Navigate / search

AIA Hong Kong: Dubai City of Dreams –
A Short Critical History of an Urban Heterotopia

The word “heterotopia” comes from two root words — “hetero” meaning “other” and “topos” meaning place. Philosopher Michael Foucault described spaces that have meanings in addition to its immediate existence as “heterotopia.” The concept refers to the more familiar notion of utopia, which refers to community or society that possesses desirable qualities.

Traditional Dubai architecture offer an understanding of how buildings can be designed in response to the environment and the way of living. Bedouin tent used by the nomad is lightweight and easy to carry. Palm trunks are used as structural support and the main entrance is oriented to avoid prevailing wind. Another typology, the barjeel, features a wind catcher to capture prevailing wind from different angles to creating microclimate.

The nature of Dubai as a heterotopia is reflected in its demographics. According to census, the population of Dubai is disproportionally male and expatriates, which can be explained by the workers who come to the region. Absent history and indigenous culture, Dubai became a sharing society that multi-culturalism is possible.

It is the idea of a place of experimentation, not afraid to invent new language. In the sprawling development, water is thus introduced, and at times taking over, to the desert. Water, so long as it is present, does not matter in its quantity or form. Canals or lagoons are common. In the housing development Jumeirah Islands, clusters of villas are built on small islands in artificial lake. The tallest tower Burj Khalifa, with 163 habitatable floors, has 35,000 people at any time. Infrastructure takes on peculiar dimension in Dubai. Subway stations may be located in the middle of desert. In this unique built environment, Dubai embodies the qualities of a heterotopia of illusion, in which the real space is both physical and mental.

Contributor: Vikki Lew, AIA