The Courtyard founder reflects on 25 years of the green creative hub at the heart of Dubai

Architect Dariush Zandi launched the arts space in Al Quoz before the area became a booming industrial zone

Dariush Zandi outside the Courtyard when it was being built. Photo: Dariush Zandi
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Aluminium-framed glass doors open to the sound of voices, people sipping cups of coffee or enjoying breakfast on the outdoor tables sandwiched between popular cafe Cassette and the Courtyard Playhouse. A little ahead is a garden, set in an alleyway with a fountain running through its central axis.

It's an open secret that the Courtyard is a rare green cocoon in Dubai.

A black-and-white photograph on the second floor of Total Art Gallery harks back to the very beginning. The image is that of a skeletal structure of a building surrounded by flat, barren land. It's part of a special exhibition to commemorate the building's 25-year existence and shows its journey from conception to now. Its transformation from line drawing into a thriving creative space.

The Courtyard is a microcosm of Dubai and for architect Dariush Zandi it was a labour of love.

Born in Tehran, Zandi moved to New York to pursue architecture and urban design. In 1978 he was invited to work on a project in Dubai to develop the land along Dubai Creek.

“I came to Dubai and fell in love with the old city. It brought up a lot of memories for me as I grew up in an old neighbourhood with traditional buildings and houses with courtyards,” Zandi says. In 1980, when he came back to see what had happened to the project, he was commissioned more work.

“At the time it would take you half an hour to walk the urban part of the city. I could see the opportunities and as an urban designer for the city, my goal was to learn and grow with it,” he says. One of his most special projects was to oversee the restoration of the Al Maktoum family home in Bur Dubai. Several projects later and still in Dubai, Zandi was keen to build his own space and that was the genesis of the Courtyard.

“Having renovated homes with courtyards and being in love with old houses of Dubai and the wider region, it ended up being a courtyard. It's a space that allows people to do whatever they want to do – hold exhibitions, have a fashion show or have a coffee. A very traditional way of greeting someone in your home is to greet them first in the courtyard before leading them in,” he says.

Zandi designed the building in Al Quoz with an industrial-looking facade to make it fit in with the area. “It has a simple elevation outside but look closer and there are balconies and columns. I played around with the colours retaining the classic elements. I wanted the surprise to be on the inside, similar to the experience of opening a jewellery box – fitting in, yet standing out,” Zandi says.

Built between two roads, the central alleyway is open to the elements and flanked by 10 buildings with varying facades. Much of the wood, glass, metal and bricks used inside and outside the buildings was salvaged by Zandi.

“I took time and started looking for things that interest me. I saw bricks piled up outside a Syrian bakery shop that weren't needed and picked them up. The building hence came together like a jigsaw puzzle,” he says.

Bending rules and following his heart Zandi has created facades that are an ode to the region. From one made with salvaged pieces of various seafaring vessels, to another reminiscent of old forts found in the UAE and neighbouring nations and one inspired by ancient Egyptian monuments, each of the facades, says Zandi, lends itself to a book of its own.

Having built the structure, he was open to anyone who wanted to come and occupy the spaces.

“I didn't go out of my way to find people, they just came,” he says. The Courtyard today is home to cafes, a theatre, film and photography studios, boutiques, an incubator centre for new business ideas and spaces for artists and designers.

“Nothing has changed since we opened in 1998 but the space has grown. It grew branches and leaves and we continue to nurture it. It's all about belief,” Zandi says.

“Buildings are a living thing if you believe in it. If you feel that it's just brick and mortar, steel and glass it will stay that way. When a building is finished that's when it starts to take shape.”

Updated: July 14, 2023, 6:02 PM