Phase 2 of Dubai Design District paused for a rethink

The second phase of the Dubai Design District masterplan has been paused and will be reworked “to meet the changing needs of both the city of Dubai and the wider demands of the existing and future community of creatives”.

The implication is that the original plan to create a community of artists and designers working in small, basic studio units looks less than appealing in commercial terms.

Foster + Partners had been commissioned to design Phase 2 of d3, but confirmed to Middle East Architect that it was now on hold.

The second phase of development was outlined back in 2015, when Foster + Partners won the competition to design it. The development was labelled as the “Creative Community” and was intended to echo art/design districts from around the world such as Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and London’s Shoreditch.

The 93,000 m2 masterplan called for a mixed-use development featuring the usual Dubai-ish F&B and retail but also workshop facilities, design offices, live-work units, and the campus for the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI). Foster said that the project would provide “an incubator for emerging local designers and artists, as well as bespoke environment for art galleries and studios”.

Originally it was all due to be finished by 2017, but the revised date for completion was this year. Now there’s no date for it.

Back in 2015, Gerard Evenden, head of the Dubai studio at Foster + Partners, described the project as an interesting opportunity. “There are many art districts [around the world] but they all tend to start up in industrial areas with some dereliction and nostalgia, so to create that environment from scratch with the same ambiance and vibrancy was a challenge and it was what drove us to thinking that the competition was worth entering.

“I don’t think anyone has attempted to do this before.”

Foster’s plan centred on around 370 individual units, mostly prefabricated and rendered in rough concrete finishes. The thinking was that this would encourage tenants to personalise their own spaces while suggesting the industrial style of art districts elsewhere.

Mohammad Al Shehhi, COO of d3 at the time, promised that “d3’s pioneering Creative Community will help to foster the growth of the UAE’s design industry by acting as a dedicated destination for all things design, fashion, art and luxury”.

He also outlined the commercial underpinnings for the Phase 2 development. “We have undertaken extensive research and fact finding, to better understand what makes design communities really thrive. We quickly established that one of the key ingredients for a flourishing design scene, that will grow as people inhabit the area, is affordable space designed to inspire creativity …

In 2016 Evenden was quoted as describing the project as “forward-thinking” in its design, which might possibly be regarded as a synonym for “risky” – nothing like the Creative Community proposal has been tried in the region, and developers here tend to be risk-averse in terms of testing entirely new markets.

He told DesignMENA: “The great challenge for us, and the greatest experiment on that project was: would the artists come and would they inhabit it and would they take it over, which is the Shoreditch model. You have to bring the people in and then let them take it over, because that’s what builds the creativity.”

It seems likely that the marketability of units finished in rough concrete has concerned d3; the proposed audience of entrepreneurial artists and small design studios has yet to be confirmed. So d3 says the project is on hold while the market is reassessed.

Or, as Khadija Al Bastaki, executive director at d3, put it: “The original masterplan for Dubai Design District is evolving to meet the changing needs of both the city of Dubai and the wider demands of the existing and future community of creatives”.

Khadija Al Bastaki succeeded Mohammad Al Shehhi at the start of 2019 as the head of d3, albeit with the title ‘executive director’ rather than CEO. The press release said Al Shehhi was moving on “to pursue a new role that further advances the realisation of Dubai’s vision”, which sounds great but clearly has nothing more to do with d3.

Al Bastaki’s background was as director of business development for Dubai Media City, Dubai Studio City and Dubai Production City – all of them part of the Tecom empire along with d3. Her remit at d3 was to focus on business growth “and continue to build the profile of the community as a leading destination for design, art and culture”.

It’s insructive to note the sequence: business growth comes before brand-building. So does the pause for Phase 2 of d3 mean that the Design District’s expansion will focus simply on the obvious clients, the kind of big, well established studios and fashion houses that have taken so much of Phase 1’s space?

Here’s the official word from Khadija Al Bastaki: “d3 will continue to focus on the design and creative community at large through supporting and developing projects that provide creative talents with valuable insight and experience that will enhance their personal and professional development”.

Unpick that if you can: “projects that provide valuable insight and experience” for “creative talents” that will “enhance their personal and professional development”.

No, we have no idea either.

Big plans for d3 from 2015

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