Interview: Brian Johnson on building an architecture career in Dubai since the 1970s
For designers and architects, Dubai in the 1970s was like a blank canvas: it was a vast and open desertscape ideal for a fresh start. And that’s exactly when Brian Johnson first ventured into the sunny and sandy lands of the United Arab Emirates.
“My wife and I originally thought we’d come here for two years before we would settle down, so I joined an architect here. Although he didn’t offer me a lot of money, I liked his work and I liked what he had done,” Johnson starts off. “And being young and idealistic, the other stuff didn’t matter. I was working for AED3,500 a month in those days.”
However, when Johnson first arrived, the Dubai firm he had come to work with was undergoing some unpleasant changes and would have shut down had Johnson not contacted his previous office in London to buy out the Dubai firm. Starting at 26 years of age, Johnson worked as the new company’s partner for 14 years until he left back to the UK to start up Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ).
It was during his first 15 years in Dubai that Johnson worked on many education-focused projects, such as the Dubai College, Jumeirah School and the infrastructure for the Dubai police force.
“The first project that I really did myself was Jumeirah English Speaking School, which was in villas that time. And that was quite interesting for me. I was 26, I’m sitting there talking to all these worthies and governors about the school and they’re listening to me. I look now at some of our 20-something year olds from the staff and you think ‘would you put your trust in this guy?’ you know? I mean, the whole trust was amazing. But I suppose I’m almost exactly the same age as His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum [Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai].
“He was also in a position of authority from quite a young age, so Dubai was a country that actually had a lot of local people in a position of authority at the same age as I was. Some of them younger than me even, so it actually didn’t matter that everyone was so young. It was a sort of young country with young people in senior positions. So I was quite lucky at that time…It was a much smaller community, but with a greater sense of community.”
Johnson’s departure from his Dubai firm also led to a temporary departure from Dubai.
In 1989, he co-founded GAJ in London and a year later, he returned to the Middle East and launched the firm’s Dubai headquarters.
He explains: “So we started in 1989 in the UK, then about a year after I left [Dubai], the Dubai Creek Golf Club competition came up. I’d already designed the Emirates Golf Club with my old firm, so I suppose I had sort of a head start, having worked with His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and his engineers for the Emirates Golf Club.
“I sort of knew he didn’t want just any golf club, he wanted something that had to be in Dubai – not something that could be in Arizona, or Scotland, or something like that. So I came up with this idea and that’s what really got me started in Dubai again. So for ten years, I was coming to Dubai every month for four to five days, then eventually for two weeks, and then gradually a bit more.
“In 2001, my wife asked if I would like her to come back and live in Dubai. And I said, well, yes, I’d love her to but I wouldn’t have liked to ask—because of course, we had made some really nice friendships in the UK. So she agreed to come out to Dubai. The only sad thing is that it was around the time our first grandchild was born. She was only about three months old when we came back. So we had to split from our family and come to Dubai. But Dubai has been really good for us.”
The Dubai Creek Golf Club is one of Johnson’s most revered projects, as it currently sits on the face of the 20 dirham note. And while this is an achievement in and of itself, Johnson has gone on to build and design a number of the United Arab Emirates’ most iconic buildings.
From Bab Al Shams to the Royal Mirage, Johnson is accredited for pioneering the trend of fusing Islamic themes with modern architecture. He’s aware that Dubai is a tourist destination and notes that those who travel here aren’t looking for a glass box to hole up in—they’re looking for something that’s “part of the soil”. And while he was met with some resistance in the beginning, the fusion design concept quickly took off.
Johnson recalls: “I think that at the beginning there was a desire to be a very modern city. They weren’t so keen on what you might call traditional building. When we did the Royal Mirage, the moment was right. People wanted to come to ‘celebrate the magic of Arabia’ as they say. When at least 10-15 years earlier, I tried to persuade another hotel group to do something similar to that. It was interesting. The client called me up and said his wife had been speaking with him and said: ‘what are we doing emulating the past? We should be looking to the future.’ So they didn’t build this mini Mirage, they built this rather ghastly sort of glass box. It wasn’t just them…there was a feeling that the past was important, but not as important as the future.”
While Dubai has gone through what Johnson refers to as a “bling thing” phase, he’s confident that the overall taste of the broad community in Dubai has really calmed down. It’s found its middle ground.
According to Johnson, around 1990, people in Dubai started to look back at the local heritage and celebrate traditional architecture. Though, he notes: “There’s been some dichotomy about that—what’s considered ‘old Dubai’. And obviously there’s been a lot of influence from many sources, from people passing through Dubai. But then emerged the sense they should celebrate the old moor, so we got this sort of pendulum swing. You’ve got the old town, the Burj Khalifa, and all those developments there. You’ve got cultural villages, cultural islands, almost taking it too far the opposite way.”
As for GAJ, the award winning architect notes that the team has been gradually expanding for the past few years. And while their competitors have their focus aimed at big skyscrapers bordering up Sheikh Zayed Road, Johnson is adamant about sticking to more unique projects.
He explains that GAJ has mostly, “focused on being the architects for the one-off buildings. And they’ve been a bit more complicated because you have to choose your market a bit. Certainly on the outside, there are some really nice buildings in Dubai, and there’s a proportion of ones that don’t really offend.”
He adds: “But on a whole, I like the variety—the spectrum. We’re working on the Kingdom Tower project in Jeddah. We’re part of the master planning team. And as part of that, we’re trying to make sure the impression you have of the city has that sort of liveliness that Dubai has.”
Having been here since 1975, Johnson’s whimsical tour around the world with his wife turned into a lifelong journey that not only led him to win a Lifetime Achievement Award, but also provides him and others a human experience that coincides with one of the fastest metropolitan growths in recent history.
About Dubai, Johnson concludes: “Dubai has been remarkably sure-footed about what it’s done. The amount of locals in the concourse areas at the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall going to the restaurants and so on is encouraging because it’s bringing the local people, [the] international community and tourists together in this sort of huge melting pot. It’s a huge success story. DIFC is a success story. Sometimes you look at these things and wonder if that’s going to work and then they do. So, it would be a brave man who says ‘that will never work’ and then has to eat his own words later on. So I don’t know – I think cities just have to grow. They either grow or they shrink, don’t they? Like the moon, as they say.”