Building theatrics

dxb.lab is inspired by urban environments and, as such, it aims to design buildings that will activate and invigorate both public and residential space. Architect's Lauren Hills chats to Khalid Alnajjar and Richard Wagner to find out more.
Building theatrics
By Lauren Hills
Fri 14 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

dxb.lab is inspired by urban environments and, as such, it aims to design buildings that will activate and invigorate both public and residential space. Architect's Lauren Hills chats to Khalid Alnajjar and Richard Wagner to find out more.

How did you arrive in the field?

Alnajjar:From childhood I was always inclined towards drawing, painting, designing and building things. Architecture is not just about designing buildings, it is an act of making things. I think that curiosity of creating things, of making things, changing things... it kind of evolved from there.

I guess it was a natural progression to study architecture. I studied at Columbia University, (New York) where I received an MS in Advanced Architectural Design. My Bachelor's of Architecture is from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Wagner:Mine is a very similar story. I am not from a family of architects, but as early as five years old I found myself taking apart and putting back together anything I got my hands on-that suggested a certain disposition towards the creative process. It just got fostered throughout childhood and my teens... I knew from the age of 16 that I wanted to be an architect.

What inspires your designs?

Alnajjar:On the large scale it is the city. The dynamic of the city; the way in which this city actually evolves really inspires us, especially for our public projects. [We're inspired by] projects that have an urban impact; the urban theatrics. When it comes to the residential scale, what inspires us is the domestic activity within an enclosed environment. We call it the domestic theatrics; how you dramatise the building.

Can you help me understand this commone theme of ‘theatrics'?

Alnajjar:On the urban scale, when we work on a project, we try to activate the ground floor or the pedestrian domain. Rather than being passive, you have to agitate the environment and the surroundings. You choose whether you are going to allow people to go through your building; so it can become a private, yet also a public domain, which is very important for us and it is very important for the city.

When it comes to the smaller, residential scale, the domestic theatrics is how you can actually create a lifestyle. The way that we design houses, it is almost as if we are designing a stage set for a domestic environment. We set the stage and the people living there become the actors within it, in a very metaphorical sense.

While dxb.lab is focused on the urban environment and is sensitive to the surrounding context, I think many projects in the region have ignored these crucial spaces? Would you agree?

Alnajjar:There are two ways that people can say that a project is not contextual: first, looks in terms of its form and, second, how the building activates its surroundings. Some projects in Dubai are being designed in isolation of what is happening around them, but any singular building has the potential to activate the environment.

So do you think a more integrated urban environment will develop in Dubai?

Alnajjar:Most of the new masterplans in the city are actually pushing for activating a pedestrian domain, and there is a lot of effort going into creating regulations that call for the inclusion of covered walkways and commercial activity on the ground floor.This comes from what is called the urban design guidelines. So the intention is there, which is important, but it will definitely take some time.

Wagner:But you also have to criticise urban planning because it is not of the same rigor everywhere in Dubai. In some areas it functions quite well and the ageing process happens very quickly, but in other areas, the area is still sterile and empty.

There are many voids between buildings that hold no purpose; they are just left empty because some authority says that it has to be kept open for some access point, and people aren't able to do anything with it.

How can Dubai, as a city, be made more coherent?

Wagner:I think it needs to be triggered from high up. The highest authority has to say: ‘Alright guys, we need to look into what we have in the city and how we can make it better, rather than just building new'.

Eventually, Dubai will reach a point where that will happen automatically; we will have built the base and then we'll start filling in. That's when we activate it. What we need to find is someone who says: ‘Help us develop the city further, let us enhance the city together'.

What does dxb.lab offer that is unique to the architecture industry in the UAE?

Wagner:There are two aspects that make dxb.labspecial. First, we are from Dubai-it started with Khalid who is from Dubai but studied abroad. Secondly, he has brought in people from outside; we employ people from a dozen nations, like Japan, Germany, Brazil and the UAE, yet we make architecture that comes from here, for this place.

Alnajjar:It is like a local-global office. It is very important for me to bring together talented people of different cultural backgrounds [who possess] the same kind of architectural education and background; the same passion; the same drive.

Our architecture has a lot of references to the vernacular architecture, but in a very abstract, cosmopolitan way; taking its essence, rather than the image of it. It is not a matter of replicating the vernacular architecture, but it is about capturing the essence.

Wagner:It is globally-inspired local vernacular.

What isdxb.labworking on at the moment?

Alnajjar:We are working on developing a resort on one of the World islands. It is named D51. Interestingly, we decided not to reference our island to a country, or make it themed. It is a contemporary island resort.

We've also been working with the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) in Abu Dhabi to design one of the Biennale Park Pavilions for Saadiyat Island.Saadiyat is an amazing project, where you have museums by Frank Ghery, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando. You've also got 19 pavilions that have been given to very interesting architects and we have been blessed and honoured to be asked to be part of it.

Can you tell me about the collaboration between developer and architect on a large-scale development like Saadiyat Island?

Wagner:The collaborative aspect only comes into play once you have proposed the design to the developers, and only then do you engage with the individual developers, who then usually end up criticising the design.

In the beginning they provide you with a design brief. You analyse it, you get really engaged with the project and you create your design. It might transform itself along the way, but often, once you have submitted your designs to the developers they come back to us and say how inspired they were by the designs and then take it further.

So the developer's ideas might shift from the original brief...

Wagner:Yes, that is a very interesting aspect, and I think that that needs to happen more often, as that will give them that edge of diversity that a project needs. Saadiyat Island is a really good masterplan already and the diversity of architects makes it a very exciting project.

You talked about being interested and inspired by the urban environment, what in particular excites you about working in the UAE?

Alnajjar:Things are interesting in different ways. What excited us is the energy and dynamic of the city. It is overwhelming at times.

Wagner:We enjoy going around the city and finding these little leftover treasures from the late-modernist period of the 70s and 80s, and to be honest, there are a lot of buildings around that are not recognised for what they stood for and what they could still stand for. We could still learn from them; we should preserve them.

What makes that type of building particularly interesting?

Wagner:As architects, the buildings are very interesting to us and they are part of the history of the city. It's not only things that are a hundred years old that are history, everything becomes history. Their quality is not only in external design. Back in the day, when they were made, they had an agenda that made them, actually, a lot better than many of the new projects that are up now. There are a lot of aspects that have been forgotten or are just overlooked.

Alnajjar:It is also very interesting to renovate these buildings and actually inject a new activity into them. Some of them are visual, some of them are residential and some of them are public buildings. These are buildings that, after 20 or 30 years, have become classic.

Is your goal to create architecture that will be considered ‘classic' by societies in the future?

Alnajjar:It is important to us. We are trying to do something that is significant, which is something you'll appreciate in 10 or 15 years, rather than create something that is fashionable and trendy now. We want to create something that endures, we want to create designs that can be reinterpreted all the time; designs that can age and develop in very intelligent ways.There are some older buildings in Dubai that are still quite beautiful. For example, the World Trade Centre still fascinates me.

What does the future look like for you and for dxb.lab?

Alnajjar:We are working on public projects. Basically, we are proposing that Dubai should have more galleries and museums. Exposing more culture in the city-art institutions and museums-adds yet another layer of complexity and richness to it.

Wagner:Also, looking at our upcoming projects, such as Business Bay, that are part of bigger developments, we are very curious to see how our projects will interact with the others. Right now, we don't even know what the immediate neighbour to our buildings will be in these developments.

Would you like to be doing more public projects in the future?

Alnajjar:We would like to be involved on more art museums, art pavilions and cultural institutions. It is really challenging, but that is what we would love to do; it's what really excites us. We need more of these kinds of projects in the city. We want to embrace the diverse cultures of the city.

Wagner:For us, the future is also about maintaining the special, family feel within our office. While the office is growing in terms of the amount of projects that are coming in, at the same time we want to keep the dynamic as it is.

Is there collaboration between architecture firms on these projects?

Wagner:No, because developers choose to go ahead with projects at different times, so by the time a developer has built the tower, the neighbouring plot has just come up with a concept. But with regards to working at the same time, it is also a very competitive market, so architects will work with the developers and will retain any information they have, until they are ready to launch and go out there.

This seems to contradict the basic idea behind urban planning...

Wagner:Yes, it isn't your classic approach as you would have it in any other city such as Paris, London, New York or Los Angeles. On one hand, rapid progress prevents extensive forward planning or interaction, and on the other hand, we are situated in such a commercially driven market that architects don't want to share their brand new ideas.

If you could choose to have designed any project in history, anywhere in the world, which one would you choose?

Alnajjar:I would rather not say history, but rather what project is to come. Always, the most exciting project is the next project. For us, a very unique cultural project in Dubai, what that is, we don't know yet.

Wagner:The first house on Mars. That has always been a childhood fascination of mine; space and beyond. I was watching an interview with Steven Hawking where he said that if humans can survive the next 200 years and learn to live in space, then our future will be bright. I think that is where a lot of great projects are to come.

For more information on dxb.lab visit the website at:

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