Al Seef Heritage Waterfront

Background: Dubai’s rich past, of fishermen, merchants and pearl seekers trading on the Creek, is often overshadowed by its rapid expansion.

The Al Seef project connects, both physically and in design terms, to the historic area of Al Bastakiya on the southern Creek shore. Built by local settlers, the 1890s village comprised of 60 houses in a labyrinth of winding narrow streets.

In the 1980s, much of the area was demolished to make way for new development. In alarm, a campaign was run to save the remaining buildings. This was successful & the remaining alleys, souks & characteristic local wind towers were kept for future generations.

Developers Meeras saw the potential to strengthen Old Dubai by redeveloping an adjacent 1.6km Creekside stretch. Al Seef (meaning coast/shore in Arabic) would respectfully celebrate the story of the City’s vibrant maritime roots and the ever-evolving multi-national culture.

The project was to harmonise old & new Dubai by incorporating both Heritage & Contemporary areas. Cracknell was the landscape architect for both areas-this submission focuses on the Heritage area.

Problem: In 1966 Dubai discovered oil; coupled with the City’s port, this enabled it to grow from a 20k population to today’s 3.3M. The subsequent pressures on developing the west of the City resulted in a decline of Old Dubai.

The Creek & surrounding souks & markets weren’t connected. It was difficult to navigate & walk between Al Bastakiya, the neighbouring Fort & City Wall & souks of Deira.

Solution: A new development with navigable & walkable routes would link the character & experiences of the souks, Fort & historic district & in so doing would help to regenerate the heart of Old Dubai & increase circulation between & around both sides of the Creek.

Al Seef would recreate the architectural heritage of Dubai’s local vernacular. It would contribute to the cultural value & beauty of Old Dubai and be highly detailed & authentically expressive of the past.

Design Process: There was extensive research into old photography of local settlements on Dubai Creek. Inspiration was drawn from daily activities: merchants with their carts, the hustle of local markets, fishermen with their nets, pearl divers, handmade dhows, & gatherings under handmade shade structures.

The philosophy was to show Dubai’s development history. Starting with the architecture of the 1890s, the idea was to create public realm that captured different decades of the city’s history through natural weathering & construction. With considerable attention to detail, materials were used to appear as if they had been laid over time.

The public realm design & all the raw materials used complement the backdrop of the traditional barjeels (wind towers) & arish (palm-leaf architecture). In-situ concrete was poured in different techniques. Two-tone walls were created with stone or artificial coral & finished with plaster. Shaded areas made from palm leaves (barasti) represented the skill of the historic community who were resourceful with available materials. The design of the hand rails, steps and seating hailed from different eras since the 1890s. Regional fruit trees add to the sense of place. Rustic style lighting included weathered copper pendants, wall lanterns with aged patina, & rusted iron bollard & post lanterns.

Intangible Value: Since 2018, Al Seef has become a treasured space. It is a popular destination with tourists & ‘Instagrammers’ & importantly is a regular part of the City’s cultural calendar. At Ramadan, Al Seef hosts one of the City’s Iftar Cannons which boom at sundown & as Muslims & visitors alike flock to enjoy Iftar at the many restaurants, there are also dance displays, Oud players, Henna tents & story tellers.

Lit up by the ‘God rays’, the layers of time revealed in the ‘worn’ paving surfaces feel authentic. Occasional glimpsed views to the gleaming glass of modern Dubai barely break the fourth wall & the immersion in the dusty sikas is all encompassing. The story of Al Bastakiya seeps in through the cracks in the concrete, the ‘corals’ in the walls & the jaunty angles of the rusty signage. The carpet & pottery sellers call from their alleyway shops & the hypnotic lapping of the Creek on the wooden sleepers pulls visitors to the restaurants.

Al Seef is part of an important journey. As visitors move west along the Creek they find the last remnant of Dubai’s City Wall; out of the crumbling remains peak sea shells & coral. The Fort beyond dates from 1787, from here they enter the narrow pungent souks of Bur Dubai before taking the traditional wooden Abra to Deira, chock full of souks piled high with gold, perfume & spice. And finally, the evocative views of Al Seef’s dramatic silhouette accompany their boat ride back to shore.

Summary: Al Seef has re-energised Old Dubai by providing an enriching, culturally valuable link to the trading route past through a public realm that serves the local community & visitors alike.

Project Managers: ATKINS
Architects: Godwin Austin Johnson, 10 Design
Marine, MEP and Structural: H2CM

Project location: Al Seef Village, Al Seef St, Umm Hurair 1, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Design year: 2016

Year Built: 2018

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