Anchored on the west side of Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed expressway is one of the city’s architectural jewels, a four decade-old building that was constructed to house Dubai Petroleum’s headquarters on the order of the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, father of the current ruler of Dubai. Last year this beautiful art-deco inspired structure was threatened by a new developer that was taking over the area to construct high-rise office blocks. Thankfully, global events have intervened to stop this tragic event from occurring, for the time being at least. When it is vacated, the building must be preserved for the future of this country. And what better way to honour the building that has literally fuelled the development of Dubai into a global city than to turn it into a public institution, an art museum for the people?
This four-storey building was designed by none other than Victor Hanna Bishara, possibly the most famous Arab American architect who ever lived. Bishara, who passed away in 1996, was responsible for various projects that literally altered the skyline of Stamford, Connecticut. He was also chosen to help design the world’s greatest entertainment park, Disneyland in California.
Three years ago I learnt with mixed emotions that Dubai had planned to build a Dh50 billion art museum district on the Creek. Rather than building one from scratch and in consideration of the financial climate, Dubai would do well to learn from the experiences of other cities that have renovated older buildings and turned them into national institutions. In London the Tate Modern museum was created from a former oil-fired power station. The grand structure of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris’s left bank housed a train station for decades. Closer to home, Kuwait’s century-old Al Sharqiya School serves today as one of two permanent art museums in the Gulf. Sharjah inaugurated the first Islamic Civilisations Museum in the Gulf last year in a magnificently converted souq.
Dubai need not reinvent the wheel, not with so many beautiful buildings that can be re-energised to serve future generations. I have tried to get this message across in numerous ways but I am hoping that this column will reach those who have the power to order the preservation of this and other historic buildings. We previously lost other fascinating structures in Dubai to “modernisation”. Think of the old Dnata head office in Deira and how its intricate beehive structure is now so tragically hidden in glass. I hope no one gets the brilliant idea of covering the Sheikh Rashid World Trade Centre tower in the same way.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Dubai Petroleum’s headquarters and realised that its location, size and structure are a perfect setting for an art museum. The main building houses a serenely enclosed courtyard ideal for a permanent collection of Middle Eastern art that Dubai had planned to build. But converting this building wouldn’t cost a fraction of the original plans for an art district.
The smaller east-wing of the building could house works from Emiratis or young artists from across the region. An annexe to the building completed 14 years ago could serve as a site for temporary exhibitions. Finally, the beautiful open spaces that surround the main structure could host a sculpture garden.
We will be sending the right message by preserving this building: that Dubai is as much about honouring the past as it is about seeking a better future for its inhabitants and that culture is part of the city’s fabric. This is our opportunity to convert an older structure that has served the city so well and was first designed by a world class architect. We can approach regional art collectors to adopt rooms in their names to house pieces from their collections on long-term loan or permanently. Video art, photography, paintings, etchings, sculpture and animation can all be accommodated in the Dubai Petroleum building.
I have been inside and I have seen the light, literally. It shines through 15 hexagonal stars on the roof of the main building, flooding the lobby garden. This building is ideal for open spaces and viewing halls as its many offices are separated by easily removable plywood that when cleared will open vast spaces perfect for displaying installations and exhibits.
Dubai can count on numerous investors and bankers in addition to the art collectors, galleries and artists it has served so well in decades past to share their own collections with the museum and with the public.
This need not cost even Dh50 million since the building is more or less ready. Preserving it will be the best way to honour art and culture and to honour history and Sheikh Rashid. The building would be a tribute to Dubai, the beautiful city that we love.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 8th November 2009