And in a way the whole structure is like a theatre’s backstage - with its huge doors, ceiling grid, functional finishes and endless variation in spatial configuration, this is an architecture of performance. The big event is the transformation; the moment between exhibitions becomes as dramatic as the shows themselves. After all, OMA has a long history of creating space for performance, from the restrained Wyly Theater in Dallas to the sci-fi Taipei Performing Arts Center and now the nascent Factory in Manchester. Its experience with Prada is also relevant: it has not only designed catwalk shows for the Italian fashion house, but also one-offs such as the Transformer in Seoul, a multifunctional object that can be rotated by crane to become a cinema, museum or event space.
OMA and its founder, urban theorist Rem Koolhaas, have been at their most successful and inventive when they have been able to use their near-obsessive research to transform existing places. Koolhaas has referred to the burden of creating an icon being lifted from architects’ shoulders when they are able to reuse a structure rather than having to create something new, a way of avoiding the imperatives of “starchitecture”. Here, in Dubai, that looks like a more rational strategy than ever. OMA has carried out deep (and fascinating) studies of the Gulf over the past couple of decades and has been commissioned to design dozens of buildings, almost none of which has happened. That its first built success there should be on an industrial estate at the edge of the city seems the perfect vindication of its ideas.
Culture, like construction, is an industry and the growth of Alserkal Avenue, with its galleries, studios, non-profits and private museums, is about Dubai’s ability to act as a condenser for Middle Eastern and North African art. The opening show in Concrete, Syria: Into the Light, is a collection of Syrian art focusing on the face and the body; it encapsulates the potential for exploring political, personal and social themes through art in a region that often shies away from controversial expression.
On the evidence of Concrete, OMA’s architecture is equal to building the intellectual and curatorial infrastructure needed to put on shows that can stand out in this city of the spectacular. The industrial setting is as telling as it is functional. Like everything in this fast-changing landscape, this is a building both about Dubai itself and about a contemporary world in which the making of culture rather than commodities is becoming an increasingly desirable industry.