Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s Hidden Arts District

One of Alserkal Avenue’s oddly-shaped restaurants

photography by: Omri Westmark

Up until the late 2000’s, the industrial zone of Al Quoz neighborhood in Dubai was nothing more than an unassuming patch of urban wasteland. When one of the many warehouses was repurposed as a modern art gallery, it soon triggered the influx of dozens of art-related businesses, studios, boutique shops as well as quirky eateries and cafés. As of today, Alserkal Avenue is a full-fledged arts district that offers an off-beat alternative to the city’s sleek skyscrapers and malls.

Away from Dubai’s vanity projects, the cluster of gritty buildings between First Al Khail and 6A streets in Al Quoz neighborhood might not seem at first like an interesting place to explore. After all, for most of its existence, the low-key area was home to multiple workshops and storehouses that served as the city’s stodgy backstage.

 

That all changed in 2008, when the first art gallery (Ayyam Gallery) moved into one of the complex’s 39 warehouses, collectively known today as Alserkal Avenue (named after the place’s administrator). With a glut of roomy and cheap spaces, dozens of galleries and studios followed suit and swarmed the precinct, organically transforming it into a hub for local and international artists alike.

 

The true tipping point, however, was the arrival of Carbon 12 Dubai, one of the country’s most renowned exhibition spaces for contemporary art. To accommodate the ever-growing number of galleries and other creative enterprises, the district’s manager, Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, commissioned in 2012 a large-scale expansion which more than doubled its size.

 

When the ambitious undertaking was completed in 2015, Alserkal Avenue had more than 100 buildings, whose total floor area amounted to a whopping half a million square meters. Alongside the many galleries, other types of businesses began flocking to the district, including upscale cafés, fashion boutiques, yoga studios and event venues, just to name a few.


The district’s exponential growth was accompanied by a series of collaborations and initiatives, the most notable of which is the artist residency program. As part of the project, creators from all over the world are invited to live in the premises and take part in an experimental endeavor where new kinds of techniques and ideas are being conceived.

 

In 2017, Pritzker laureate Rem Koolhaas made his debut in the UAE, when the Concrete, an interdisciplinary venue, was inaugurated. Designed by Koolhaas’ OMA firm, the 600 square meter building features an exceptionally high interior space, a series of portable walls which provides a spatial flexibility, and perhaps most strikingly, a semi-transparent frontage that creates a playful relationship between the hall and the outside world. Another worthy attraction is Cinema Akil, an independent film house where works of lesser-known directors from different countries are introduced.

 

In spite of Alserkal Avenue’s current fame and glamor, it still hosts a couple of dusty garages and workshops from its bygone area. Whether the district retains some of its past remains to be seen, one thing is clear though, this once banal piece of Dubai is now a vibrant enclave of authenticity that rejects the city’s ostentatious scenery.