Dubai/ Transformation of Village housing II: “Cutting and Pasting”(1995 – 2005)

Khaled Asfour described architecture in Dubai as “cutting and pasting” in which architects impose Western building types without considering their impact on the local culture and environment. Way before the discovery of oil, dwellings in Dubai are mainly vernacular buildings designed based on a simple pattern of life. Courtyard housing, in particular, is a significant example survived of comfortable living environment answering human, social, cultural and climatic needs. Courtyard provides shelter, ventilation and indirect light to living areas. The open central court can also bring other benefits like privacy and security to the family.

Fathy (1973) states that “The courtyard is more than just an architectural device for obtaining privacy and protection. It is, like the dome, part of a microcosm that parallels the order of the universe itself”. That means, courtyard is also essential in the social and cultural dimensions where it is the women’s domain and must be kept form the public eye.

Irregularity of shape due to streets configurations (Edwards, 2006)

This explains the configurations that solid doors are on the external facades which control privacy and interaction with the pubic domain. This secures privacy through the entry and opening points. In an urban scale, the shape of courtyard village is usually irregular due to the street and alley fabrics. The vernacular growth of courtyard housing is responsive to the climatic conditions like against the wind and sand storms directions. For instance, the urban fabric is spaced and open to enhance air movement between dwellings.

Oil revenues and international trade have altered the architectural scene, in the transition “from mud village to Manhattan”, only a few traditional dwellings have survived. In recent decades, Dubai has become influenced by western-style housing that is far less suited to the climatic and cultural factors of this region. Modern day courtyard houses in Dubai have features like thick external walls, with rooms of the house arranged over one or more levels, facing onto an uncovered core area that is either used as a garden or an open space for air and light to the surrounding areas. Privacy is still one of the main priorities of courtyard houses in Dubai, which also in turn contribute to the major transformation in style for this type of housing. In suburban neighbourhoods like Emirates Hills and Jumeriah village, they demonstrate a marked preference for villas with dramatic facades combined with well furbished lawns and gardens. These features prevent neighbours and passer-by to glimpse into the living areas. The westernized “Mansion” attitude to village housing arrived Dubai due to the rapid pace of urbanization since the 2000s, the high speed of construction favoured modern building techniques and imported foreign architectural styles over vernacular methods.

The One & Only Royal Mirage (One & only resorts, retrieved 2017)
Bab Al Shams (Time Out Dubai, retrieved 2017)







In the headlong rush to be modernized, it is not surprising that traditional building style can be thrown aside, despite the efforts from GAJ Architects on designing courtyard style dwellings in Bab Al Shams and The One & Only Royal Mirage. Yet these projects were mainly hotels and resorts which are for commercial purposes, thus the use of courtyard style is superimposed merely for touristic experiences. Eventually, courtyard dwellings have lost its purpose as a residential typology.

As mentioned in the beginning of this post, the cutting and pasting of architecture in Dubai is absurd and being irrelevant to its once rich architectural culture. The current day Dubai is leaning towards the idea of “architecture as a sign” as Venturi described in “Learning from Vegas”, depicting the wealth and fast-growing urbanization. Is this the ideal architectural dwellings to create in the desert environment? Does the modern dwellings reflect the national identity of Dubai or is it merely an image created by westernized forces?



Katodrytis, George; Mitchell, Kevin. “The Gulf Urbanisation” Architectural Design, 2015: Vol 85, Issue 1, 8-19
Katodrytis, George; Velegrinis, Steven. “Drawing on Sand: Cities in the Making” Architectural Design, 2015, Vol 85, Issue 1, 72-79
Reynolds, John S. Courtyards: aesthetic, social, and thermal delight. New York, NY: Wiley, 2002.
Pfeifer, Günter, and Per Brauneck. Courtyard houses: a housing typology. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2008.
Aldersley, Jane. “How courtyard houses and gardens are being reintroduced in the UAE?” The National, 2014
Ahmed, M.S. Ouf “Authenticity and the Sense of Place in Urban Design.” Journal of Urban Design, 200: 73-86

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