It is the summer of 1959. Architect John Harris meets Donald Hawley, the British political agent for the Trucial States at the time, at a party in London. Donald, who is spending his holiday in the UK, invites John to come to Dubai on the recommendation of the then Ruler of Dubai, Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Trained at London’s Architectural Association, John had by then already made a name for himself working in Kuwait in 1952 and other Gulf states.

When John arrives in the fall of 1959, the stirrings of development were just about to begin in Dubai. Shaikh Rashid was aware of the political and economic consequences of modernisation and met with John twice during his week-long stay, expressing a keenness to improve the quality of Al Maktoum Hospital in Dubai and have a masterplan for the city.

The first meeting

Remembering that meeting, John’s son, Mark Harris, former senior partner and now consultant to John R Harris and Partners, says, ‘Shaikh Rashid and my dad communicated via interpreters but it was evident from the beginning that there was a chemistry between them.’

According to architect Todd Reisz, who has taught at Harvard University’s Graduate Design School and next year returns to the Yale School of Architecture as a visiting assistant professor, John Harris was officially the first architect to be engaged by the then Ruler of Dubai.

‘There were buildings that were designed earlier, but those were mostly barrack-like hospitals designed by British military engineers,’ says Todd, who has traced Dubai’s urban history from 1955 to 1979 as seen through the projects completed by John Harris during this period.

Dubai being a trading hub meant the creek was the heart of the emirate. Pictured in 1970s
Gulf News Archives

His book, a 10-year project that will be published by Stanford University Press in 2020, details how John, after his meeting with Dubai’s Ruler in 1959, returns to London, where he awaits for the aerial photographs of Dubai. After receiving the pictures in March 1960, John quickly completes the first masterplan of Dubai in May 1960 and it is officially approved by Shaikh Rashid and the British political agency.

Dubai’s blueprint

The first masterplan becomes the blueprint for Dubai’s developing road network and in the 10 years that followed, nearly all of the plan’s roadways were laid out. ‘One must remember that John was foremost an architect, not a town planner, but he was well aware of the development of British new towns in the postwar period. John designed a city of low-rise commercial buildings and one-storey villas. Neighbourhood units, an adopted trait of new towns, were a clear presence in this plan, with each group of homes encircling community amenities like schools, parks and shopping centres,’ explains Todd.

In the years that followed, John began a career in Dubai, designing essential institutional buildings for the city, including the expansion of the Al Maktoum hospital, the new Rashid Hospital and the headquarters for the National Bank of Dubai.

In 1971, John delivered Dubai’s second masterplan to Dubai Municipality. He was commissioned to re-evaluate how Dubai’s built environment would respond to Dubai’s new oil wealth. In the second masterplan Harris acknowledged that Dubai was growing beyond the Creek and he was trying to bring it back to it, which he believed to be the heart of Dubai.

The creek in the 1960s
Gulf News Archives

The relationship between Shaikh Rashid and his architect was one of trust. As Mark Harris remembers, ‘I believe [Shaikh Rashid] appreciated that my father did not appear to have any preconceptions and was clearly respectful of the culture and religion and had an understanding of the climate. My father before preparing the town plan walked and studied the existing streets and buildings of the city, particularly in Deira. I believe he was keen to retain as much as possible of the original street plan of the central area. There were only a few buildings worthy of preservation but he was clearly keen to keep the grain and street pattern of the old city as he found it.

‘I think my father was keen to try to keep Dubai centred on the creek but the reality was the emirate was already expanding almost inevitably in a linear manner towards Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.’

In 1974, talks were on for the first time about an exhibition centre in Dubai. The emirate was now growing fast and furious. It had an airport with possibly the largest indoor space in Dubai. That year John designed the British Building Industry Exhibition, hosted inside the Dubai Airport.

Much of Dubai’s original master plan was created by John Harris, who also designed the Dubai World Trade Centre
John R Harris Library

According to Todd, ‘Shaikh Rashid’s brief on the exhibition centre was verbal and John went back to London and discussed the matter with one of his lead architects, Gordon Heald.’ Gordon designed an exhibition centre that reflected recent trends of such developments. It combined exhibition spaces with convention facilities and hotel spaces. It was clearly more than Shaikh Rashid had expressed to John. ‘But when he shows the convention centre design to Dubai’s ruler in 1974, Shaikh Rashid now wants to have a tower and sends him back again to redo the format.’

John by now was much aware of the arising idea of a world trade centre. The one in New York was at this point under construction and John travelled to New York and later to Tokyo to get an idea of the ambitions of these projects. He presented the first design of the tower in early 1974 then returned to Dubai with the tower scheme in October.

Construction of the Dubai World Trade Centre tower began in 1975.

The test of time

‘The Trade Centre went through a number of different designs and site locations and it was Shaikh Rashid himself who insisted on the tower in its present location,’ says Mark. In hindsight the reasons for the tower’s location were clearly well thought over. The site was on the Abu Dhabi highway, which Shaikh Rashid hoped would act as a catalyst for the expansion of Dubai.

‘My father worked closely with his associate, Gordon, on the detailed design of the tower which most believe has stood the test of time. Shaikh Rashid made several site visits when the tower was under construction, often without advance notice. Once when I was in our Dubai office during my architectural studies, he arrived on site and much to the concern of his bodyguards decided to try out one of our four external fire escapes. He started climbing quickly followed by his bodyguards. Once he reached the second floor he was satisfied and entered the building to descend via the lift, much to the relief of all who had gathered to witness this moment,’ says Mark.

The design of the World Trade Centre complex included the tower structure, the convention centre, the Hilton Hotel as well as the World Trade Centre apartments set along Shaikh Zayed Road, just south of the tower complex. The building was meant to have offices, smaller exhibition spaces, large trading spaces, and meeting rooms.

This picture, taken earlier this month, proves the metamorphosis Dubai has undergone in its short history
Ahmed Ramzan

As Dubai grew, with its priority on healthcare, exhibition and trade, the Dubai World Trade Centre created a towering symbol of remarkable progress that metamorphosed the emirate into a thriving metropolis.

‘My father was trained as a modernist but I believe that once in practice he became increasingly interested in history and culture and also how modern buildings needed to respond to climate and their environment. He tried to reflect the aspirations of his clients as well as comply with their budgets rather than express his own ego,’ says Mark, of his father’s design philosophy and style.

Todd reiterates this point: ‘He was careful not to promote his name through his buildings. Till about 2007 not a lot of people knew who he was. That was by design.’

John had a clear understanding of Dubai’s climate and was initially hesitant on designing a tower because of maintenance issues. According to Todd, ‘What is intelligent about the design of the tower is that it is considerate of the solar gain. So no single side of the building has direct southern, western or eastern sun exposure.’ Gordon, who moved to Dubai, to oversee the project, also deserves special mention for the building’s intelligent shading. ‘The building has a double façade, where windows are set back with the hollow effect to keep the sun away.’

John also looked to incorporate architecture detailing that recognises regional influences, and, as Todd says, there is definitely a reference to Islamic arches in the windows. The tower was initially designed with 33 floors, but after construction started, Shaikh Rashid wanted it higher, and today it is officially a 39-storey building.

Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum being shown the initial model of DWTC by John Harris in 1974
John R Harris Library

Within two months of the opening in 1979, signs were clear that the Trade Centre was the “best address in town”. Some of the companies that indicated their keenness to have their offices in the tower were The Dubai Aluminium Company, the Port Rashid Authority, Dubai Gas, Leyland International, Gibbons and Salvage Association, among others.

Architect John Harris’ firm, John H Harris and Partners, also had their new office in the Trade Centre (it was first at the construction site of the Rashid Hospital and eventually moved to Cinema Square in Deira).

The tower complex not only had the ideal location for trade and associated conferences, it signified the fact that Dubai was now “open for business”. By September 1979 about one-third of the rentable office space in the tower had already been leased.

Workng with environment

What the building clearly represents is John’s care for working with the environment, says Todd. John was resistant to using large amount of glass in his buildings, even when glass was starting to become a globally-recognised symbol of success.

The outer façade of the building is concrete. Originally its colour was to be beige, a colour more attuned to the desert sand, but in the 1980s, Shaikh Rashid ordered it painted white.

The World Trade Centre was inaugurated in 1979, in the presence of Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the then ruler of Dubai, and Queen Elizabeth II
John R Harris Library

‘What astounds me is the tower’s proportion. It is difficult to gauge just how big it is,’ Reisz says. ‘It was at the time the tallest tower in the Middle East, but sometimes, particularly as you come near it, it seems small and intimate. Today’s skyscrapers, including the ones that have encircled the tower, seem to overwhelm it.’

Talking about the need to conserve the building, Mark Harris says, ‘I was delighted to hear of the recent initiative of the Dubai Municipality to formally preserve landmark buildings of the sixties and seventies as part of an initiative called Modern Heritage. With normal maintenance there is no reason why the Dubai Trade Centre will not be in excellent condition for another 40 years and probably a lot longer. It is built of reinforced concrete. The external panels are of precast concrete. In the hot dry climate of Dubai, external concrete weathers well which is not the case in Northern Europe.’

Forty seven years on since 1971, the World Trade Centre and the Dubai Creek, both significant in John Harris’ vision of Dubai, has come a full circle. The Trade Centre, that celebrates its 40th year next year, has been indicative of how Dubai has continued to grow and develop.

Today the DWTC’s location is strategic, at the gateway to the famous Sheikh Zayed Road or E11, a stretch flanked by towering skyscrapers on either side. It continues to be admired worldwide for its ivory exterior and pointed arches. Its role has been crucial in furthering Destination Dubai by creating powerful platforms for business and knowledge sharing. Mahir Julfar, the SVP, Venue Services Management of the Dubai World Trade Centre, says the tower has served as a catalyst for the growth of the region’s business events and meetings industry. ‘As an iconic venue in the region in terms of size, event diversity and economic impact, it has contributed 3.3 per cent to Dubai’s GDP in 2017. Our events and exhibitions alone drove Dh12.7bn in economic value for the emirate,’ he says.

And while the Dubai Creek is not geographically the centre of the city, recent regeneration plans have ensured that it continues to be the heart of Dubai, just as John had thought of it. The emirate has now rediscovered itself along the Creek with major developments such as Al Seef and the Dubai Creek Harbour.

Architect Jon Sanders, team leader for the Al Seef Project by the Dubai Creek at Godwin Austen Johnson, says, ‘Despite all the development that has happened in Dubai, the creek has remained as it is, without any change to its shape. [Today] is has become a key destination point for tourists and people living in Dubai.’

John in his plan of Dubai never wanted the creek to be a “memory of Dubai”. Today his dream lives on as the Creek becomes uniquely Dubai.