Hard hat on, sleeves rolled up and arms akimbo, a construction consultant takes in the view from an unfinished balcony at Dubai World Trade Centre.
Aside from a huddle of squat warehouses and an earlier, slimmer version of Sheikh Zayed Road, there is not much to see but desert. A pale ochre expanse flecked with vegetation and an unobstructed horizon line.
The year is 1977, and the photograph – one of 58 rare images being shown at the Jameel Arts Centre – captures a pivotal moment in Dubai’s development; as the city was taking its first strides south, suggesting a new centre away from the Creek that served as the emirate’s economic backbone.
“We’re not talking about a planning initiative, saying the city would hereby move southward,” says Todd Reisz, curator of the exhibition Off Centre / On Stage: Dubai Scenes from the 1970s, which opened on Wednesday and runs until March.
“In fact, you had planners well into the 1970s working for the municipality to draw plans for the city to be centred around the Creek,” Reisz says. “But the market was different.”
Dubai World Trade Centre was designed by UK architect John Harris under the auspices of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, Ruler of Dubai at the time. And though the 184-metre tower was not spearheading a deliberate initiative to expand the city southward, Dubai’s first skyscraper loomed as a marker of the development to come. It was, Reisz says, an exhibition in its own right.
“Known at the time as the International Trade and Exhibition Centre, it was conceived as a place of exhibition, it was also an exhibition in itself, a prototype for how the future would look and function in Dubai,” reads the introductory text of Off Centre / On Stage.
More than 40 years later, and the Dubai World Trade Centre has been dwarfed by the skyscrapers snuggled abreast Sheikh Zayed Road. The city’s southward push has traversed much farther than where the tower is located, as well, with a myriad of busy residential and commercial areas all the way to Dubai’s border with Abu Dhabi. As such, the city’s centre has been too mercurial to pinpoint ever since it left the banks of the s-curved Creek.
The photographs in the exhibition are all taken between 1976 and 1979, a period when Reisz says “the city was starting to move away from the centre, which would have been Dubai Creek.”
That’s what the exhibition’s title Off Centre / On Stage refers to.
While the title’s first half alludes to when Dubai began expanding away from the Creek, the second is a nod to the city’s capacity of exhibiting itself to the world – a strength that will be in full force during Expo 2020 Dubai.
“On Stage is a bit of a reference to the Expo,” Reisz says. He notes that the photographs, news clippings, official documents and town plans in Off Centre / On Stage highlight how Dubai has been a city of exhibitions since at least the 1970s, “offering a portal to view another exhibition, a city as exhibition.”
“There’s a historical thread that leads to Expo,” he says.
Reisz came across the photographs while working on his book Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai. While working on the Dubai World Trade Centre project, architects Stephen Finch and Mark Harris took the photographs as visual notes for themselves and their colleagues. However, they had long been stored away and forgotten until Reisz met with the architects as part of the research for his book. While there are several aerial photographs showing the tower during its construction, it is much harder to find pictures taken from the architects' vantage point, looking up at the tower.
“I suddenly had all these colour photographs that helped me write the book but that couldn’t be included in it because the images in the book were all black and white,” he says.
But the architect and author did not want the photographs to risk falling into obscurity again and decided to put them up in an exhibition, contacting the Jameel Arts Centre in 2019. The exhibition was initially set to take place in 2020 before being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of the photographs were taken on Kodachrome slides, considered the first film to use a subtractive colour method, which uses pigments of cyan, yellow, magenta and black to produce colour using reflected light.
Mounted on discoloured steel frames that give the impression of scaffolding, the photographs in the exhibition are all displayed in light boxes that vivify their colours and details.
“[Photographic] slides are kind of a lost medium,” he says. “They were a pre-digital way of condensing a lot of information in a tiny amount of space. Kodachrome slides have a particular palette of colours. The greens are lovely and the blues sometimes pop to an outrageous effect, which you have to watch out for.”
A publication has been released in the exhibition’s name. The hardcover, published by Khatt Books in partnership with Art Jameel, features the exhibited photographs as well as 40 images photographs not found in the exhibition. The book also includes a personal essay by Reisz, which reflects on the photographs and their context.
There is a charm to the fact Off Centre / On Stage is taking place in the lobby of the Jameel Arts Centre, with the restrained waters of the Creek flowing by in the backdrop.
“This is my favourite room at the Jameel Arts Centre,” Reisz says. “How often do you have a view like this of the Creek, right?” He notes how the south-flowing waters offer a poetic currency when thinking about Dubai’s development. “It’s a spatial manoeuvre but also a chronological one because space and time have always moved southward in Dubai."