Making Jameel Arts Centre: Chris Lee talks to magpie

Jameel Arts Centre opens on 11 November, and it should be one of the most important additions to the cultural scene in the region.

Its significance isn’t just in the facilities it provides, though in purely practical terms they are impressive – the 4,150 m2 complex consists of galleries of different sizes, artist studios, classrooms, incubator spaces, offices, library and workrooms, and a restaurant.

Come on in: Jameel Arts Centre’s entrance from the land side. All renders © Serie Architects

Equally important, it’s an independent, non-commercial centre for contemporary art; the only equivalent in the country is the NYU Abu Dhabi art gallery and art centre (elements of Alserkal Avenue can do some but not all of what Jameel Arts Centre does, but there’s an overriding commercial imperative there).

And it’s an art centre at the heart of Dubai: it fills a gap in Dubai’s desire to be seen as an international cultural destination, a permanent addition that sits alongside Art Dubai, Dubai Design Week, and the Dubai Opera.

That’s a lofty set of labels to apply to one brand new institution. The organisation had better be up to the task, and the initial programming suggests that ambitions will be met. The opening show is strong, the smaller galleries have a collection of interesting ‘artist’s rooms’ with solo shows, and Jameel Library – the UAE’s first open-access contemporary arts library and resource centre – goes live collection of more than 2,000 books, journals, catalogues and theses, some of this having been crowd-sourced from academic and cultural organisations in the region.

The building needs to be good, too, and again first impressions suggest that it will be a great addition to the built environment in Dubai. It’s a clean, crisp design by Serie Architects of London, Conceived as a series of boxes and bound together by a one storey high colonnade. Serie has designedJameel Arts Centre as an intimate place for those experiencing and producing art.

It also has a collaborative, inclusive feel; the colonnade works as an active social space, charging the edge of the building with activities and enlivening the waterfront promenade.

The other key element is the insertion of courtyards between the different areas, providing spill out spaces for users and visitors while offering a place of repose as one moves from one gallery to another.

We caught up with Chris Lee, founder of Serie Architects and lead architect on the project.

magpie: Tell me about Serie Architects. What’s the background to the company? How did you get started? And maybe most important, how do you define its ethos and style– what makes a Serie building distinctive? What’s in the Serie DNA?

Chris Lee: Serie Architects has been in business for almost 10 years. Most of our design is done in London but we have our local offices in Mumbai and Singapore. We have about 40-45 people now across the three locations.

And how can you tell a Serie project from any other? Well, I think people know our work through its intelligence. There’s always a very clear idea in our designs that is visible and that drives the project, and usually it’s one that deals with a spatial organisation that is unusual or innovative.

magpie: And the aesthetic of the form always seems to very elegant, very simple. The Arts Centre is a particularly unshowy crisp elegant design, particularly when seen from the Creek …

CL: That simplicity is what we aim for. And we always take care that the work is contextual – it must have a sense of relevance.

magpie: Relevance to place and to function? Could Jameel Arts Centre be placed in another city and still have still have a sense of place somewhere else? Or is it the design tied to your thinking about Dubai and the UAE?

CL: I think it’s a little bit of both. Yes, some of the tensions of the organisation of Jameel Arts Centre could be lifted and placed in a different context – there are certain requirements of a contemporary art gallery that are quite universal. Of course it would require a certain adjustment and certain contextualisation, but the basics are obviously common …

magpie: Well, you obviously have the same functional requirements wherever your building is – gallery spaces, access for people and paintings, traffic flows, offices. And maybe there isn’t any particular need to slavishly tie the design to the locale. Contemporary art is inherently international and needs an outward-looking feel that connects the gallery with the wider world …

CL: But you still need context. We always look for the typical elements that you can find in the city or the region, because those elements have a certain collective value and a kind of contextual memory. We try to identify these elements, then look to recreate them for our own use. Some argue that there is no historical context as such in Dubai because it’s such a new city. But we found we could draw precedents from two sources at least – one being the government housing in the UAE in the 60s and 70s.

magpie: The sha’abi houses?

CL: That’s right. Most of these standard buildings are simple in layout, composed of rooms surrounding courtyards. You move from room to another via the courtyard.

And if you look some of the older cities in the Middle East you can find the same organisation on a larger scale, where different houses typically cluster around each other with a large open space at the centre – a square, often with a mosque.

We took the same concept. If you look at the Jameel Arts Centre building, you can see the same clustering and huddling of masses to shield each other from sun and create open space in the centre. It is one of the enduring spatial organisations that you will find in the region.

The insertion of courtyards is very important because we wanted the relationship of room to courtyard to room – as you move from room to room or from gallery to gallery you’re pass through a courtyard. You’re always in touch with nature, you’re in touch with the outside. The courtyards are intended as places to linger, maybe engage conversation.

The galleries are also arranged so that you can often see several spaces in one glance – say a courtyard garden and another room beyond – to make the experience inclusive.

Gallery and garden: the courtyards provide contrast, breathing space, and a chance to reconnect with nature

magpie: And the courtyards will be used for art and displays as well providing landscaped areas in their own right?

CL: Some of them, yes. Courtyards are galleries of nature, places for gardens or sculpture, places to rest and refresh as you move between galleries or rooms.

magpie: How did the commission come about? Presumably you were approached on the basis of previous work that Jameel had seen?

CL: Yes. Well, actually the competition for the design was organised by Cultural Innovations and they approached us. If I remember correctly there were 15 to 20 international firms on the long list. It was whittled down to five firms who presented their concept.

magpie: … And you won.

CL: Yes, in 2014.

The ground floor plan: fitting the awkwardly shaped plot

magpie: What were the principal specifications and constraints of the project? Was there a height limitation? Or was the low-rise option the best way to use the plot?

CL: First, it was an oddly shaped plot. We have taken the site boundary given to us and built all the way to its edge. But the original guidelines from the master developer had actually asked us to set the building back three metres from the site boundary. We resisted that essentially because it would have meant the floor plan would be almost too small for a workable gallery: it would be so tight.

We argued that a better approach would be to build to the edge of the site with an open colonnade that binds together two clusters of boxes.

magpie: And that gives you the required floorspace without compromising the sense of people space?

The promenade colonnade ties the ground floor layout together

CL: The colonnade is very important to the design, first because it is a porous element that absorbs pedestrian visitors to the Creek and around the promenade. It invites people to walk through it and it along it – even if you if you are not going into the Art Centre you will be able to use the colonnade to look out over the water. Right from the start it becomes a very inclusive building.

Of course the colonnade also holds together the two clusters. These are essentially different size boxes that huddle around courtyards.

About Serie Architects

Founded in 2006 by Chris Lee in London and Kapil Gupta in Mumbai, India, Serie Architects has always been an international firm: its portfolio includes projects in India, China, Singpaore and Eastern Europe as well as the UK (and now the Gulf).

The practice is known for its spatial intelligence, formal elegance and contextual engagement – and for a theoretical position that emphasises the study of building typologies and their evolution as a basis for speculating on new solutions. With a close relationship to the Architectural Association School in London and Harvard Graduate School of Design (where Chris Lee is a member of the faculty), Serie has re-opened interest in this field as one of the key areas of architectural discourse.

Serie has gained a reputation for designing distinctive buildings in the public realm, with a special focus on cultural, civic and educational building. In 2011 it won the international design competition for the 1,200sqm BMW London 2012 Olympic Pavilion. The following year Serie won the international open design competition for the Singapore State Courts Complex (completion expected 2021) and in 2013 that was followed by another competition win – to extend the National University of Singapore School of Architecture: this will be the first net zero-energy building in the region.

magpie. So the two clusters are functionally separate as well as physically separate: you’ve got the galleries in one block and workspaces, offices, learning rooms and the library in the other …

CL: That’s right, and they’re boxes of varying sizes tied together on the ground floor by the colonnade.

magpie: Two things that always seem to cause problems for architects who haven’t worked in the area before are the need to cope with heat and dust … Was this building that caused any particular problems from that point of view? And did Jameel ask for it to be environmentally sensitive?

CL: All of the above. Of course the huddling of boxes around the courtyards allows natural ventilation if required – and nearly all the rooms do have openings to the courtyards.

Of course natural ventilation in an art gallery is not possible in a hot climate precisely because you need climatic control to protect the artworks. Energy needs to be consumed for that; but the building lends itself to be naturally ventilated if required in the winter months, especially for the ground floor and the multipurpose areas.

And by virtue of placing buildings close together you are also shielding the courtyards from extreme heat.

With regards to dust, we did of course put much thought into it. For instance, the external cladding: we didn’t want to use a pristine white or a very dark colour, because even though it might look good on the presentations you know that dust will immediately show up in practice.

The cladding that we have used is slightly reflective, though that reflection is only visible when you actually approach the building closely. The reflection is quite important because it gives a certain depth to the building and means that dust isn’t so obvious. And that controlled reflection is so important because it doesn’t reflect too much heat or glare to the surroundings.

magpie: How were they as a client to deal with? Did you have to make many changes to the project?

CL: Yes, many changes! Though the core concept was capped early on. First and foremost, though, Fady Jameel is an incredibly generous and approachable client – very open to ideas and willing to discuss anything.

I think the most interesting exchange that we have with the client was really about what the appropriate architectural expression that is at once international but also contextual. I’m glad that we had that discussion and debate and it ended up where we are right now.







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