designMENA x Cadillac: Pallavi Dean explores Sharjah’s contemporary architecture

designMENA x Cadillac collaboration:

For Pallavi Dean, all roads lead to Sharjah – so that’s where she drove the Cadillac XT5. Pallavi was raised in the UAE and spent much of her childhood in Sharjah (her parents moved to the emirates in the 70s), culminating in five years studying architecture at the American University of Sharjah. Today she teaches as adjunct faculty and her firm Pallavi Dean Interiors, while based in Dubai Design District, is working on a string of projects across Sharjah. (They include the Sheraa entrepreneurship centre at AUS, Shababeek restaurant, AUS REsearch and technology Park and Al Rawi Restaurant.)

All photography by Aasiya Jagadeesh/ITP Images.

“Sharjah is so misunderstood, especially in Dubai, and that really frustrates me,” says Pallavi. “It’s bursting with great design – if only you know where to look. That’s why I chose to take the XT5 for a spin around my favourite design spots, to showcase these hidden gems and open people’s eyes.”

She continues: “If you avoid the evening rush hour it’s literally 20 minutes away from Dubai – trust me, I go there three times a week! But more than that, you have to realise that Sharjah is much, much more than a commuter town: so many cool design junkies I know live, work and play in Sharjah.”

Here are Pallavi’s three favourite design destinations in Sharjah, in no particular order.

1. Al Majaz Waterfront/Butterfly House

Pallavi choose the sweeping Al Majaz waterfront as her first location. “This is everything a public realm should be. Sharjah’s a busy, bustling place, but right in the middle of the city you have this vast expanse of serenity, with beautifully manicured parks sweeping around the shores of the giant Khalid Lagoon. Most important, it’s free – no luxury condos with private beaches, just families playing and having picnics.”

The building she loves the most is the Butterfly House on Noor Island: as its name suggests it’s home to an indoor sanctuary for rare butterflies. The structure, opened in 2016 and designed by German architects 3deluxe, has a three-dimensional skin clad with more than 4,000 petals made from gold-coloured aluminium. “The interplay of light and shade is just spectacular,” says Pallavi.

2. Heart of Sharjah/Sharjah Art Foundation

Heart of Sharjah is a restoration project, taking the remnants of old buildings – sometimes just the foundations – and faithfully recreating them using traditional techniques and materials.

“What I really love about the Heart of Sharjah is that they haven’t just focused on the past: they’ve put some stunning contemporary architecture slap bang in the middle of it,” says Pallavi. “Take the Sharjah Art Foundation building. A minimalist, perfectly geometric, ice-white structure – such a dramatic contrast to the raw, rustic, organic imperfections of old Sharjah.”

Pallavi recalls: “It’s funny, I remember one of our first projects as architecture students at AUS was to visit the site and come up with ideas for restoration. You’ve got to remember this was nearly 20 years ago – it was derelict and rundown, nobody went there. Now tourists flock to it on open top bus tours! I just love the transformation.”

3. Mleiha Archaeological site/Mleiha Archaeological Centre

For Pallavi’s third and final Sharjah design destination, she picked another spot where history collides with the best of contemporary design. The Mleiha Archaeological site is about an hour’s drive from downtown Sharjah, deep in the desert on the fringes of the Hajar mountains.

First, the history bit. Mleiha is shortlisted to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to exhibits such as a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age tomb.

Second, the contemporary bit. The award-winning visitor center, designed by UAE-based architect Sumaya Dabbagh, opened in 2016 to international acclaim.

“I just love the way this building forms a link between the old and the new,” says Pallavi. “The design is unmistakably 21st century – bold, confident and unashamedly modern. Yet everything about its sweeping curves and sharp angles celebrates the real star of the show, which is the ancient archaeology. There’s a genuine humility and deference in the design that to me says ‘you know what, you’ve been here thousands of years, we’ve just arrived.’ It strikes a lovely balance, and that’s never easy.”

This article has been written by Pallavi Dean in collaboration with designMENA and Cadillac Middle East. 

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