Maryam Mudhaffar looks at OMA’s conversion of a 1,250m² warehouse into a multipurpose events space
Part of Al Qouz industrial district in Dubai, Alserkal Avenue was established in 2007 as a hub of galleries and workshop spaces designated for artistic and cultural activities. Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal and Eisa Bin Nasser Alserkal’s Est. owns the area and commissioned the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) to design a central exhibition space that caters for different public and private events. Completed in 2017, the building, dubbed ‘Concrete’, stands out visually as a distinct intervention among the block’s collection of warehouses.
12 concrete, front exterior, image credit mohamed somji, photo courtesy alserkal avenue
Source: Mohamed Somji
Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate Rem Koolhaas, founder of OMA, along with his regional partner Iyad Alsaka and the building’s lead architect, Kaveh Dabiri, undertook the project. Concrete was inaugurated on 16 March 2017 as part of Dubai Art Week, with a talk entitled Current Preoccupations given by Koolhaas outside the venue. This project, a pioneering example of adaptive urban design in the region, is the first project completed by OMA in the UAE. The Dutch firm has since announced that it will be closing its branch in Dubai.
In the inauguration press conference, Koolhaas said: ‘Dubai is one of the cities that has had a deep impact on our work, and I am very happy that this particular building is our first effort here. In Concrete, we are not introducing a new shape but instead were able to infiltrate an existing building with an arts institution. This building is totally produced in Dubai; it is not a foreign ideal, and that, I think, is significant.’
True to that statement, the interior fit-outs and engineering work were carried out by companies based in Dubai.
16 concrete, side exterior, image credit mohamed somji, photo courtesy alserkal avenue
Source: Mohamed Somji
The flexible composition of Concrete’s interior spaces allows exhibitions of different scales and purposes to be mounted. It opened with an exhibition of modern Syrian art, the Atassi Foundation’s Syria: Into the Light.
The retrofit has left differing façades on each elevation. The front is clad in translucent polycarbonate – a signature OMA styling – and contains four 8m-high moveable walls. This allows natural light into the interior and views both in and out.
The rear elevation is sprayed with a dark concrete mix containing glass and mirror aggregates. Its tilting volumes chime with those of neighbouring structures in Alserkal Avenue.
To make Concrete more prominent within this context OMA plays on the dichotomy of rough versus smooth textures and matte/subtle versus reflective/shiny finishes at either end of the building. It is hard to conclude that these two polar opposites coexist harmoniously.
Concrete oma copyright lester ali 5
Source: Lester Ali
Concrete reimagines modular warehouse design. The building’s dimensions are typical of such industrial spaces but OMA has employed adaptive technologies and modern principles unique to the firm’s aesthetic and design approach in this project. The exterior has been transformed in comparison with its surroundings and its interior given a flexible floor plan.
To maintain this internal dynamism, all services and staff facilities have been located at one end, hidden behind a full-height wall. The double-height volume allowed the incorporation of mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment within the ceiling, which results in a fluid interior space free from visually intrusive features.
Four movable 8m-high walls can be slid and rotated in a variety of interior arrangements. In this way curators and events organisers are able to manage Concrete’s capacity according to demand and create spaces matched to the occasion. Potentially several separate spaces can be configured to cater for more than one event at a time. Two skylights placed at the east and west ends of the building admit light to the interior.
Concrete oma copyright lester ali 3
Source: Lester Ali
At either end of the building’s translucent façade two large doors open up to create a barrier-free flow between it and The Yard – Alserkal Avenue’s central public square – which becomes a crucial part of Concrete both visually and experientially.
OMA’s contemporary approach to the design of Concrete succeeds in generating an interesting architectural intervention that does not entirely fall under the generic warehouse typology nor is yet an overdesigned celebration of industrial architecture. A modern immersive interpretation of Macbeth was held at The Yard recently, and the illuminated Concrete building served as a backdrop to the theatrical production and the fashion catwalk show that preceded it – an event that validates the purpose Concrete wants to provide: a pioneering cultural destination.
Concrete oma copyright lester ali 9
Source: Lester Ali
The original front façade of the warehouse has been replaced with polycarbonate cladding and full-height operable doors. When the doors are open, the exterior and interior space can merge, activating the courtyard. The connection to the exterior is reinforced by the translucent polycarbonate, which brings the view, daylight and outdoor activities into the interior space.
The rest of the original façade has been maintained and sprayed in a customised mix of concrete with glass and mirror aggregates. The rough texture of the sprayed concrete and reflections from the glass and mirror aggregates will make the venue stand out in the context of Alserkal Avenue.
The design for the interior introduces a flexible floor plan to accommodate the required program diversity. Four 8.10m pivoting and sliding walls can create multiple space configurations depending on the type of event. To maintain a fluid space, all the major interior equipment has been integrated into the ceiling, leaving the walls and floors free of any components.
Two linear skylights have been positioned above the movable walls to allow either thin blades of light or full daylight, depending on the configuration.
Concrete press opening image courtesy alserkal avenue 01
Source: Alserkal Avenue
Alserkal Avenue is the region’s foremost arts and culture neighbourhood located in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai. The erstwhile abandoned marble factory has been transformed to house some of the region’s most prolific art galleries and the leaders of the creative economy. When embarking on the journey to build Concrete, we envisioned a space that is ideally suited to international, museum-grade exhibitions. We knew that we wanted to repurpose an existing structure, rather than demolish the current warehouses to build something new. OMA is a practice renowned for re-imagining existing structures to create art spaces of international note; they were the obvious choice of practice to help bring our vision to life. There were many synergies in the way that both our organisations approached the project.
In the end, OMA’s re-imagining of the block of four warehouses has created a space with infinite potential, an iconic building for the region. With Concrete, the limits of our imagination dictate the limits of the space. It gives people the chance to look beyond the events that we’ve grown used to in Dubai and the UAE, and the scale of flexibility and movement has truly stretched the limits of architecture and engineering for the local industry, ultimately raising standards and expectations. Working with Rem Koolhaas, Iyad Alsaka and the whole OMA team has helped us surpass our expectations and Concrete is testament to the fact that a single project can have tremendous positive impact on an industry and the creative ecosystem.
03 space configurations alserkal avenue copyright oma
Gross internal area 1,250m² (event space 750m²; offices 140m²; services 300m²; utilities 60m²)
Local architect CVTEC
Client Eisa Bin Nasser Bin Abdullatif Alserkal EST.
Lighting design Licht Kompetenz
Acoustic consultant Acoustic Logic
Engineering Blue Camel Design
Contractor Blue Camel Design