New exhibition of architectural photography tracks early stages of Dubai's spectacular growth

New exhibition of architectural photography tracks early stages of Dubai's spectacular growth
Dubai World Trade Centre, 1980. (Supplied)
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Updated 14 September 2021

New exhibition of architectural photography tracks early stages of Dubai's spectacular growth

New exhibition of architectural photography tracks early stages of Dubai's spectacular growth
  • In a new exhibition, architect Todd Reisz tracks the early stages of the spectacular growth that made Dubai globally famous

DUBAI: “These images helped me immensely when it came to writing about what it looked like and felt like to be in Dubai in the 1970s,” says Todd Reisz of the photography of Stephen Finch and Mark Harris. “But we’re not exhibiting them as a formal examination of photography. We’re using them to question how we can use photography to understand the passage of time.”

Reisz, an architect and writer based in Amsterdam, is busy preparing for the launch of “Off Centre / On Stage,” an exhibition that seeks to reveal the traces of an older city through the photographic slides of two architects. Having spent the best part of 16 years immersed in Dubai’s architectural history, it’s as much a labor of love as it is the final chapter in a long-running investigation into the integral role architecture has played in broadcasting the emirate to the world.

“I adore all of these photographs,” says Reisz. “All the material I had up until the time of these photographs was in black and white, but these were in color and I was just kind of shocked by them… I started to think about the connection between this kind of lived-in city — the area that we would call old Dubai today — and the World Trade Centre site. I wanted to imagine what it would have been like to watch this being built. It’s connected by roads, there’s endless construction debris between the city and the World Trade Centre, but it’s some immensely expensive, very ambitious project happening in the distance. How did that feel? This sense of ‘Where is this city leading itself?’”

Deira Souk, 1977. Courtesy of Stephen Finch. (Supplied)

Reisz first visited Dubai in 2005 while working for the Rotterdam-based architectural firm OMA. Sent to the Gulf to gather a sense of context and to understand what was happening in terms of urbanization, he came across the work of British architect John Harris while researching and editing two publications for OMA/AMO. Although largely unknown outside of architectural circles, Harris’ firm, John R. Harris & Partners, produced Dubai’s first town plan, designed the city’s World Trade Centre, and was hugely influential in the early days of Dubai’s transformation into a global city. Reisz’s fascination with Harris would lead to the publication of “Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai” in October last year.

“Harris wasn’t bombastic, he wasn’t the typical egotistical architect, he was very subtle and very much committed to the ideals of modern architecture, namely that it can improve people’s lives,” explains Reisz. “And even though there are problems in that assumption, there was this moment, this very clear moment, when expertise arrived in Dubai, beginning in the mid-Fifties. Harris arrived in 1959 and was one of many who came here to build roads or airports or ports and I used his work as a lens to see how the city transformed itself.”

The focus of this exhibition, however, is not Harris himself but the photography of Stephen Finch and Mark Harris, both of whom were affiliated with John R. Harris & Partners. Mark (John’s son) was a student of architecture at the time the photographs were taken in the mid-to late-Seventies and would go on to become a partner in the firm, while Finch was the lead architect for the World Trade Centre tower.

Todd Reisz is an architect and writer based in Amsterdam. (Supplied)

Their photographs, taken between 1976 and 1979, were not documentary or art photography, but visual notes. Mark Harris, for example, took photographs of the Bastakiya quarter, not to record buildings in danger of being destroyed or to capture architectural detail, but to document the ways in which the area’s inhabitants used roads and alleys to circulate. As such, his photographs were not just observations of life in the city, but an urban study.

“I’m not exhibiting these images to say, ‘Dubai once looked like this, isn’t that amazing,’” Reisz says. “They were taken by architects and architects take photographs in a different way to non-architects. For architects, cameras are a tool to analyze the built environment. So they’re wanting to record for a reason that is somewhere between the personal and the professional.

“People will come to this exhibition and read it as a kind of nostalgic experience of a city of yesteryear, I’m sure. I think you can do that with these photographs, and that’s OK. I mean, exhibitions are meant for people to interpret them as they want. But for me it’s important to acknowledge that these photos were taken by architects who were visiting a city they were contracted to transform. They were photographing the present while designing the future.”

Finch, for example, wanted to capture people living in and using the city. That meant examining how they moved around and interacted with the physical environment. “Let’s also not underestimate the kind of overwhelming feeling it must’ve been to watch a 150-meter tower that you’ve been drawing in an office go up,” Reisz says. “So, he’s taking pictures of it being constructed and taking pictures of the workers taking their lunch breaks, but they’re not taken in a way that a photographer would take them. A photographer would be more daring and get closer to people. The architect is a bit distant from the subject.”

Reisz first visited Dubai in 2005 while working for the Rotterdam-based architectural firm OMA. (Supplied)

One particular photograph taken by Harris looks north towards the World Trade Centre. “You can see the whole complex — the Hilton hotel, the exhibition center and the tower, and in the kind of middle ground there are some youths playing cricket. It’s a really beautiful image. There’s a culture here of always finding amazing cricket pitches and I just think about how these kids chose this spot with such a view; where there was unbuilt but claimed land for expansion of the World Trade Centre, and they claimed it for cricket.”

The exhibition, which takes over the lobby of Dubai’s Jameel Arts Center from September 29 until February 19, includes 60 photographs and ‘other framings of Dubai in local and global media’ and is accompanied by a new book. It is also supported by Barjeel Art Foundation and draws on material that Reisz has collected over more than a decade, during which time he has become a leading authority on Dubai’s urban transformation. In many ways an extension of “Showpiece City,” the exhibition has allowed Reisz to pull away from some of the larger themes that were discussed in the book and re-examine certain aspects in greater detail.

Dubai World Trade Centre, 1977. Courtesy of Stephen Finch. (Supplied)

“By showing these photographs, we are giving them a life they were not intended to have,” says Reisz. “I think that accident of circumstances makes it all the more fascinating to look at them now.”

The photographs were taken at a time when Dubai was beginning to expand southwards. With a new airport, a deep-water seaport, and a vast new hospital, the city’s ambitions were beginning to manifest themselves on a global scale. This expansion would represent a departure from Dubai’s original heartland on the creek and would eventually lead to the city’s spectacular transformation. Hence the exhibition’s title, “Off Centre / On Stage.”

“The thing that most fascinates me about Dubai is how quickly you can start to read the way ideas move around the world,” says Reisz. “Specifically, ideas about how we build our cities, how we design our buildings, and how we pitch cities to the rest of the world to come there. Somehow I find it easier to read that looking at Dubai than any other city at this point.”