The Pavilion in the Spotlight. Interior Design Magazine.

The design of The Pavilion Downtown Dubai is summed up by the solid oak shed that sits at its centre. Simple but also heart-warmingly creative, it’s that rare kind of design feature that inexplicably makes you want to smile. “The shed is very playful,” said Abboud Malak, who was responsible for the design of The Pavilion. “It’s very cheeky. Everybody always talks about bringing the outdoors in – and we’ve literally brought the outdoors in.” The shed is a semi-private space furnished with a long oak table and chairs. Behind it, a towering vertical garden adds another unexpected dimension to an already intriguing design. It introduces life, texture and movement to what would otherwise be an over-sized, overly imposing wall surface. It is elements like this that make The Pavilion unlike any other space in Dubai.

Artistic convergence

The Pavilion was envisaged as a place where the artistic community, in its very broadest sense, could congregate. A brainchild of Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib of Shelter fame, it will act as a platform for creativity and a facilitator of artistic expression. The facility is anchored by two gallery spaces, complemented by a library, screening room, lounge area, restaurant and espresso bar.

Located in what was formerly the Downtown Living Sales Centre, The Pavilion sits on Emaar Boulevard, directly opposite the Burj Khalifa. As the building is almost entirely glass fronted, striking, uninterrupted views of the Burj become almost an extension of the interior, building on the ‘outside in’ theme epitomised by the shed and vertical garden.

In order to attract the attention of Dubai’s creative community, Malak knew that he had to design a space that was unique and inspiring. After all, he was designing for some of the most discerning and design-conscious people in the city. “We felt that if we were going to get those people interested in this space, we really had to grab their attention,” he said.

The bin Shabib brothers gave Malak free rein; their only request was that he create something that would make an impression. “They very much let me loose,” he said. “And that’s why The Pavilion looks the way it does. I wasn’t restricted. The less interference there is and the less resistance there is, the faster we can do things and the better we can do them.” In many ways this was a dream project, but it also came with its fair share of challenges. The contract was awarded to Malak in October and

The Pavilion was operational by early February, which made for a highly accelerated design-build programme. “The challenges were with the budget and the timetable,” said Mohsin Jawaheri, who was responsible for project management. “It was being designed as it was being built, which was very hard. We were told, this is the budget and you can’t go over. And we didn’t. But we also didn’t compromise on quality,” he added.

Luckily, Jawaheri was able to enlist the help of an “awesome” contractor in the form of AMBB. “The whole team was strong,” said Malak. “Architecturally we were strong, project management was strong and the contractor was strong. We didn’t cut corners.”

Transformation

When the team first took hold of the former sales centre, it had been lying unused for a couple of years. As a first step, the structure was completely gutted, leaving little but the shell. Next up, the building was repainted, the 3 landscaping was reconfigured and the interiors were cleaned up. Malak had his blank canvas.

Given the purpose of the space, Malak opted for a basic, understated palette of materials, dominated by concrete and wood. “We wanted to go back to basics. We wanted it to be timeless and we wanted it to be as pure as possible. The oak looks very natural and raw, and concrete is a very honest product. It’s very durable and it doesn’t require a lot of love,” he said.

The Pavilion experience starts with Gallery One, a 30m-long space that acts as the main gallery and entrance area. The extended, corridor-like space is flanked on one side by the glass exterior wall and on the other by a bare white wall, which came with its own unexpected quirk. “We inherited a wall that sloped outwards – and we actually loved it,” said Malak. “We could have very easily demolished it but we liked it so much that we kept it. It had that bunker-like feel to it.”

Malak felt that this was a strong statement to kickstart the design with. At the same time, he recognised that a slanting wall is not the most conducive to effectively-displayed art. “So we came up with the interesting solution of cutting into the slanted wall and carving a flat wall space out of it.”

At the end of Gallery One, the space leads off to the left, into a more enclosed, sheltered area that is home to the reception. “In terms of an entry sequence, we felt it was strong because you walk in and there is that sense of anticipation. There is this long gallery space that you have to walk through before you actually reach the reception,” said Malak.

Immediately after the reception, the space opens up into a cavernous open-plan area that is drenched in natural light. This is the heart of The Pavilion and home to a lounge, library, restaurant and the much-loved shed and vertical garden.

In the lounge, modular sofas by Cassina have been set up to point in a number of different directions. “We wanted to create these seating pods where people can have very different visual references. Not everybody has to face the Burj, or the restaurant, or the library – people have a choice.”

Malak was keen to use furniture brands that weren’t already part of the region’s design vocabulary, such as Foscarini, E15, Academia, Riva, Modular, Pianca and Magis. This generates visual interest and introduces a further layer of uniqueness.

Tucked off to the side, behind a veil of bookcases brimming with art and design books, is the library, which according to Malak is more of a “work space”. “We created it for all those nomad artists that don’t have an office and are working from home. We’re saying, get out of your house, come and sit here, work out of this space, meet other people that are in your field or other fields, and maybe that will help you to grow and learn.”

Furniture plays a key role in dividing up the different spaces. In what is essentially an oversized container, there are no definite walls telling you that you have moved from one space to the next. The furniture is the only real spatial indicator.

This also builds a level of flexibility into the design. “Our main concern was that we wanted the design to be versatile,” said Malak. “So if you have an event and you don’t want all that furniture in the middle, the design can cater to that. There’s nothing fixed – everything is loose.”

Custom Made

When it came to the restaurant, all furniture was custom-made by AMBB. Five metre-long solid oak tables, bench-style seating and high-backed banquets make for a highly sociable eating and seating area for up to 50 people. Overhead, clusters of Torch lights from Established and Sons’ Principal Collection drop dramatically from the ceiling.

All the while, the vertical garden towers enticingly overhead. The wall is composed of some 2,000 plants, representing 60 different species. “It has a great tropical feel to it. It’s an evolving wall, and we love that,” Malak commented.

But it also represented a considerable logistical challenge, Jawaheri explained. “Nobody could do it locally. That was the challenge. Because, actually, it would have been a liability if we fixed it up and in the short term it looked good and in the long term it failed. We had to fly in a specialist. He selected the right plants and he flew them in from Holland. You didn’t only have to be careful with the choice of plants; you also had to be careful with which plants were sitting next to each other, because of their proximity.

“One plant could completely overtake the one next to it. Another challenge was choosing suitable lighting,” Jawaheri detailed.

The Pavilion is also home to the espresso bar, a 12m counter that faces an open kitchen. This builds an element of activity – and interactivity – into the design.

Broadening Horizons

The F&B areas make the space more accessible to a wider range of people. Because although The Pavilion was envisioned as a haven for Dubai’s creative community, it was not designed to be in any way exclusionary.

Its role is more that of a community centre. “It is for all walks of life. Your average person is also more than welcome,” said Malak. “This is why we brought in the element of the restaurant and the espresso bar and the lounge. If you were just limited to the galleries and the library, it might seem a little more forbidding. You might feel like there is a kind of velvet rope that you can’t get past. That is certainly not the case.“

The Pavilion is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You are more than welcome to come in, read your newspaper and order a croissant and a coffee. You can make it what you want it to be,” said Malak.

Leading on from the espresso bar is Gallery Two, a larger space that can be seen from the main road. “We’d like it to be a little more experimental as a space,” said Malak and, indeed, the first installation being shown here is by street graffiti artist, The Bow Terrorist.

The final component of The Pavilion is a screening room for 35 people, which was created as a platform for more interesting, independent films, something sorely lacking in Dubai.

Here, Malak created a highly intimate space, with lounge-style seating rather than the typical fold up variety. Coupled with a striking lagoon-blue colour scheme and a goat-hair carpet, the space is sumptuous and inviting.

For both Malak and Jawaheri, The Pavilion represented a unique opportunity to do something truly different. “These opportunities come rarely,” Malak admitted. “And you know when you are faced with such an opportunity so you take advantage of it. That’s exactly what happened.”