(CNN) — Dubai’s skyline is adorned with record-breaking buildings. From the world’s tallest building, the 828-meter-high Burj Khalifa, to the world’s tallest hotel, the 356-meter Gevora Hotel, the city is full of ambitious architectural projects.
These buildings are designed to give Dubai a reputation for architectural splendor as part of the city’s quest for international recognition, currently exemplified by the World Expo which will take place over the next five months.
However, Dubai’s desire to attract attention is nothing new. The desert city began to become an architectural attraction in the mid-1970s when construction of the Dubai World Trade Center began, according to architect Todd Reisz, author of “Showpiece City: How architecture made Dubai”.
Reisz is the curator of the “Off Center / On Stage” exhibition, which runs until mid-February next year at the Jameel Art Center in Dubai. It shows and is reminiscent of an older Dubai when it was beginning its transformation into the city it is today.
The exhibition includes photographs taken between 1976 and 1979 by British architects Stephen Finch and Mark Harris, who dedicated themselves to imagining, designing and realizing the future of the city, both affiliated with John R. Harris & Partners, the British architectural firm that built the 149-meter-tall World Trade Center.
Reisz said the words “On Stage” in the exhibit’s name refer “to the fact that the city has really been on stage for decades. It has used the exhibits to promote itself and to attract people to live and investing in the city. the way the city has been able to really grow.”
He added that already in the 1960s, Dubai’s leaders were promoting it in international newspapers, trying to convince people that it was the city of the future.
Beyond the “Dubai Creek”
As visitors enter the exhibition, they are greeted by stunning views of Dubai Creek. Less than 200 years ago, Dubai was a small fishing village and the body of water was nothing more than an estuary. In the 1960s, it was an artificial canal, one of the city’s first large-scale infrastructure projects, undertaken to help develop Dubai’s reputation as a major commercial centre.
The term ‘off-centre’ refers to the fact that the city was for decades centered on Dubai Creek,” Reisz said. “Dubai Creek was this defining geographic feature that allowed people to find their bearings. In the 1970s we started to see that there was a gradual but unstoppable movement away from the creek, particularly towards the border with Abu Dhabi.”
“It doesn’t start with the World Trade Center, but the World Trade Center complex is really the defining moment of this dynamism for the city to come out of the center.”
To look forward
Many of the photographs depict the people who have been directly or indirectly involved in creating Dubai’s future, from workers in the service industry to taxi drivers, Reisz said. Although that future is always changing.
“There’s always a kind of feeling that Dubai is like a big billboard that says ‘please excuse the mess, we’re working on creating something bigger’,” he added.
“A lot of times people look more to what’s to come and don’t look back, how we got to where we are today. For me, it was very important to show that. Dubai is not not a city that emerged from the sands, it is a city that was born thanks to people. People who made decisions in their lives to contribute in one way or another to the city”.
It was while writing “Showpiece City” that Reisz discovered photographs, which are Kodachrome slides, a medium that captures the richness of color. “Even in daylight, the colors are so saturated and mesmerizing that you can almost start to hear the images,” says Reisz.
Although there are a few aerial shots, most of the photographs in the exhibit were taken from the ground, helping visitors see what it would have been like to walk around the city in the 1970s.
Reisz adds: “Whenever I hear someone say, ‘There was nothing here’…I want to argue with them. I think it’s very important to understand that there was always something thing there.”
“Whether it was minimal agriculture, trade routes that crossed parts of the coast, or settlements that were there and were abandoned at some point, it is impossible to say that there is not there was nothing there. There was always something.” .