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June 25, 2019

At the Confluence of Art and Industry

Edwin Heathcote

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Dubai is not exactly known for adaptive re-use. Its relentless search for newness has manifested itself in a particular kind of architecture - the spectacular and the record-breaking. But in some of its less lauded neighbourhoods (Deira, the Creek, or Al Quoz for example), there is a culture of layers, of subsequent strata of use, making, and commerce, which has become as dense and intriguing as the rest of the emirate can seem shiny and impenetrably new.

Alserkal Avenue is a fascinating paradigm, revealing how the city is changing and how those changes reflect transformations and transfers between commerce and culture. And at its centre is Concrete, the first and most remarkable of what is, perhaps, a new generation of Emirati architecture, something recognised by its nomination for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Context, here, is everything. Alserkal Avenue is in an industrial estate. Dusty, dry, humming with the buzz of machine tools, trucks, and coolers, it is a typical piece of edge city, the kind of industrial zone that every city needs to host its dirtier processes, even if it pushes it to its unseen edges.

But this is a very Dubai kind of industry. This is the place where Dubai itself is made. The industry here is the city, the manufacture of the dream and the image, the manifestation of a place that can seem to exist of hoardings, airport ads, and real estate websites as much as it does in physical reality. This is where the concrete is mixed, the aggregates blended. It is where the windows and glass fittings of the shiny new city are assembled, and the place from where the pipes, cables and hardware are distributed. The site of Concrete was once a marble-cutting workshop, a layer of the history of applied luxury.

Then it became a warehouse. Rebuilt and repurposed for storage, the huge space seemed capable of storing entire storeys of buildings. And around it the welders and mixers carried on. But Alserkal Avenue also became an unlikely core of culture; as galleries and studios began to search for cheap space in a city of obsessive speculation, where city centre sites are in constant danger of being crushed below the impending weight of a new development, Alserkal Avenue seemed to offer a kind of permanence. It is, of course, ironic, that it might be necessary to settle into the marginal, ad hoc world of industry to establish a solid presence, but there is a kind of perfect appropriateness in culture rooting itself in the city’s key industry - the construction of itself. And so, architects OMA came to repurpose that one-time warehouse as a gallery. And what an institution it has become.

Reusing parts of the existing structure has allowed the architects to maintain the scale of a building built for industry rather than art, for production rather than consumption, volumes that would almost certainly otherwise have looked like spectacular waste. From the huge pivoting doors to the hangar-style space, this is a building couched in the language and scale of industry.

OMA founder Rem Koolhaas has commented that using existing spaces can free the global starchitect from the responsibility to produce an icon. The parameters are already set, the building already embedded in the city, the site and the local consciousness. The architect just needs to reveal the potential of the space that is already there. Here, what the architects have done is to use the confluence of art and industry, the by-now familiar trope of the factory or the power station given over to culture — but with the twist that the context remains industrial. Most blockbuster conversions are in post-industrial settings, in bits of cities which have become gentrified or which have been swallowed up by the expansion of the urban core. Concrete remains on an edge site, and all the edgier and richer for it.

Photography by Mohamed Somji

Something of that duality is conveyed in its Janus-faced architecture. There is the transformable, translucent facade, a composition which plays on its industrial heritage and language, but leavens it with hints towards Judd or Flavin, the minimal-industrial complex, the language of Marfa and florescent strips. And then there is the other side. There, the black mass of the battered walls looks like an Arab fort dipped in tarmac. It carries the memories of shady alleys and impenetrable walls, of inward-looking houses and a kind of mass which is so radically different from the glassy reflectiveness of the city itself—almost its shadowy counterpart, all weight and absorption. Into that blackness, that manifestation of shadow is set a sparkle, a sprinkling of ground glass which catches the light, creating a disco glitter in the most surprising place, a little hint of the sun in the shade.

Concrete has made Alserkal Avenue into a piece of proto-city. The space outside, originally designed for truck-turning circles and heavy machinery, has slotted seamlessly into its role as the de facto public plaza of the emerging cultural district. When Concrete’s doors are open, the whole space becomes public, a kind of proscenium arch turning the plaza in front into an auditorium. This is a building that coopts the space around it without dictating to it. The building can be there as background - industrial infrastructure expressed in the functional language and cheap materials of the warehouse and the factory - or it can be theatrical, a glimpse into a world of cultural rather than material production.

Fabric(ated) Fractures installation view. Photography by Musthafa Aboobacker

When it opened in 2017, Concrete indicated a new direction for the Alserkal Avenue neighbourhood, and for Dubai. It stood alone, a bridge between the spectacular and the everyday, between art and the incessantly-changing city. Now joined by a slowly-growing cohort of cultural buildings, it has held its own, an anchor for the arts, a fascinating experiment and one of the Gulf’s most intriguing, unique, innovative, and charismatic cultural spaces.

Edwin Heathcote is a London-based architect, designer and writer living in London. He is the architecture and design critic of The Financial Times. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the online design writing archive Readingdesign.org.
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