From palm fronds to urbanism

New landscape design will have to consider outdoors that can be used almost all year long, says George Katodrytis.
From palm fronds to urbanism
By George Katodrytis
Fri 14 Dec 2007 04:00 AM

Cities around the world are increasingly made up of non-places. This is a characteristic of cities made for mobility and consumption. Yet it is possible to avoid the making of such generic and monotonous spaces. The abundance of large, open outdoor spaces and the need to provide a variety of lifestyles should lead to new design opportunities for innovative, habitable and in-between-building spaces.

It is also an opportunity to think creatively and design landscaped surfaces, which require little water and maintenance. Furthermore, outdoor surfaces and new landscape layouts can generate mixed-use of a space through open-air, informal and public activities.

Landscape is, at one level, an art of surface. Landscape's traditional terrain is the extended horizontal surface. This has an obvious attraction to architects today, where surface has become a primary instrument in design. However, distinct from the proliferation of thin, transparent surfaces in contemporary architectural design, landscape surfaces are always differentiated by their material and performance characteristics - or better, in landscape, performance is a direct outcome of material.

Slope, porosity, hardness, soil chemistry, consistency, etc - all these variables influence the life that a surface will support, and its own development. By careful attention to these surface conditions - not only configuration, but also material and performance - designers can activate space and produce
urban effects.

Furthermore, street furniture, temporary and small-scale structures, canopies, shading devises and playgrounds can add a human scale and act as mediators between open spaces and buildings. The new landscape design will have to consider outdoors that can be used almost all year long.

As landscape design can be integrated into the domain of urbanism, the new emerging landscape urbanism sets out to develop new models of practice, which directly engage with contemporary social and environmental conditions as forces that continuously reconfigure the city. It is also a way to focus on how the landscape - in terms of land form, geology, climate and water systems - has influenced the development of urbanism.

The study for the new town development extracted the inherent logic embedded within the traditional patterns of local land distribution and cultivation to propose a strategy that integrates natural, cultural and artificial landscapes based on the intensification of land use and the potential for associative, revenue-generating activities. The new field of emerging synthetic urbanism is at the intersection of architecture, landscape and urbanism and it is characterised by surface, programme, information and process.

Green deserts

Before the rapid expansion of the 1970s, Dubai was a small town, and houses were generally built of materials that were readily available and were easily transported by dhows. The area around the end of the creek provided the much needed coral rocks and slabs for the city's construction requirements.

The abundance of palm trees throughout the UAE led to the construction of palm frond dwellings in a variety of geographical locations. The roofs of early houses would be made of palm fronds and often covered with mud.

Bastakiya and early settlements along the Creek were organic and not planned. Recent master plans in Dubai's search for expansion have been seen as garden cities set against the linear grid of the city's 1970 expansion.
Dubai is a planned city. Sir John Harris designed the first master plan of Dubai in 1959. This brought the first planning grid in the city. It was not until 1960 that the first asphalt road was constructed. In 1979, the World Trade Centre created Sheikh Zayed Road and the city began to expand outwards towards Jebel Ali. In 1991, Jumeirah Beach Park was created. New garden-city suburbs were planned as new communities, such as the Emirates Hills. Now the city is a hybrid of both linear plot divisions and ‘new-towns'.

The Palms and The World bring a new type of hydro-suburbia. Dubailand will be the first grand scale desert settlement. In the meantime other ambitious developments are currently under construction in the UAE such as the Lagoons and the Waterfront. These developments will have to rely on genius outdoor design, which will have to go beyond the lawn landscape and golf courses.

The UAE has one of highest water consumption rates per capita in world. Although it has 114 water dams with a joint capacity of 118 million m3 of rainwater, the desalination pants for both drinking and industrial use provide an annual supply of 950 million m3. An on-going, nation-wide programme for the reuse of waste water enables in excess of 338 million m3 of recycled water to be used in landscaping and green belt areas per year.

Landscaped paradise

Urbanism in the Arab world has an interesting precedent. The Muslim Middle Ages was marked by the formation and development of a new art style, which found its reflection both in the art, as well as in architecture and city planning. It was a period of self-identification of urban mentality and formation of a new aesthetic of Muslim Urbanism.

From its birth, Islam, by its spirit and main centres, had urban character. This tradition is carried on. Urbanising large areas and introducing a new aesthetic and "art" is very much inherent in the creation of the contemporary Arab city.

The earliest stage of urbanisation was connected with a change from the nomadic to the settled way of life and cultivation of fertile lands, which goes back to the second millennia BC. The unification of the aesthetic principles in the Muslim world as a whole had become a new cultural dogma - a period of a universal aesthetic canon had started.

Therefore, some generalised and standard visions of an oriental city as a composition of blue domes and slim minarets has some basis to be reasonable. The universal style spread not only over plastic forms of culture, but verbal ones too. Ornament and words became a distinguishing feature of the
new aesthetic.

Today's Gulf cities are adopting a new landscape commodity. The climatic setting and the urge not only to survive, but to thrive, has made the opposition between desert and water a contentious discourse. Not unlike the drive behind the Islamic paradise garden, some of the efficacy of green can be attributed to its symbolic appeal in the Islamic tradition.

The harsh desert climate and social norms drive locals to the shaded souqs of Deira and private courtyards, rather than into public open spaces. The archetype of the park or green open space might be considered in terms of an evolving type of the Islamic garden, as a contained formal enclosure of a material paradise. This formal layout can be developed further into cities made up of small-scale outdoor spaces.

Every project needs to have an integrated outdoor design. Rather than designing the building as an object, why not implement a design methodology for any site as a field or surface and integrate and negotiate both open and enclosed spaces as a continuous and synthetic landscape?

George Katodrytis is associate professor of Architecture and director of Scholarship and Outreach at the School of Architecture and Design at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.

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