Dubai (2000s) / DSO / Contemporary ‘Industrial City’

Dubai / DSO master plan, from DSOA
Dubai / DSO master plan, from DSOA

The ambition of Dubai Silicon Oasis is to become a ‘city in the city’ with an estimated population of 162400 people¹. The unmanned desert context enables its ambition. Facilities from office, industry, logistics, commerce to hospital, school, recreation and residential blocks are all included inside the Oasis which covers 7.2 million m2.

To erect a new city in the desert, DSOA invites America-based Industrial Design & Construction Architects (IDCA) to do the master plan in 2005. In other free zones like DIFC or Business Bay, boulevard or waterbody is the major spatial organizer. Here, IDCA chooses to celebrate the industry and technology by placing those facilities in the center urban core. Institutions are in close proximity with industrial and commercial buildings. Residential blocks embrace the commercial and institutional facilities on the west and south side².

The planning strategy is global, with clear accent of modern planning ideas like radial city and zoning segregation. It may be the major reason why DSOA recruited an American firm to carry out the masterplan. With their global vision, the Silicon Oasis can be designed into a community displaying modernity and containment. Similarity of environment is a crucial factor in attracting foreign capital to come and stay there.

Dubai / Axiel view of Silicon Oasis master plan, from IDC Architects
Dubai / Axiel view of Silicon Oasis master plan, from IDC Architects
Dubai / Axiel view of Tony Garnier's Industrial City, from architecture + urbanism
Dubai / Axiel view of Tony Garnier’s Industrial City, from architecture + urbanism

The master plan reminds me of the ‘Industrial City’ proposed by Tony Garnier in 1917. They do share some similarities in the designing logic. For example, the celebration of industry and technology, the sophisticated transportation system nearby site and institutional facilities as the intermediate zoning between industrial and residential sectors. Unlike ‘Industrial City’, Silicon Oasis provides residential quarters with different densities and heights instead of generic small ones. Each residential neighborhood is centered on a neighborhood park, pool, or social center³. Although two schemes all adopt segregated zoning, the relationship is viewed diversely. Tony Garnier argued for a more radical isolation, to enable future expansion of each zone4. On the contrary, Silicon Oasis tries to pursue the sense of ‘community’. And by proximal juxtaposition of different zones, it boosts activeness inside the community, or ‘city’. A railroad line runs across the industry and residential in ‘Industrial City’, while a network of bike and pedestrian trails link the working and living in Silicon Oasis.

The master plan of Silicon Oasis is convincing in highlighting its state-of-the-art infrastructure and high-end ecosystem. Meanwhile, it shows how technology can be used as a tool to build a dynamic international community. They make Silicon Oasis attractive to foreign capital, and foreign intellectuals. But, it’s also a fact that the generic globalized master plan is regardless of the local accent.

It is true that the site was a pure desert when the project was planned, without any existing city fabric. But, there is still the choice either to build up a brand new community with international language, or to treat the land as an extension of existing city fabric, and reinterpret it through a global lens. That mournful circumstance is a result of Dubai government’s planning strategy. When it inserts different free zones inside the city and outsources them to different foreign architects, those free zones are highly likely to become independent pocket spaces standing out in the city fabric. As criticized by Ogaily,

‘In Middle Eastern cities, the bulk of vernacular architecture is being restrained due to the belief that its cultural, symbolic, and economic patterns are inferior to new living patterns and concepts of space allocation – which introduce their own symbolism of technology – and new urban management policies divorced from human scale and traditional organic city fabrics5.’




  1. Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority, ‘Infrastructure’, Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority Official Website, Retrieved from:
  2. IDC Architects, Portfolio, IDC Architects Official Website, Retrieved from:
  3. ibid.
  4. Kenneth Frampton, ‘Tony Garnier and the Industrial City 1899-1918,’ Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985) pp. 100-104.
  5. Akram Ogaily, ‘Urban Planning in Dubai: Cultural and Human Scale Context,’ The Middle East: A Selection of Written Works on Iconic Towers and Global Image-making, 2015




Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority. ‘Infrastructure’. Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority Official Website. Retrieved from:

Frampton, Kenneth. ‘Tony Garnier and the Industrial City 1899-1918.’ Modern Architecture: A Critical History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985. pp. 100-104.

IDC Architects. Portfolio. IDC Architects Official Website. Retrieved from:

Ogaily, Akram. ‘Urban Planning in Dubai: Cultural and Human Scale Context.’ The Middle East: A Selection of Written Works on Iconic Towers and Global Image-making. 2015

3 Comments on “Dubai (2000s) / DSO / Contemporary ‘Industrial City’

  1. Ogaily’s quote is poignant in critique the issue of tradition vs modernity. Although you mention that the “free zones are highly likely to become independent pocket spaces standing out in the city fabric” (which seems to be true on the formal level), are there any ramifications to the urbanism of neighbouring districts in other aspects?

    • Thanks. Taking Dubai Silicon Oasis as an example, it functions as an activator of the surrounding areas. Most significant influence is on the infrastructure. It triggered the upgrade of E311 Road (the main road next to it) in 2010. Dubai metro also planned its extension towards that area.
      Similar huge free zone also tended to aggregate in that area, for example, the International City. In this sense, it set up the scale of that area – large zones rather than individual properties.
      It also provides numerous apartments and villas within the community with favorable price. People working in surrounding districts – International City, Dubailand and Academic City are all target buyers. I am not sure if this can be seen as a way to change the overall circulation and human distribution in terms of time.

  2. Is preserving the existing urban fabric still viable and necessary in city like Dubai? The article raised the question of new development and existing urban fabric. I have always been curious about the meaning and value of the “existing” or the “local”. It is dangerous for a modern metropolis to have only one industry to live on. In the case of Dubai, the city was too much dependent on oil industry. Therefore, the very first ambition of the master plans of Dubai was to add diversity to the city, which together constructed the familiar image of a wonderland Dubai. The familiar image has already within it stark contrasts and diversified design strategies, however, is by no means the existing fabric or the traditional.

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