On the edge of the sprawling emirate of Dubai, in an area that was until recently a large patch of sand, gaggles of well-dressed twentysomethings roll around in spinning chairs designed by Thomas Heatherwick, while others queue at a coffee cart, admiring the shiny lampshades in the window of a pop-up Tom Dixon showroom. Dubai Design District, a grid of six-storey glass office buildings separated by wide boulevards lined with restaurants and shops, has the generic non-place feel of Norman Foster’s Spitalfields – apart from the 40C heat, which leaves its wide plazas desolate by day.
On the floors above the pop-up shows laid on for Dubai design week, the newly minted satellite studios of Foster, Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava and others are working away on more elaborate plans to be conjured from the sand. With Dubai’s development machine tentatively back in action following the 2008 financial crisis, the big projects are back on track. There’s Hadid’s rippling Bee’ah waste management HQ in Sharjah; Foster’s Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation; and what promises to be the latest tallest tower in the world, by Calatrava. Not content with the 830-metre Burj Khalifa, Dubai is planning another, so as not to be outdone by Saudi Arabia’s 1km-tall Jeddah tower, fast rising out of the ground.
While the architectural willy-waving continues apace across the Gulf, the Dubai Design District (D3 for short) professes to be something different. “We have learned from our mistakes,” says Mohammad Saeed Al-Shehhi, D3’s chief operating officer, standing over a glowing model of the 180-hectare masterplan in his pristine white robe. As he talks, throbbing lights pick out the planned 13 luxury hotels, the swooping central events building, the 2km waterfront promenade, the hundreds of offices and apartments, their undulating rooftops rising and falling in waves according to a “draped fabric” concept – all to be complete by 2021. “This will be a vibrant ecosystem for global design and creativity,” he adds. “Not just another business park.”
The project is the latest themed enclave by business park developer Tecom, a branch of the royal investment vehicle, Dubai Holding, responsible for a number of rather lifeless “sector-focused communities” across the city. From Dubai Science Park and Outsource City to Knowledge Park and Internet City, these free zones were the foundation of Dubai’s economic success, designed to lure foreign companies with a range of incentives, including relaxations on visas, customs and foreign ownership of property.
According to one insider, before the 2008 crash, D3 was intended to be a new Humanitarian City for NGOs, until they realised that design was more lucrative than aid. Still, with the arrival of Foster’s design school in 2018, there is hope that the district might incubate a new generation of homegrown talent.
Your own portable wind turbine … the best of Dubai design week
The Global Grad Show features 150 graduation projects from 50 design schools and 30 different countries. It is the grad show to end all grad shows, featuring the cream of the crop from all over the globe. By bringing the projects together in one room, interesting threads begin to emerge, the same issues being addressed with both low and high-tech solutions.
There are hearing aids designed as fashion accessories, a cargo trailer for bike-sharing schemes, as well as the “world’s first silk violin”. One recurring preoccupation is the charging of mobile phones when you’re on the move. It is variously tackled with a portable folding wind turbine by Nils Ferber from ECAL in Lausanne, a solar-powered phone by Arturo Marquez Evangelista from UNAM in Mexico City, and a photo-voltaic window socket by Kyuho Song and Boa Oh from the Samsung Art and Design Institute in Seoul – a solar charger that you can simply stick to a window with a suction pad.
At the more futuristic end of the spectrum comes an algae-eating drone designed to clean polluted water, by Fredrik Ausinsch from the Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden, and a sci-fi prosthetic that gives you superhero powers. Designed by Kourosh Atefipour from the Royal College of Art, the Raiden exoskeleton allows up to 12,000 volts of electricity to crackle from the wearer’s hand, enabling you to solder metal with the pinch of your fingers. Now you too can shoot bolts of lightning from your hands like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, with just seven AA batteries.
Some of the most compelling innovations are in the healthcare arena, with particularly strong work addressing parenting and child development. Sin Bing Wong from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, responding to her city’s high-pressure lifestyle, has developed a discreet wearable breast pump for working mothers. “Many women are forced to stop breastfeeding because of conditions in the workplace,” says Wong. “My design aims to foster a private, comfortable and convenient experience that allows its users to pump milk without having to retreat to the unpleasant, unhygienic environment of a toilet.”
Students at the Eindhoven University of Technology, meanwhile, have developed a smart swaddling blanket for premature babies that simulates “kangaroo care”, in which the infant is held in skin-to-skin contact with a parent for as long as possible each day. Bolstering bags provide support on all sides, while the mother’s heartbeat is recorded and replayed by a vibrating pad within the blanket, and her scent absorbed within the fabric for extra comfort.
Growing up with an autistic younger brother, Heeju Kim was determined to find a way to allow others to empathise with how he experiences the world. Her autism empathy tools provide a window into what it’s like to live with autism. She has designed a VR cardboard headset and a smartphone app that reproduces autistic visual processing, earphones that can emulate deafness and oversensitive hearing, and disposable tongue-tying sweets that make it harder to pronounce particular sounds. Together, they create a powerfully disorienting experience.
But, in the context of D3, the most crucial innovation missing from the show is at the architectural scale of thinking – a response to the fact that, in the Gulf climate, repeating the same old model of fully glazed buildings set around big plazas, miles from a metro station, might not be the best way of going about creating the sustainable “vibrant ecosystem” they’re looking for.
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