Arrival, 19 November 1959

Today is an important anniversary for Dubai that won’t be commemorated beyond this post. Sixty years ago this afternoon, the British architect John R. Harris arrived in Dubai for the first time. A little more than a week later, he left with a commission to produce Dubai’s first town plan. Since then, no single document has given shape to so much of Dubai.

On November 19, 1959, Harris landed at the airport in Sharjah and quickly made his way to Dubai. Officially invited by Dubai’s ruler and aided by the British Foreign Office, Harris arrived with neither the ruler nor the ranking British officer in town to greet him. The British engineering firm Halcrow’s local representative, however, was there. They got a head start on things before Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum and Donald Hawley, the British political agent, returned a day or two later.

The arrival of the architect—the suggestion that order and legibility are to come—is an often celebrated moment. It’s a historicizing tendency I’ve approached carefully in my upcoming book about Dubai’s early decades of modernization. Harris himself knew that any significance attributed to his arrival was reliant

upon a string of events and a constellation of people before him. He was not the first Western architect to arrive or even to design for Dubai, but it is difficult to find an architect who was as influential as he in Dubai’s subsequent twenty years.

With a plan, Dubai was going to harden into the recognizable forms of a city. Dubai was already a city, but as of November 19, 1959, it was on its way to being amenable to international financing, global consultancy contracts, and marketing campaigns. Harris’s town plan assured outside observers that Dubai was going to grow “along sound lines.” The town plan was also a business plan, meant to shape global opinions as much as local contours. Already, the city was focused on outward appearances. Its hired architect knew that appearance was as integral as any other modern ingredient.

Photo: Harris on tarmac of Doha airport, mid-1950s. John R. Harris Library.