Dubai Architecture - A progressive Movement ahead of its Time

Written by Silvana Fitzpatrick

Dubai is known for its incredible vision and ingenious architectural statements, so it’s no surprise that it is home to some of the most amazing structures in the world.
As seen historically, Dubai's initial architectural landscape significantly influenced the culture and authenticity of the modern metropolis that we all enjoy today. Tales of brave Bedouins and Arab merchants enduring desert and maritime hardships paved the way for the futuristic city to rise from the sand and bring to life glass-and-steel towers, vast golf grounds, man-made islands, and other marvels of modern architecture.
​Early influences date back to the late 19th century, originating from Islamic, Iranian, and Indian designs which are simple to observe even today. Architectural designs were heavily influenced by the hot climate, regional social and religious traditions, desert landscape, and building materials available. The main focus was adaptability to hot climate, lifespan, and ease of use.

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Dubai’s Prelude to Serious Development

Dubai’s infrastructure and architectural landscape started to develop in the early 1960s and 1970s. People refer to these years as “The Sheikh Rashid years”, in reference to HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai at the time.
This is the period when he is said to have started building the city and laying the foundations for the Dubai we know today, under the guidance and vision of British architect John Harris.
It was Harris who served Dubai with its first master plan, making provisions for fundamental infrastructure such as road systems and a clear direction for construction growth.
Slowly, the UAE’s dream of bringing to life the creation of a modern city out of the proverbial “fishing village” was shaping up clearer than ever.
It is said that Sheikh Rashid accomplished for Dubai in a few decades what took a century everywhere else. During the first six years of his rule, he created a modern port, gave residents access to running water, and prevented Dubai Creek's commercial decline.
​During that time, Dubai also acquired a contemporary hotel, an airplane landing strip, and street lamps. Finally, a night time aerial view of the city was possible.

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History of an Architectural Skyline that did not simply Rise from the Sands

Harris was tasked with a development plan for attracting the world’s attention, and subsequently the world’s investments. Through the 1970s, Harris and other experts planned Dubai's stunning metamorphosis.
Millions had begun to arrive in the emirate to carry out Harris's urban development plan and to help in creating something greater than itself. The city of sand-filled construction sites and expanding horizons offered fresh chances and new opportunities to everybody.
The oil discovery sparked a huge development boom in Dubai that resulted in an abundance of different architectural styles populating the metropolis. From then on, Dubai would stun the world by constructing the biggest and greatest structures possible, attracting envy, attention, and recognition all around the globe.
​Moving forward, architects would focus on innovation, sustainability, and a mixture of traditional, classic, and modern designs in order to deliver stunningly aesthetic and inspirational structures.

How Dubai Made Architecture and Architecture Made Dubai

Dubai’s more recent development proposals including underwater resorts and awe-inspiring Ferris wheels stand in stark contrast to John Harris’s initial architectural print, although street patterns in “old Dubai” still follow Harris’s designs.
The city’s urban development has certainly been motivated by global strategies, economic realignments, and an appetite for innovation and progress which led to the stunning skylines and futuristic architecture that have made Dubai famous in the modern world.
The so-called ‘new Dubai’ began to take shape at the turn of the millennium and twenty odd years on, its landscape has been drastically transformed. The emirate attracted top modern architects who wanted to contribute to Dubai’s development and experience its design frenzy.
The city is now home to the tallest skyscraper in the world, a seven-star hotel, and the only artificial archipelago designed to resemble the seven continents. But Dubai’s progress and rapid ascension has not been without its struggles.
​The emirate had experienced multiple booms but also a few busts, which only strengthened the determination to adapt and move forward. One could say that having a plan puts you on the map, but it is constant change that keeps you there.

Five Iconic Architectural Designs that Proclaim Dubai's Place on the World Stage

Burj Khalifa

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Whenever Dubai and its architecture come to mind, we cannot help but picture Burj Khalifa, reigning gloriously over the city’s skyline, magnetic and singular – the tallest skyscraper in the world. Formally opened in January 2010, it remains the most Google searched architectural design in the world and Dubai’s most visited landmark.
The silver steel building is rising more than 800 meters high into the sky and spreads over 160 floors.
Adrian Smith was the lead architect for the unprecedented mission, and he drew inspiration from conventional Islamic architecture. The base of the Burj Khalifa is fashioned like a flower, evoking the white lily that grows in the desert and ascends in gradual spirals.
​The building's construction is thought to have cost $4 billion, and it is widely regarded as an engineering wonder.

Museum of The Future


Hailed as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the Museum of The Future takes pride of place along Sheikh Zayed Road, symbolic of Dubai’s vision for the future. The façade coated in steel and glass resembles an asymmetric torus covered in beautiful Arabic calligraphy.
​There are three core elements for the building’s foundation, which the architect Shaun Killa chose to illustrate when hinting at Dubai’s future: the green hill, the structure, and the void. Together they are meant to represent the earth, the brilliance of mankind, and "the unwritten future" respectively.

Atlantis The Royal


Bringing this residence to life will infuse Modern Architecture with new standards for excellence, inspiring generations of architects worldwide, having transformed the landscape of Dubai forever.
The sleek and modern facade was designed by NYC's Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) and the interiors were curated by Paris-based Sybille de Margerie.
​The building is redefining the concept of indoor–outdoor urban living, and though it appears to be a singular building, Atlantis The Royal comprises two structures, each with its own identity and form.



Opus Tower is the perfect example of how architects are free to explore beyond their creativity and fantasies.
The late Dame Zaha Hadid was highly celebrated for her innovative approach and vision in delivering the Opus. The structure takes the shape of a cube with the two towers merging while the void in the middle appears to have been carved out, undulating in wavy shapes.
​This contrast reinforces the balance between solid and void, where the void at the center evokes a free-form fluidity, in total contrast with the orthogonal geometry of the surrounding cube.

Dubai Frame

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Rising 150 meters above Zabeel Park, the monument holds the record for being the largest frame in the world. The building frames the best panoramic views of old and new Dubai on both sides. Designed by Rotterdam-based architect Fernando Donis in 2008, the slender hollow rectangle structure is adorning the city’s skyline, being visible for miles.