The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1857] Preserving integration and community, the modern "sikka"

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates, a country located on the Arab Peninsula, has flourished, expanded and seen growth and change within a short period of time. Less than fifty years ago the small settlements around the country were filled with communities, with members who regularly socialised and kept up relations. This social interaction was aided by the cities sustainable spatial organizational system. The city was navigated by the use of compact streets adjacent to introverted buildings and courtyards. These road networks, often the remaining interstitial spaces between buildings, were called “Sikkas”. These sikkas, or alleyways, meant that people travelled around by foot, and here the “street tradition”, seen in many Arab-Islamic cities was evident (Karin van Niuwkerk,2001). Today, upon visiting the UAE, and its largest city Dubai, one finds them selves in a busy, generic, cosmopolitan environment. The UAE needs to go back to its roots and re-integrate elements such as the Sikka, to help create communities in the city again.

With the UAE’s growth in the past thirty years the population has been steadily increasing due to the influx of migrant workers and tourists and the growing local Emirati population. This growth has resulted in an immense amount of development occurring in the cities and towns of the UAE, which has involved re-creating the entire urban structure and expanding the infrastructure to meet the needs of the people. Dubai was developed as a centre for trade and commercial activities and has historically been under regional influence by surrounding Islamic Nations. Culture and traditions have been borrowed, adapted and interchanged between visitors, migrants and the local Bedouins. This has also affected architecture and building traditions, not to mention the urban layout. Dubai today is a city which has been urbanized to an extent where many Central Business Districts (CBD’s) and city centres can be identified. Micro cities have also been built on the outskirts of the city to house the growing population. This manner of development has segregated Dubai and its people into various zones and sectors. Even inside these “gated communities”, often filled with a variety of ethnicities and cultures, the architecture encourages little interaction to occur. Within these isolated settlements one finds themselves transported into a western city. The building organization, street size, and side walk width all lack regard to the harsh arid conditions of the country. Pedestrian activity, an important social tradition itself, is limited and with it the experience of meeting and interacting with nearby neighbors. This loss of a true public space in Dubai is an important contributing factor to the continual separation of people as most activity occurs indoors or behind walls. Karin van Niuwkerk (2001) discusses the streets of Cairo as a hub of activity, historically and today. He explains how many little streets and alleyways, lead on to larger street where the public meets, weddings occur, and performers perform. This social dimension creates atmosphere, communication and can help join people, and reduce discrimination and separation. When walking around, one often finds themselves “chasing shadows” in Dubai, searching for a place of shaded comfort in the large open spaces and amongst the buildings.

In the past before rapid modernization, the nomadic population occupied the deserts, the merchants the city centres and the fishermen and pearl divers dwelled on the coast (Kazim, 2000). Communities developed a building language, which responded to the climatic conditions of the environment.(Al Abed, 1997). These Sikkas are a common feature in Arab Islamic cities as they adhere to contextual conditions such as the weather by providing shaded walkways, areas that retain humidity and heat, and were tailored to meet the needs of different areas in the country. Near the coast they were oriented to allow coastal breezes to move through, and in the desert they were created to block harsh winds. These Sikkas also were appropriate to the traditional needs of the community, people lived within close quarters to one another, interacted and neighbor-to –neighbor relationshps were able to form. They also provided the opposite if needed, and the network of alleyways provided protection and privacy to women, and those who seeked it. These alleyways helped create hierarchy, within a city as the width and scale of the sikkas was determined by their function, and the needs of the surrounding people. This urban tradition helped combine the many social formations and create a homogenous society (Hazim, 1988).

In one study “The modern Sikka in the city of merchants” by M.Habib, the author examined different sites in Dubai, which exemplified the characteristics of a sikka. One case study, describing the traditional example of a Sikka was in “Bastakiya”. Bastakiya, an area regarded as one of the earliest urban settlements in Dubai dating back to the 1890’s, is where one can experience an original Sikka between introverted homes and residential buildings. The corridors and alleyways are walled, and act as pathways directing pedestrians through a cool, shadowed, semi-interior urban space. Here, the pedestrian experiences perspectives, textures and shadows as they wonder along their path. The small width of this alleyway blurs the idea of personal space, and forces people to interact and meet while traveling. This higher frequency of encounters between strangers increases the probability for neighbors to network and converse as they move along the mysterious alleyways. These Sikkas often opened up into larger gathering courtyard spaces, between the buildings, which was where families and friends assembled. This maze-like nature helped in creating an atmosphere to these pathways, allowing one to experience their journey. The creation of pedestrian networks, and the exemption of motor access is a significant reason to revive this sikka language into the urban of fabric of Dubai, where the concept of the neighbor is being lost in the large, busy, bustling city. Bastkiyia and the expanses of the heritage area, exemplify many of the traditional principles of an Arab-Islamic city, and have a seemingly “organic” layout which means the seemingly left over space become places of intrigue. This could prove successful even in a modern context.

A modern interpretation of a Sikka, examined in Habib’s report, can be seen in one of the most active areas of Dubai’s down town, on Sheikh Zayed Road, near the City Tower (2000), a fairly new developed area. There, a series of service roads can be found surrounding, the large towers of the project. The interpreted Sikka is wider than those of the traditional city layout, however serves the same purpose and creates shadow in between as a result of the adjacent high-rises. Between the buildings, a courtyard environment has been created, where restaurants and other commercial activities are taking place, in this pocket in the city. The same concept can be identified from that of the traditional sikka language of Batakiya, and despite the differences in materiality, textures, and scale, the space still has a mysterious nature about it, and forces one to enter by foot into a secluded gap. This contrasts heavily from the nearby highway, and provides a refuge in the city. This exemplifies that the concept of intimacy from the past can be expressed even in a highly urbanized framework, and can be used similarly to encourage interaction, meeting and gathering.

Developing a strategy to implement sikkas into the modern urban fabric is seemingly difficult. One reason is because as a city like Dubai develops, and the cost of land increases the existence of relatively un-programmed space may be unlikely (Schechter and Yacobi,2005). This also because the city is being developed primarily by developers, whom have their own agendas for the city. The clients and developers may be able to ignore the traditional context, but the environmental considerations cannot be ignored. The environment has suffered heavily, due to the expanses of projects and buildings being built with minimal sensitivity to the environment. The fact that there are so few areas, which are restricted to solely pedestrian access, has meant a bigger need for cars, and increased motorist activity. Poorly designed neighborhoods mean that inhabitants, will drive short distances, to avoid the harsh summer weather. All these considerations have to be enforced to those developing the city, as well as the government. Even if only the new projects designed, implement Sikkas, then it will be a step in the right direction.

In Habib’s discussion, he suggests that the Sikka needs to be marketed, and considered in a “macro-urban” level as well as on a “micro-urban" level. However, the concept and intention must remain consistent and these spaces should retain the same qualities. They should become public spaces with a degree of privacy. They should promote relatively intimate, sheltered spaces which allow networking, and mingling. And finally Sikkas should be an integrated element in the city, which opens up, into and around various destinations. On a micro level they could be the spaces between buildings, between homes and between shops or in commercial areas. On a macro level they can be incorporated into more of the urban expansion plans, as Dubai is predicted to expand increasingly in the next decade. However, in order to promote Sikkas into many dimensions in the city, a strategy which allows Sikkas to become this flexible is an important step, because it in essence begs to transform the entire recent city, road, suburb and urban pattern organization strategy. It needs to be approached in away where sikkas can exist for housing communities, in the commercial sector, in schools and universities and even in the industrial parts of cities.

Another strategy would be to look to the smaller towns, and cities in UAE who are developing in a similar pattern to Dubai. Many of these smaller cities in UAE are developing rapidly however are at a stage whereby a guiding principle may be successful in the town’s future enlargement. An example of a small, fast developing city is Fujairah on the east coast, which is becoming a destination for tourists, due to its many beach resorts. Here the municipally are demolishing older parts of the city for redevelopment and expansion. Therefore more careful city planning could be integrated into these still central parts of the city, as well as the new developing areas, which would create a pattern in the towns over all urban organization. This pattern could be built upon, and help create a more eco-friendly, connected city through its architecture.

Another consideration would be the large number of gated communities still being built to be designed more environmentally consciously and in a way that allows the site and people living in the mini cities to become more connected with the rest of the city. These within themselves promote segregation, and a distinction between socio-economic class, but if these were designed more consciously, it would be beneficial to those within this gated community. These conurbations, some of which are forming new CBD’s in Dubai, can become microclimates, which like the past take advantage of the specific weather conditions of its location. Within these communities, more social integration can be promoted and the sikka can be marketed to the developers as a strategy to create communities, and a community life style. Creating an environmental city is being attempted by the project Masdar City in Abu Dhabi (La Monica. 2008), where the government is planning to launch a new sector in the city, which is focused on being low energy, and environmental. This is being achieved through many high tech solutions, however the city is still being designed with the architecture oriented to allow coastal breezes to help ventilate the spaces between the homes, in a similar method to the traditional sikka. This exemplifies how planning methods, can be a helpful element in reducing energy loss and creating a microclimate such as Masdar.

Customs and traditions are something which developers, designers and clients can reject or ignore but what is un avoidable and inexcusable is the continued treatment of UAE like a blank canvas, with minimal consideration to the climate and the eco-system. These new cities emerging in the newly rich Middle East, is discussed by Schechter and Yacobi (2005), in their discussion of Middle Eastern Cities, and globalization. They describe cities influenced by post-modern global visions, resulting in the city landscape becoming a “decontexualized urban reality”. Schechter and Yacobi too propose a more compact, considerate city planning method in many of these cities, which would implement elements such as the sikka. However beyond the need to create a more sustainable city, there is an equally important need to aid society. The social traditions of a country, city or region are what hold a culture together. Within a city lacking integration and interaction, languages, practices and traditions won’t be shared, and explored. One strategy is to use architecture and the city, to promote this interaction, and exposure between the diverse peoples of UAE, by simply implementing more carefully throughout roads, creating true public spaces, and by encouraging us, the people of this city, to take a walk and meet our neighbors.


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Discursive transformation in the Arabian Gulf. Gulf Book Centre. Dubai.


_Costa. P.M. 1994. Studies in Arabian architecture. Ash gate Publishing Limited.

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_Al Abed. I. 1997. United Arab Emirates: A new perspective. Trident Press

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_Habib. M.G. 2003. The modern sikka in the city of merchants. UAE.

_Korsholm Neilsen.H.C. Skovgaard-Peterson.J. 2001. Middle

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