Jetlagged I sit by the pool at dawn. The world’s tallest man made structure, the Burj Khalifa, towers above. It’s far too early to be up but I am not the only one. I hear a gravelly voice with heavy accent call out “I feel your pain”… I smile at his boldness.
The same man later that evening unleashes an account of his creative journey. He is the keynote for the opening of the inaugural Dubai Design Week. I suspect he feels everyone’s pain. Bernard Khoury is a passionate man, where perspicuity and pragmatism drive a survival approach that has no regard for the rules but brings humanism and poetry to his work.
His story starts with the hopes and dreams of a young man who imagines that a successful architectural career must result in the manifestation of global dominance, of having your name attached to the institutional edifices of national significance. He envisaged his duty, as a creative soldier, to rebuild Beirut… The museums and opera houses that embellish civic infrastructure. But such opportunities never arrived. Beirut was not rebuilt in this way. The resources went into surviving everyday life and rebuilding political infrastructure.
Unable to succumb to the stifling complexity that challenged life in Beirut post war and revolution, is what defined Bernard Khoury’s path. While others struggled to find a way out of, what he describes, as the social misery of war by turning their back on the scars that defined the city, he developed “a fetish for the ruin, the poetry of decay”, by building temporary spaces for entertainment in the areas no one wanted to remember. He describes these areas as “The sour reality of catastrophic Beirut” where massacres occurred and were marked by the violent brutality of civil war. “Places we were not proud of.”
If he couldn’t design the new cultural edifices of the city he would turn his creative drive to the local and ephemeral and get inside the neighbourhood. So he built spaces for entertainment… not mausoleums of culture “of the good people for the good people”. No he claims they were spaces where the drinking, dancing and debauchery, that create human connection, could breathe life back into the rubble.
At times he talks like a warrior, speaking of violence and battles and soldiering but really he is a lover, with a deep passion for life in real time and all that comes with a visceral existence and connecting with his fellow man.
He is a practical man inspired by his clients, he claims are fascinating and courageous people…they would need to be. He tells his story structured around these people whom he defines as his heroes. They are identified by iconic titles such as The Entertainer, The Prime Minister, The Man with the Bow Tie. This story is now published in a book, “Local Heroes” …“buy it” he says “it is a good book”… I smile at his boldness. It is not, he states, a tomb for the coffee table full of images, it is small, because “books should be able to be read in bed!”
I suspect in fact he is their hero. A man brave enough to let disappointment and constraints be fuel for “breaking the rules to allow the sensible”. It is a resilience that seems characteristic of the region where hopes flourish in harsh conditions through endeavor and adaptability.
As each of these heroes enters his life they inspire and fund his projects. Many of which saw the light of day. But many didn’t. According to him ”the good people were too afraid of the sensible”.
The first is the infamous underground nightclub B018, which was meant to be temporary but still beats strong years later. Designing at night and working with a garbage truck builder during the day he bought his work to life in the area known as the Quarantine. This abandoned zone had its advantage. No one would complain about the noise … there were no residents. He chose to set up his studio nearby so he could feel the throb of the music and imagine the writhing of love and fear coming together.
He went on to design permanent buildings. An apartment building with a facade drawn by a circuit linking all the internal functions of each apartment through an exterior path, a long thin building where you cannot hide in the internal core of a large square foot print but must stay close to the outside world around and face your neighbour.
Another, an apartment building just for playboys, no families allowed, where owners can drive their lovers home and the lift takes both passenger and vehicle all the way to the door and then you can drive all the way in. This one apparently works!
A concept for Riyadh… an underground spa accessible only by women. The drivers …women can’t drive in Riyadh… and footmen can be seen moving across the ceiling by those below, but those above can not see in. The gaze is turned. This one is yet to be built.
A concept for an underground house and pool for an old man so he could “swim in the belly of the mountain on which he wished to die.”
Khoury is a designer and maker and definitely a poet, who is now fervent about the local and abhors the superficial. He believes that the architect is dead… “buildings are little more than vertical infrastructure for advertising boards”. And in Dubai they are super sized.
He demands that we design and make everything with artisans. “Buy nothing from China or the construction industry it won’t last…Do not make ridiculous buildings that twist into the sky that when you get to the top you have to walk around in circles…who wants to do that?…Here in the Middle East we are adopting the worst of Anglo Saxon culture… Commit political acts! …Break the rules to allow for the sensible”
He’s brilliant and there was so much more …buy his book.
Brilliant Beirut, curated by Beirut designer Rana Salam, is a fascinating documentation of how design has defined the city over the past 70 years since independence. It explores the breadth of design practice from the modernist apartment blocks and department stores built in the 1950’s and 60s to furniture and the graphic design of consumables to war propaganda posters. It demonstrates the rich depth of creative practice and culture that gives Beirut its reputation as the creative capital of the region.
Unexpectedly lascivious, never the less Khoury was an inspired choice of keynote for the inaugural Dubai Design Week. Dubai is a place fascinated with the new and innovative but deeply rooted in its geography, its people and its history, with a generosity towards its neighbour and a desire to take a leadership role for the MENASA .
This keynote and exhibition were very cool and indicative of the surprises the rest of the week was to unveil.
Dubai Design Week activity was centred around the newly opened Dubai Design District D3. D3 will be a multimillion square foot development dedicated to design, attracting global design brands, studios and makers, with the aim of being a central hub for all things creative. It will incorporate retail, restaurants, apartments, exhibition centre, design museum, water front …It is unusually low rise for Dubai and looks to have more room for organic activation.
Downtown Design is Dubai Design Week’s commercial Fair curated by Art Dubai that showcases product from across the globe. It attracts a diverse audience from local emiratis, expats and international buyers. It is elegant and expensive, and this year included Destinations …six design weeks, from around the world. Melbourne, San Francisco, Istanbul, Helsinki, Beijing and Mexico. Melbourne Design Week presented three emerging lighting designers Christopher Boots, Jonathan Ben-Tovim and Andre Hnatojko who design and self-manufacture in their own studios. Newly established brands, they were chosen to represent the innovative capability of Melbourne’s makers. Their work was so well received they took little home and I guess it should be no surprise that the quality and uniqueness of Melbourne’s bespoke manufacturing stands out on the world stage.
Further throughout D3 were the pavilions of ABWAB. Six different countries of the region Jordan, Tunisia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, were invited to create an installation on the theme, Games: The Element of Play in Culture. Each one showcased the design practice of young and established talent from their country through interpretations of traditional games, exploring materials, social interaction and culture. ABWAB meaning door in Arabic provides a doorway into the idiosyncrasies of each. They are whimsical, experiential and insightful about the unique culture and aesthetics of these countries.
Also at D3 was the Global Grad Show curated by Brendan McGetrick, that offers an overview of the issues and technologies that will shape the future. The first of its kind, it brought together graduates form leading design schools around the world. Comprised of 50 projects, the exhibition was organised into six categories – Construction, Health, Home, Memory, Play and Work. Young designers from around the globe shared their vision for a world that works better for all. Some simple everyday products, some poetic that help us be more connected in a human way and some futuristic and highly technical. They are interesting and inspiring and it is reassuring how they suggest a bright future for us all!
Then there was City Walk including installations throughout the city, some of which explore traditional craft techniques and materials reimagined in contemporary applications. It is not however, really a walk, as more often that not you can’t even cross the road in Dubai, but a tour definitely, that weaves throughout historic sites, industrial areas, and glamorous shopping centres. Finding them proved to be a great way to discover Dubai.
One of these installations was Sound Weaving at Tashkeel. Rooms of paper screens like lace hanging from the ceiling created by Zsanet Szirmay, based on traditional Hungarian embroidery patterns and craftmanship. In this Middle East edition of her work she takes the patterns created by Afghani women in their rugs and turns them into music compositions by using little wind up music boxes, specifically designed by the artist to create punch cards that reflect the rug motifs. Sound Weaving brings together two cultures and their creative practices of weaving, textiles, music composition, and graphic design. It is beautiful.
To Ben Floyd, Cyril Zammit and the Art Dubai team we are grateful for the invitation and hospitality, the insights gained about this extraordinary city and most particularly for the people we have met. Your design week will be one to watch!
For anyone interested in a better understanding of design in Dubai and the region or to test your products and services in this market, Dubai Design Week is a good platform that promises to only get stronger.