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Wed 15 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Designing the future

Omran Al Owais, creative director of CENTIMETERCUBE, talks about the need to look to the past to create a future history, and how local architects are going to grow in prominence in the Middle East.

Designing the future
Omran Al Owais.
Designing the future
Maison Al Habtoor (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
The M12 villas (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
The M12 villas (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
Warqa’a Courtyards (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
Warqa’a Courtyards (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
Bait 729 (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
Private Villa designs (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
Private Villa designs (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
Private Villa designs (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
Private Villa designs (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).
Designing the future
Private Villa in Al Barsha (Images courtesy of Centimetercube).

Omran Al Owais, creative director of CENTIMETERCUBE, talks about the need to look to the past to create a future history, and how local architects are going to grow in prominence in the Middle East.

How did you develop an interest in architecture?

I started as a civil engineer, studying in one of the colleges in Dubai.

We have a very beautiful skyline, but if you zoom into the details at the ground level, it’s not working.

My English at that time was not very good so I couldn't distinguish between civil engineering and architecture. I knew they both had things to do with buildings.

After a year or so I checked into architecture and knew that was what I was looking for. I developed my skills and drawings and technical understanding of 3D in university.

I see things and know whether they're good or not, I had the visual sense and I can apply it to architecture, photography or other visual media.

Do you have a personal style?

That's mostly what people are saying, but I see it very differently. I see the details. Each project develops a different kind of content.

My projects, if they look the same, they differ by location, by the materials, clients. I get comments that they look the same but they are not.

What do you think of some of the architecture that's beginning to spring up around the Gulf?

We are losing the identity, but the point isn't really isn't about losing identity, it's about creating a new one. I've noticed that the new growth, whenever they do a ‘traditional' building, is a memory of a building that was only 40 years old.

So whatever was around 40 years ago, they try to mimic that today and you can see this in the ‘traditional' buildings.They need to create a new typology today, so that after 40 years, we can look back at today's architecture and develop something new.

Is there a need to develop a new style distinctive to here?

Each city should develop something unique to its own culture and identity. Plugging in towers that work in New York or Tokyo will work in Dubai but that does not make it ‘of' Dubai.

If we do something today, after 40 years it’ll be history and culture.

A lot of issues are on the urban level. If you leave your building and you want to walk next door, you might have to have to cross Sheikh Zayed Road.

We have a very beautiful skyline, but if you zoom into the details at the ground level, it's not working. It's a little bit fake in a sense it looks very nice in photography and movies but it's not nice for the actual user.

I'm comparing this to cities I've been to, for example Hong Kong, which has a similar typology. If you look, there are people moving around.

It's hot and humid, but the connection between buildings makes a big difference.

They have a bridge between one tower and another, and the bridge is always on the second floor. So if you move around the city, you can cross through lots of buildings. People are moving, using the city. Dubai needs something like this.

They're working towards it but they need it a little bit sooner.

What do you enjoy most about working in the Middle East?

I was born and raised here, so I see a lot of ‘red dots' in the city - I create problems. I go to an area, research and I create a solution. One example was we looked at a mosque and we defined it.

What's a mosque? Why do we have a minaret? Why do we have a half dome on top of the mosque?So we started to come up with something unique to us. Do we need that dome? No, we don't, so we'll take it off. Do we need this? No, take it off. Culturally, we don't have a mosque that's ‘Dubaian' in a way.

We have mosques that mimic ones in places like Turkey. Why don't we come up with a mosque that's for us? If we do something today, after 40 years it'll be history and culture.

The same goes with housing. Look at Bastakiya. It has amazing architecture. Why don't we do that today? It's even environmentally friendly. By putting the houses adjacent to each other, you have less surface area for the sun, so that's cooler.

Dubai is moving in a way that we’re always forgetting about the past and looking for something new.

The courtyards are inside. There are many ideas that have been developed before but right now we're ignoring them. That's wrong. We should look at the past and work around it. I'm most excited developing housing for local families, and modifying the mosque.

What kind of input can a local architect such as yourself offer to improve the city?

If you want people to drop their BMWs and walk around the city, it's a little difficult right now. We need to study to see how we can do this on a smaller scale.

If you look at Uptown Mirdiff, it's a very nice residential-commercial mix, and you see people moving from their houses to the shopping centre, because of that proximity. They are doing similar things with the modern parts of Dubai.

How have things changed in the country since you started your career as an architect?

The UAE is like a teenager right now. One day it has spiky hair, the next day it's bald, the next, it gets a tattoo.

We're in a state where we're mimicking other cities and cultures, and it's starting to lose its identity, but in 10 years' time it's going to create its own kind of culture. We're in the teenage phase. I'm hoping things will get more mature.

How will it look then?

Maybe I'll start to lose my connection with the city. Wherever you grow up, you always have certain memories of the area - a house, a tree, a location. Many of these things start to get demolished because of the fast changes.Dubai is moving in a way that we're always forgetting about the past and looking for something new. We always want to go to a new shopping centre. And if there isn't one, we don't know where to go.

What challenges do you face as a local firm? It seems that very often, developers tend to want to work with big name architects...

For me it's a trend. It's something that's going to fade away. Right now they're using the words ‘luxury' and ‘exclusive' in every project, no matter how big or small it is.

The UAE is like a teenager right now. One day it has spiky hair, the next day it’s bald, the next, it gets a tattoo.

If every project is a 50_magazine.xml 52_magazine.xml 563_magazine.xml 56_magazine.xml 59_magazine.xml 5_magazine.xml project, then we're losing all the people who are human and just want somewhere to live. The trend will change and it will become that they'll look for things that are really smart and feel connected to it.

Right now is the time for big architecture firms to exhibit their work, but in the near future, all the small architects around town will be coming up.

What can be done to encourage more locals to take up architecture?

We are doing right now. This is the first generation that's coming up. There have been no generations before us, especially in the UAE.

I've seen a lot of local architects coming up and what they are doing is amazing, especially since they don't have any relatives in the field. They've been inspired by people around the world, and we imitate them, of course, but we're trying to develop something special for Dubai.

What does joining the Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment For Young Business Leaders mean for you?

It's very important for us to be a part of that since it shows the standing of the company. Not many local firms are part of this because you need to be a fully certified local architect. Many of the companies here are joint ventures.

That's a challenge for us to keep pushing because there's a lot of competition from outside. A company that's five years old and meeting companies that are 100 years old, or the top 10 in the States-it's very challenging.

But this opens our portfolio to many government and semi-government clients. That gives us secure growth for the future.

What will be the future of CENTIMETERCUBE?

It's very exciting. I know the area, the culture and the clients. There is a lot of potential to develop an identity for Dubai. I'm looking forward to working on this.

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