Dubai is unabashedly new. Traditionally, buildings were made from palm leaves. As a result, not many of the old buildings survive. Dubai’s Bastakiya Quarter (in the Bur Dubai area) is one of the few places to see traditional architecture. It is the oldest surviving part of the city and a sharp juxtaposition to the skyscrapers in the distance.
The Bastakiya neighborhood dates from the early 1900’s. Wealthy pearl and textile merchants from Iran’s Bastak region settled here. Even then Dubai’s trade policies attracted immigrants. These Persian merchants used more durable coral and gypsum to build their houses that were heavily influenced by traditional Arabian architecture.
I loved exploring the chaotic labyrinth of traditional Arabian heritage houses. This maze of narrow alleyways isn’t on a grid pattern. Instead, the streets orient toward the water to take advantage of its cooling breezes. The high walls shade the tight lanes and interior courtyards for much of the day.
Virtually every aspect of the buildings was designed to counter the intense heat. With heat like that, you can’t blame them. Houses had a central courtyard and were topped with wind-towers. The towers, which are open at the top on all four sides, act as wind-catchers. Amazingly effective, they funnel breezes into a central shaft, cooling the room below. Residents would throw water on the floor underneath the tower. The evaporating water-cooled the interior. Trust me when I tell you they needed every means they could find to help cool things.
Traditional Barasti huts made from palm fronds were cool and easy to build. Unfortunately, they didn’t withstand the elements very well (and were probably hard to retrofit with air-conditioners).