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OMA redesigns Alserkal Avenue

OMA redesigns Alserkal Avenue

September 2016

OMA’s transformation of a collection of warehouses in Dubai’s industrial district aims at providing a place where arts and culture can thrive

Driving through Dubai’s industrial neighbourhood of Al Quoz reveals an image that stands in stark contrast to the polished areas of Dubai that have made the city world famous: run-down garages, dusty pavements, large warehouses and, no flashy high-rise buildings.

It is amidst this slightly rough area that, over the past nine years, a unique arts and culture district has organically grown to become a hub for the UAE’s arts and creativity scenes: Alserkal Avenue.

Founded in 2007 by Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, the son of an art collector and traveller, Alserkal Avenue was established to provide a home for the creative industries as its founder realised the distinctive lack of such a district in the UAE.

“Alserkal Avenue was created with a view to support and help grow the arts and culture scene in the UAE, and we started with just a few galleries in 2007,” says Vilma Jurkute, Director of Alserkal Avenue.

With time, demand for space within the Avenue grew organically, says Jurkute, which led the company to launch an expansion last year, more than doubling the original warehouse space.

“The expansion was the result of a burgeoning local interest in the arts, but also in a rising culture of creative entrepreneurship. Today, while contemporary art remains at the core of our vision, we have grown to become an organisation that promotes arts, creativity and culture in Dubai, the UAE and the wider region,” Jurkute explains.

For the 43 warehouses in the expansion, Alserkal Avenue has received over 700 applications so far, clearly illustrating the rise in demand for such space. Spread over 500,000 square feet, the Avenue is home to a versatile mix of art galleries, design showrooms, community spaces, retail, culinary concepts, and industrials that coexist harmoniously.

Arts and architecture

As advocate and supporter of the local arts community, aesthetics and design are naturally high on the agenda for Alserkal Avenue, which is why the company has chosen no other than renowned Dutch architectural firm OMA to design a conglomerate of four warehouses as part of the expansion project.

The space that OMA is currently working on is to become Alserkal Avenue’s own multi-purpose venue, a key location to be able to host large-scale public events, such as art exhibitions, performances, conferences and more. Alserkal Avenue’s goal is not only to set the bar in terms of aesthetics and design, but to maintain flexibility and adaptability in the interiors, giving customers the chance to create distinct experiences that will remain with their audiences.

For OMA, the project presents an interesting undertaking, says Iyad Alsaka, Partner in charge at OMA, as it is aligned with the firm’s recent preoccupation with preservation projects. “As we have done with the Prada Foundation in Milan, it excites us to build on an existing condition rather than creating a new one,” Alsaka says, adding that for OMA, working with a company like Alserkal Avenue is like an extension of their own vision.

The interior space

“The task was both to think about the interior space so it can accommodate the events it’s going to host but also re-think the exterior so it will stand out from the surrounding buildings. We wanted to blur the line between what is inside and what is outside,” explains Alsaka.

OMA decided to push all the services and facilities to the back to maximise the event space. The fact that Alserkal Avenue needs flexible space also means that the back of house has to be able to cater to four different events happening at the same time if needed.

OMA have based the principle of the design on the introduction of four shifting walls that allow for different space configurations. “These walls are able to rotate and can be manipulated according to the space required for a certain type of event, creating separate rooms. Complete separation means that the different spaces are also fully acoustically isolated meaning there is no disturbance from one another. The space can go from as small as 70 sqm to the full size of almost 900 sqm,” explains Alsaka.

Another factor OMA introduced was the expansion of the natural sky light. “We modified the ceiling to maximise the natural light coming in. The fact that the space has a lot of natural light also distinguishes our approach from the traditional exhibition spaces in the region as these are usually buried into ‘ballroom conditions’ with almost no natural light,” says Alsaka.

The ceiling is an open grid ceiling with all the lighting embedded in it which also carries special lighting trucks so organisers can install any kind of special lighting they might need for their event.

With regards to finishing of the interior, Alsaka says this was kept very neutral because the space itself should take over rather than the architecture, to allow for the events to he held there. The flooring for example is simple concrete – grey again to allow for maximum neutrality for the creators and their shows.

The outside

“There were obviously budget constraints and since it’s a brand new building we didn’t want to rip everything off that was there. We thought the best way to design the outside was to use very rough concrete on top of the existing skin and apply a granite-like effect. The concrete mixture has mirror chips which means it will create a surprising, sparkling effect. This is unique in Dubai and we did a lot of testing as to what material can be applied since it’s not a ready-made product,” explains Alsaka.

On the front façade, OMA used sandwich-like aluminium panels which required careful studying with the contractor on how to open the inside to the outside. At the same time, they had to introduce a material that provides a bit of privacy and that isn’t very translucent. “Right now we’re working with polycarbonate that gives us the desired effect – the idea being that when you close the doors, you hardly see what’s inside but on the other hand they can be opened up to the outside. It’s also a very light structure which is important when looking at reducing costs,” says Alsaka.

Finally, OMA wanted to re-look at the outside area in general such as the paving and landscape. “Our approach is one of ‘mild intervention’ – introducing landscape that almost fades into the space. It would be short throughout the main area and would become lusher as you move towards the central café of the courtyard [Nadi Al Quoz] where the space wouldn’t be required for events.”

Rethinking the city

While developments such as Alserkal Avenue are still a rarity here, Alsaka sees more spontaneous movement happening across the city these days. “There are a lot of areas such as the wider Al Quoz area or Bur Dubai where the city is mature enough to be able to host ideas of regeneration. The cities that were created in the early 2000s during the boom time such as the Freezones happened in a hurry and now there is a lot of initiative to re-look at these sections and conditions and re-evaluate them again.”

Freezones provide great business conditions for all types of industries but they do not grow spontaneously. “The difference lies between creating a culture district or letting one happen. You can support local businesses such as did Alserkal Avenue, through which you will allow for cultural growth,” Alsaka says.

The architect is optimistic that once people see the value of what impact four small warehouses can have, this could have a ripple effect on other projects. “The opportunities for re-thinking areas in Dubai are huge,” he says, adding that rehabilitation projects are not just important for Dubai, but for everywhere in the world.

Once completed later this year, Alserkal Avenue will be OMA’s first built project in Dubai. The firm has been active in the Gulf region since 2003 but had shifted its focus to Qatar after the property crisis of 2008.

“We do see a lot of opportunities arising in the region, especially in places such as the Gulf, North Africa, Iran and India,” says Alsaka. Currently OMA is working on projects in Iran, Egypt, Qatar Kuwait and Dubai.

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