The UAE was only four years old when I arrived in Dubai with my wife in 1975 to work as an architect and it already felt like a thriving and busy city with a wide array of major infrastructure projects under construction, ranging from the World Trade Centre to Port Rashid and the Dubai Drydocks.

When my first employer left Dubai within four months of us arriving, I was faced with the prospect of either leaving this exciting working environment and returning to the UK or contacting my old employer there to see if there was a chance that I could set up a branch office for them.

I found myself, aged 26, a partner in an international firm of architects in an era when the telex machine was the main form of communication

Fortunately, they were keen to do this and I found myself, aged 26, a partner in an international firm of architects in an era when the telex machine was the main form of communication, international phone calls had to be pre-booked with the operator and the only newspaper was an A4 sheet of Reuters News.

First commission

My wife was a teacher at the Dubai English Speaking School, which was advising the board of the proposed Jumeirah English Speaking School, and my name was suggested as their architect – my first commission. I had designed a primary school as a university project so at least had some background knowledge, but it soon became clear that designing buildings in Dubai was considerably different from in the UK, not least because of the high levels of natural light and climatic conditions.

I was also fortunate enough to be commissioned to design all new building projects for the Dubai Police force. These were a vital element in the evolution of Dubai as a safe and easy place to work and live, and for 10 years we designed every building for Dubai Police, ranging from a forensics laboratory and police training college to prisons and small police posts in the desert.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, clients wanted to look to the future with modern and functional buildings and initially showed little desire to look back at their past. But by the late 1980s, there was increased awareness of the importance of the UAE’s unique heritage, both as a vital link to the past and also as a feature of its growing tourism industry, which was seen as a way to encourage diversification away from oil.

Sheikh Mohammed personally insisted the Emirates Golf Clubhouse should be recognisable as being in Dubai and nowhere else

Sheikh Mohammed personally insisted the Emirates Golf Clubhouse should be recognisable as being in Dubai and nowhere else

Sheikh Mohammed personally insisted the Emirates Golf Clubhouse should be recognisable as being in Dubai and nowhere else

We won a competition to design the clubhouse at the Emirates Golf Club – the first internationally accredited golf course in the region – with a design that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, had personally insisted must be immediately recognisable as being in Dubai and nowhere else. This resulted in our design for a modern interpretation of a traditional Bedouin tent. The clubhouse was opened nearly 30 years ago.

The Dubai Creek Golf Clubhouse was designed to reflect a modern interpretation of a traditional dhow in full sail

The Dubai Creek Golf Clubhouse was designed to reflect a modern interpretation of a traditional dhow in full sail

The Dubai Creek Golf Clubhouse was designed to reflect a modern interpretation of a traditional dhow in full sail

In 1990, just after I had established my own practice of Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) in the UK, we were again asked to join an international competition for the design of a new golf clubhouse on the Creek. Those guiding words of Sheikh Mohammed were still ringing in my ears, with the result that I designed the Dubai Creek Golf Clubhouse to reflect a modern interpretation of a traditional dhow in full sail. With this project, GAJ opened its offices in Dubai in 1991.

Magic of Arabia

The increase in tourism meant visitors were looking for hotels that reflected the magic of Arabia, such as our design for the Arabian Court Residence & Spa at the One&Only Royal Mirage. Soon after this, there was a shift towards more emphasis on traditional architecture (even for buildings that were not appropriate as traditional structures). The pendulum has now swung back to the middle ground and there is an appreciation of the value of unashamedly modern structures built alongside traditional construction.

The Arabian Court at the One&Only Royal Mirage

The Arabian Court at the One&Only Royal Mirage

The Arabian Court at the One&Only Royal Mirage

I have always tried to incorporate regional and traditional elements into our designs in a subtle way, whether they are modern or traditional buildings. Sometimes, this relates to the use of shading elements and utilising the space between buildings. Other times, especially in hotels, it applies to the use of arches and traditional planning techniques. But the emphasis is always on authenticity rather than pastiche.

Dubai continues to encourage unusual architecture and the upcoming Expo 2020 has given a further lift to the market by engaging high-profile international architects to undertake the main elements. The Expo has always proved to be a showcase for cutting-edge technologies and the event in Dubai will be no different. We are proud to be playing a significant role as part of an international team of specialist consultants, who are responsible for monitoring the sustainability targets put in place by the organisers.

Standing out

It is to be hoped that this influx of new ideas and approaches will encourage local clients to see the benefits of allowing their chosen architects a degree of freedom to express themselves to provide eye-catching designs that still meet their budgets in what is becoming a very competitive market, where everyone is striving to be different.

Future building projects will become more and more environmentally conscious in terms of alternative energy sources, sustainability and energy efficiency

The future of architecture continues to be exciting and unpredictable. Most of what we design is in response to technological changes in other walks of life. As such, architects need to be prepared to respond to fundamental changes in the way people live and work, how children are taught and how patients are treated in hospital. In a context where buildings are already being 3D printed, Nano materials can achieve almost unbelievable levels of thermal insulation with thicknesses of less than 5mm and hyperloops will soon be delivering us to Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes.   

With regard to the UAE, there has been an increase in the provision of cultural and entertainment facilities that seems likely to continue. The recent additions of Dubai Opera and the Etihad Museum underline the importance of repeat visitors as the UAE continues to grow as the centre of regional tourism.

Finally, there is no doubt that, with the support of the Dubai government and its associated agencies, future building projects will become more and more environmentally conscious in terms of alternative energy sources, sustainability and energy efficiency. These measures, when combined with the rise in the use of local products manufactured to international standards, will lead to a significant reduction in the carbon footprint of the UAE.

Brian Johnson is the principal and managing partner of architectural and design firm Godwin Austen Johnson