring full blown from the head of some Western mall architect in early 2002, Sheik Mohammed bin Rasid al Maktoum (Sheik Mo, as he’s known to his foreign fans) and his preservationist sidekicks are now trying desperately to rehabilitate whatever original buildings are left. There’s not much to work with.

The Bastikya area is the main historic area, and this is where Bukhas has clustered a slew of tiny museums (including the totally hilarious and fascinating Camel Museum.) And he’s come up with a little book of all the elements that future Dubaian architects need to manage, somehow, to work into their designs. Think of it as the Little Book o’ Dubai Branding… sort of a Style Guide to All Things Dubai.


So, for example, our hotel, Madinat Jumeirah, was modeled after an ancient Arabian fort or palace. Somehow, the place had evidently mated with a tart from Venice, because the complex is threaded with a system of canals, plied by abras – free water taxis – that take you from the faux souk to the spa to the Trader Vic’s. The buildings are lavishly adorned with the iconic wind towers (which, one Iranian sniffed, were actually Persian). Inside, the Dubai Motifs are displayed in abundance – every surface and wall, massively decorated.

Given the sheik’s love for horses, they’re also a motif, and the palm-flanked driveway to our hotel featured at least a dozen, life-sized, golden horses frolicking in the grassy median strip.


It was an unintentionally hilarious introduction to the place, later reinforced by a life-sized camel painted a la the Chicago cows. The approach to Caesars’ Palace instantly came to mind. This is Vegas, just without the irony and the craps tables.

That said, the hotel actually functions beautifully. It was grand, but warm; over-the-top, but oddly homey. Every night, the turn-down guy would fold my new bath towel into a little animal, like some giant Martha Stewart napkin folding exercise. And, he stuck little paper eyes on the beasts, so they sat greeting me on my bed when I returned to my room. I couldn’t bear to unfold them, so by the end of the week, I had a whole menagerie – a swan, a dog, an elephant.

There was a continuously replenished bowl of fruit, with kiwis and tangerines. There was a lovely box of exotic dates. The toiletries were gorgeous. The famous Emirati hospitality made the whole place a delight.


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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.