Dubai is a world unto its own, and in this world the polarity of East and West converges in an architectural juxtaposition that, surprisingly, works. In a city with only a few buildings more than 100 years old, Dubai is daringly remaking its own image faster than any other city on earth.

As an ancient trading port for dhows plying the waters from the Gulf to India and East Africa and as a link on the old caravan route from Iraq to Oman, Dubai's multicultural mix of people and ideas has heavily influenced its traditional Arabian architecture. This historical mishmash of Asian and European influences set the tone for Dubai's adventurous foray into imaginative, bizarre, and often breath-taking architectural styles. Look around the city. Cloud-busting skyscrapers may own the skies yet they complement rather than overpower the traditional low-rise courtyard houses with their graceful wind-towers.

The old merchant quarter of Bastakiya in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Image by ZambeziShark / Getty
Dubai's old merchant quarter of Bastakiya is a step into the past © ZambeziShark / Getty Images

Traditional architecture

In Al Fahidi Historic District of Bur Dubai, elegant courtyard houses with traditional wind-towers line a maze of narrow alleyways. It is one of the oldest and most atmospheric heritage sites in Dubai, dating back to the early 1900s when wealthy pearl and textile merchants from the Bastak region of Iran were enticed by Dubai's free trade policy to settle in the area.

As you wander the tight lanes, note how they all bear north towards the creek, channelling cooling breezes blowing off the water. Climate, especially the harsh summers, played a major role in the construction of Dubai's early dwellings. Although the houses might seem unnecessarily close, the high residential walls provide welcome shade for most of the day.

Dubai Museum is housed in the city's oldest building, Al Fahidi Fort. Image by Laborant / Shutterstock
Dubai Museum is housed in the city's oldest building, Al Fahidi Fort © Laborant / Shutterstock

Barasti huts made from palm fronds were cool and easy to construct. Once common along the creek, very few now survive except in the Al Fahidi Historic District and the Dubai Museum. Wealthy residents and Persian merchants used coral and gypsum to build their houses.

The Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House built in 1896 is a typical example of Dubai's traditional architecture. Built from gypsum and coral, the house has a central courtyard and four wind-towers. These ingenious towers, open on all four sides, are wind-catchers, funnelling the breeze into a central shaft to cool the room below. Throw water on the floor beneath the tower and evaporation cools the room another few degrees. It is said that when traders sailed into the creek, Bastakiya's wind-towers were like a host of upraised hands welcoming them safely into port.

Wander into the restored courtyard houses of XVA Gallery or Majlis Gallery to appreciate the elegance and effectiveness of these simple designs in a modern context. Across the creek at Deira, the Heritage House is another beautifully restored traditional courtyard house.

View Of Cityscape With Burj Khalifa Against Clear Sky Afrah Khouri / EyeEm
Dubai is studded with skyscrapers, including the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world © Afrah Khouri / Getty Images

Modern and audacious

The oil boom led to a growth spurt during the 1970s and Dubai's first skyscraper, the 39-storey Dubai World Trade Centre. But it wasn't until the late 1990s that the 'anything goes' adventurous designs began sprouting skywards. The iconic Burj Al Arab, shaped like a dhow in full sail, was only the herald of things to come. Today, Dubai's cityscape is a jaw-dropping sight with the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, presiding over all.

The Burj Khalifa towers over Downtown Dubai. Image by Andrew Mongomery / Lonely Planet
The Burj Khalifa towers over Downtown Dubai © Andrew Mongomery / Lonely Planet

Drive down Sheikh Zayed Rd, and you'll see a profusion of glass and steel freeform architectural wonders with sail-designs, curved towers, petal-domes, and sleek, innovative flourishes. Dubai's eclectic skyline is visually stunning but towering glass edifices in a desert country equal huge cooling costs. Although cutting-edge, heat-resistant materials are now incorporated into the designs, there has been a parallel shift to build residences and resorts in the traditional Arabian style. The One&Only Royal Mirage resort evocatively channels a Moroccan palace while the atmospheric Madinat Jumeirah with its distinctive wind-towers, central courtyard souq, canals and abras dramatically reflects traditional United Arab Emirates architecture.

Dubai loves to shop, so it's only fitting that the city's themed architecture extends to its shopping malls. Mercato Shopping Mall led the way in 2002 with its Mediterranean design and renaissance-style architecture, but every mega-mall in Dubai has a theme that will transport you to a different country, time or state of mind.

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Last updated in August 2017

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