As Abdelmonem Alserkal tours his latest architectural commission, his pristine white kandura stands in contrast to the monochrome building that broods in Alserkal Avenue – the warehouse creative community he has brought to life in Dubai’s industrial neighbourhood of Al Quoz.
A muted study in steel, small mirrors, translucent polycarbonate and sprayed, shot-blast and polished concrete, the new venue is the latest milestone in Alserkal Avenue’s decade-long development, and the first UAE project to have been completed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the Rotterdam practice established by the controversial Dutch architect, writer and theorist, Rem Koolhaas.
“It’s organic growth that has allowed us to reach this level and demanded a space like this, and it shows the progress we have reached with Alserkal Avenue and the art scene in Dubai,” the Emirati art enthusiast, patron and entrepreneur says.
“This is demanded by the community, by the creatives and by the cultural scene in Dubai, so it was a natural process to provide a space that provides international standards for exhibitions and events.”
The building will open this weekend with the exhibition, Syria: Into The Light, a survey of 20th century Syrian painting that will include more than 60 works by 40 artists active between 1924 and last year.
Syria: Into the Light will also offer visitors the first opportunity to experience an interior whose 8.1-metre tall internal walls, the largest of which weighs 7 tonnes, have been designed to rotate effortlessly and glide across its floor.
“We were given four warehouses and asked to reimagine them. There was no definition of scale but the brief was to create a space that could be utilised by multiple events that could take place at the same time and be catered for independently,” explains Iyad Alsaka, the lead Dubai-based architect behind the project and one of 9 partners who run OMA worldwide.
“We had to create a condition that would allow the space to mutate in a speedy fashion, so we took the existing columns of the warehouses and turned them into pivots around which the walls could rotate and slide.”
Mounted on casters and guided by a series of circular, ceiling-mounted tracks, the internal walls are double-sided, having an exposed steel grid on one side that can be covered or manipulated and sound-proof cladding on the other, to allow several events to run simultaneously without one disturbing the others.
To achieve such flexibility, all of the building’s services – including its toilets and pantry – have been placed along Concrete’s back wall.
The move frees up more than half of Concrete’s 1,100 metres and when the building’s 8.1-metre tall doors are open, the space flows seamlessly to The Yard, Alserkal Avenue’s main plaza, which is outside.
Concrete may be well-mannered and certainly more modest than many of OMA’s more headline-grabbing projects – such as the giant, contorted CCTV Television Station and Headquarters in Beijing, or the Fondazione Prada in Milan, part of which is clad in 24-carat gold – yet it is still recognisably an OMA project.
Like the Fondazione Prada, Concrete reworks a structure and like the earlier, Koolhaas-designed Prada Epicentre flagship store on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, it also has the ability to be completely open to the outside.
The most recognisable link between Concrete and the other projects in OMA’s portfolio, however, is in its use of inexpensive polycarbonate as a cladding material, a translucent, honeycombed plastic the practice has also employed at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow and the Seoul National University Museum of Art.
The polycarbonate cladding, which allows a degree of light to enter the building, stands in marked contrast to the building’s concrete, mirror-studded rear facade, which was applied wet using a technique similar to the one employed in the construction of swimming pools before being painted a matt, light-absorbent black.
The finish was inspired by a famous public art installation from the 1970s, Ghost Parking Lot, in which the New York City architecture and environmental arts studio SITE buried 20 cars at various depths in a public car park in Hamden, Connecticut, and then buried them beneath a thick layer of asphalt.
If Concrete is a landmark in Alserkal Avenue’s development, it is no less important for Iyad Alsaka and the Dubai office of OMA.
The practice has been working in the UAE since 2003 but, despite seeing several projects start on site, including the master plan for Nakheel’s now abandoned Waterfront City, this is its first UAE project to be completed.
Nevertheless, the project adds to OMA’s presence in the region following the recently opened Qatar Foundation Headquarters in Doha and the coming Qatar National Library.
To mark the success, Rem Koolhaas will be giving a public lecture at Alserkal Avenue, called Current Preoccupations, on the morning of March 16.
In the years since Alserkal Avenue’s first tenant, Ayyam Gallery, opened on site the creative cluster has gone through several transformations, following a path based on patronage and entrepreneurship that is typical of Dubai.
But Vilma Jurkute, Alserkal Avenue’s director, the significance of Concrete and Alserkal Avenue’s future lies beyond the market in the contribution both can make to what she describes as the arts ecosystem in the emirate.
“When the family decided to go ahead with the investment and the redevelopment, the question was really how could we make this place a cultural destination and what does a cultural destination mean in the context of this region,” Ms Jurkute says, looking back to Alserkal Avenue’s origins in 2007, when the family had the idea of converting the old site of their former marble factory into a home for the arts.
“The idea was to take a risk on the risk-takers and to help set a base for the creative economy. But I think the next question is how Alserkal Avenue, just like other former industrial areas globally, can help to shape the identity of the city.”.
“Hopefully there will be a time when you no longer think of -Dubai without thinking about Alserkal Avenue and we hope that is soon.”
• Rem Koolhaas will be giving a talk on Current Preoccupations in The Yard at Alserkal Avenue at 10am on March 16. For details visit www.alserkalavenue.ae/en