My eyes are always trolling for architecture. I constantly scan the built landscapes of the contemporary world looking for signs of hidden visual treasures. In Dubai I was lucky enough to come upon the wooden dhow boatyards and the camps in which wire fishing cages are made.
It was in February of 2004 and I was driving on the Sheikh Zayed Road heading north and approaching the Al Garhoud Bridge. If you know that busy highway you might remember the scene. As you approached Dubai Creek the Al Boom Tourist Village was on your left and on the right was an odd expanse of vacant land in which a jet-ski rental company ran what looked like a rather nomadic establishment itself. In the distance, further along the shore and beyond the jet-ski rental, there were lots of abras (water taxis) pulled up on the sand for repairs and beyond them were larger wooden dhows.
I wanted to get off the highway and explore the area. Traffic was light, and I was able to pull over onto a tiny paved spot that was barely big enough for a bus. It was a dead end, but I was too curious to return to the highway, cross the Al Garhoud Bridge, double back and look for legitimate access roads to this interesting scene. So I employed a fast fading Emirates’ tradition and jumped the curb.
It is justly argued that experiencing architecture is akin to the experience of the road, or more accurately the path, since the richest experience of a building occurs when we walk through it. The same can be said for our experience of cities, and on this day my path, my story, and my experience of the city started here among the abras pulled up on the shore for repairs.
Tucked among the abras was the outdoor workshop of a model builder who was creating beautiful wooden copies of the traditional dhows. There was a confusion of scale between the full size abras and the diminutive models of the dhows. That delightful confusion of scale continued as I walked further inland along Dubai Creek.
The dhows, which are used for everything from racing to fishing and coastal shipping, are built in an infinite variety of sizes. As I past one boat building establishment after another the dhows kept getting bigger, but despite this gradual increase in size, the dhow under construction at Obaid Juma Bin Suloom Establishment loomed up in the distance like a vision of Noah’s Ark. I was curious enough to go to the office on the site to ask who had commissioned such a large dhow. The surprising answer was that the boat was being built on speculation.
The men who build these boats are guest workers living within each boatyard, and though there were many in Dubai for about 35 years. Originally the weavers were men from the UAE, but now they are guest workers from Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the previous 15 years the industry had been located here, near the dhow construction yards along Dubai Creek in Jaddaf. This strangely urban environment of camps, where the men who weave these cages both live and work, was created almost entirely by the workers themselves, using only cast-off materials. Despite the second hand materials and simple construction, the city within a city that I had come upon had a life and a beauty that attracted me immediately.
I never got a consistent answer to the question of how many men worked in the extended enclave of camps. I heard figures ranging anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 and both figures were believable. The camps were tightly packed and covered acres of land. They contained the work forces of many separate businesses and enterprises, all engaged in the production of wire fishing cages. The feeling I had while wandering among these camps was that wonderful sense of being in an endless place that sheltered hidden mysteries, a feeling which is always present in the experience of great cities.
large commissioned projects underway at this particular boatyard, there was enough manpower on site to justify one more. The owner had asked his workers what they would like to build and their answer was that they wanted to build the largest dhow they were capable of producing, the kind used for coastal shipping. I asked what would happen if no buyer came along to purchase such a large ship. “Well” came the reply “then we will just put together a crew and operate it ourselves.”
It was on leaving the boat yards and walking a few more steps inland, away from the creek, that I noticed the strange bundle of shiny wires at my feet. What was strange about them was that one of the wires was moving. It was disappearing down its length, and its length was quite long, long enough that I couldn’t see where the wire was going. So I followed it, and came to the first of many outdoor camps where guest workers were weaving wire fishing cages.
I later learned that there has been a fishing cage industry This sense of endlessness was not the only quality that the fishing cage camps shared with successful cities. There was a grid to this “city”. There was a common set of materials. There was a dominant “fabric” consisting of small scale living and work spaces that made up most of the “city’s” built environment and gave the city its consistent form. Then, set within this fabric, there were larger scaled “public” buildings of a much more varied nature that gave the city its mysteries, its special places waiting to be found. And finally there were the men who populated this “city”. Let me briefly explain what had come together to create each of these key urban elements in the fishing cage camps.
The first urban element was the grid, but perhaps grid is too strong a word. This was more accurately a pattern than a grid. This pattern was a natural artifact of the post and beam structure that supported the sunscreen canopies. It wasn’t a Cartesian grid of consistently placed posts perfectly aligned. Nevertheless, the limitations of length and strength in the second hand materials from the boat yards, combined with the functional requirements dictated by the work spaces, led to a pleasing uniformity of scale in the placement of the posts and to a pleasing uniformity of orientation in the placement of the beams.
The second urban element was the common set of materials. In this case it was a strange set of materials indeed. There was a mixture of scrap lumber from the boat yards, palm fronds from trees on the site, and the diversity of discards from the thriving modern city of Dubai. Despite the somewhat random nature of these materials, their uniform use throughout the site gave the entire enclave a sense of consistency, a sense of place.
The third urban element is perhaps the most important. The fabric of a city is literally the stuff that a city is made of, but to understand the concept you must change your sense of scale. The fabric of a city is not the construction materials, like masonry, steel and glass. It is the things that are constructed, the buildings themselves. When this fabric is uniform enough to function as an urban design material, you can build cities with it, much the same way as you build buildings out of bricks.
To carry the analogy further, the fabric of a city must be uniform and plentiful, just like the bricks of a building. Therefore it is usually the housing and the places of work, the two elements that together make up the vast majority of the habitable buildings in a city, that become the fabric of urban design. In the best cities, this fabric is extensive enough, dense enough and uniform enough to allow it to be carved to create outdoor public spaces, much like a clearing is carved out of a forest of trees.
The fabric of the fishing cage camps did in fact consist of the living and working places, but again it was a somewhat unique arrangement. Under the endless canopies each man would occupy a small area in which he both slept and wove his cages. This was his domain to decorate and inhabit as he pleased. With just a pad to kneel on and a couch or chair placed nearby, many workers were able to achieve a sense of personal style in their spaces.
The canopies of the fishing cage camps, with their pattern of posts and beams, their consistent use of materials, and the working/sleeping places sheltered below, came together to make an extensive, dense and uniform fabric. Uncovered open spaces were in fact carved out of this fabric, but a reversal of the pattern I was used to, had occurred. Here at the fishing cage camps the open spaces were not analogous to the public plazas of a city, as they might have been in a more temperate climate. The open spaces here were the storage areas for the finished wire cages. In the dessert climate of Dubai, the workers used the shaded places for living and working and the un- shaded open spaces for storing inanimate objects.
The fourth urban element was the larger scaled “public” buildings set within the fabric of this miniature “city”. The workers in these camps divided themselves up into what I’d call village groups. Each group of about twenty to twenty- five men would work in their own canopy covered section of the enclave. Very often they would actually be from a single village in their home country. Each village group built a structure, a sort of clubhouse, containing dining and living space as well as bathrooms, showers, and a kitchen for their own cook.
These clubhouses were the larger scaled “public” buildings of the “city”. Just as in larger cities, where inhabitants come together to build mosques, churches, theaters and town halls, the men in the fishing cage camps did their best with the materials at hand to make the clubhouse structure for their particular village special. The communal eating space was always the centerpiece of these structures. Some were shady, cool, and hidden.
Others were raised to the second story and looked out over the acres of canopies surrounding them. These were the special places waiting to be found.
The fifth urban element was the men themselves. I can’t begin to describe how much I enjoyed visiting these men and the city they had created. I went back again and again during the next two years and each time the same pleasure returned. I think a part of what I was feeling was the pleasure of my childhood, a time when I would join with the children in my neighborhood to build our own versions of these fishing cage camps.
There are qualities that are universal in the cities we love. By describing the fishing cage camps, I’ve tried to suggest a few of the principles that can be drawn from that universality. It is more important to understand these principles today, in our modern world, than it has ever been before. We no longer make our own cities the way these men have made theirs. Now our cities are made by developers and urban planners long before we ever arrive to inhabit them. It is only natural for me to wonder why I got so much pleasure from being in the fishing cage camps. It is also reasonable to ask what is missing in modern cities that results in their failure to provide the same basic pleasures.
With the expansion of Dubai and the construction of a new bridge across Dubai Creek, the area I described in this article has become the location of a major commercial development. The boatyards and the fishing cage weavers I photographed above have been uprooted. Fortunately Dubai rarely destroys its past. It just adds to it. Both the boatyards and the fishing cage weavers will be relocated.
I don’t know where the boatyards will be, but I know that a new facility for the fishing cage weavers has already been created off Route 44 in Dubai. Keep an eye out for the new “city” that these workers are once again creating. It is right after the Dragon Mart and before the Polo Club, tucked behind the Fire Department Training School on your right. The site feels barren, with none of the benefits of the creek-side location in Jaddaf, but I visited the new camp just a year ago and was surprised at the charm that was already emerging in this harsher windblown location.
So who is the nomad in this story? I think it is time to suggest an answer. The nomad could be the viewer of the city, the man like me who walks within it. The nomad could also be the guest workers who come and go, making dhows the size of Noah’s Ark and miniature cities that epitomize the principles of urban design, then moving on, back to homes in their own countries.
But I’d like to suggest a different answer. I think the nomads are the wonderful architectural moments, like these boatyards and these wire fishing cage camps, which appear and disappear, moving from one location to another in the course of the life of a city. They are architectural nomads we neither make nor control, yet they often account for all that is best in the urban environment.
CV For Ken Vineberg.
Ken Vineberg has a Bachelor Of Architec- ture degree from Cornell University in the United States. He has his own design practice in Ithaca, New York specializing in custom homes. From 2004 to 2006 he taught Architecture and Foun- dations of Design courses in the School of Archi- tecture and Design at the American University Of Sharjah in the UAE.