Latika Khosla travels through Dubai’s harsh climate to find a sound, cool haven built on basic principles of optimizing nature’s offering without causing harm.
Latika Khosla is on the board of the Color Marketing Group USA and the founder-organizer of Colors India. She is also the founder-director of Freedom Tree, a wholly-Indian, colour-led lifestyle brand with retail presence in Parel, part of Mumbai’s trendy mill district. Latika’s studio, Freedom Tree Design, undertakes colour consultancies and design assignments.
Dubai… a city that boasts of the razor-point spiral, the Burj Khalifa and other high-rises around that create a haze of heat with glass and metal. Frozen air occupies these translucent towers. Inside, in super malls and stores, the glint and shimmer of materials are as sharp as the sun outside. It is only about 40 degrees celsius outside! After walking for 30 minutes, the Freedom Tree folk arrive at a mud-walled city across the creek. There is an immediate respite from the glimmering sun and glass. First of all, the scale of architecture is human… comprehensible and navigable.
I would like to expand on my understanding of eco. It’s now an underlying basis for the way we live, because there is no plan B! When countries, cities or brands have put their resources into ecological concepts, they plan in a manner that integrates social and cultural constructs to make them take off and work. Traditionally, we may think of ecology as architecture — use of materials and passive interventions to optimize resources. We can also think of ecology as maintaining cultural practices and behaviours that will make it cool to adopt a lifestyle that supports a natural balance… of materials, of the arts, of food habits and beauty created by humans.
Coming back to our enchanting journey, in the narrow lanes, tall walls cast the longest shadow at ground level. There is enough headspace to let the mind stop and think. Cooling is not only about the heat, the visual serenity allows your mind to concentrate on one lane at a time. Every corner is a delightful discovery. Imagine entering a space that is old and yet carefully redeveloped. High mud walls, wooden slats, huge trees, ceramic art and repurposed furniture. In the quiet, one can hear the birds and the flapping fabric of tented awnings.
The district is one of the older ones in Dubai. Currently under renovation, it is slated to become a small centre for cultural arts. Nestled between historic areas like the Al Fahidi fort (the oldest building in the city), the Dubai Museum and the Majlis Gallery, the Bastakiya is an easy extension to explore. It is named after the first inhabitants, originally from Iran who settled here. They were pearl divers from the village of Bastak, Persia. The historic buildings of this village now house art galleries and cafes.
The Bastakiya is a gentle reminder of easy living in a formidable climate. Narrow lanes open into shaded courtyards, the tall wind-catcher towers rise above the settlement, and with historic flair, reference the ecological solution… keeping homes ventilated in desert climes. They are built to catch the airflow and direct it to the rooms below. It is said that the wind-catcher’s effectiveness led to its use as a refrigeration device. Many traditional water reservoirs were able to keep water at near-freezing temperatures with this beautifully engineered structural design.
Many of the features in the local architecture are, of course, practical to the climate, but also easy on the eyes with narrowly-slit ventilations, mud insulation, and beautifully carved lattices of the grand gypsum-and-limestone windows. And the doors that are so low, they make you bend humbly, only to open into yet another vista ahead. Seamlessly merged in a single colour, of stone, sunlight, white and weathered wood… everything is a light and breathless moment.
In yet another courtyard and gallery, there is a small lane that leads to nothing. At its end, one might discover another cafe with no one. Being alone in a space meant for humans is a special retreat for city folk. People do inhabit this space! The art galleries are well-known and carefully curate contemporary collections. Older galleries are keepers of the tradition with mainstream art on display. In another corner is Mawaheb a gallery with a heart. Here, children and adults with special needs, come together and help themselves by creating wonderful art. Volunteers are also sensitive as they are also differently-abled.
Walking on ahead, admiring the tile work and the grilled windows, we step into a massive courtyard. A textural delight this… layered like a typical bazaar street, one can see tiles, beautiful carvings and limestone fretwork. This leads to a place where apprentices can learn the craft of these bejewelled techniques and keep a tradition going. Various types of crafts and art are being promoted… where professional artists and sculptors, are represented and apprentices come to train in traditional crafts. There are installations that make a social comment or art that revives a tradition. Especially, learning techniques through calligraphy, which makes several cultural points.
The beauty of this desert township lies in the silence of space and the delightful details. At any given time, your surroundings can be comprehended. You can be content with one lane at a time and there is still more to explore if you have the energy. It’s not overwhelming like a mall where a sort of visual greed sets in and one feels diminished if you cannot see it all!