“In 2015, I realised I didn’t feel connected to my work anymore,” said Sahar Fikree, an Emirati-Iranian architect and founder and creative director of OCD Spaces. “It wasn’t satisfying what I wanted to do. So I resigned from Dubai Properties because I had just gotten to this point where I felt so unhappy with every aspect of my life. Yes, I had a great apartment, great job, and I was working on large projects – but I was so unhappy and I didn’t know why.”
UAE-raised, Fikree completed her undergraduate and Master’s degrees at the University of Southern California and University of Toronto, respectively, by 2004. She then joined a string of architecture and development firms that would weave her between design and architecture roles for the next 10 years. From HOK to Emaar, Burt Hill (now Stantec) to Dubai Properties – and a few others – her career progression reads like a list of global powerhouse companies.
“It was interesting to go from university straight into a big corporate company like HOK and work on hospitality projects,” she said. “And Emaar, which followed that, was a completely different ball game – I was now on the client’s side, and in many ways, that’s where the design control is.
“That’s why I enjoyed working with developers, because though I wasn’t doing any of the conceptual work that I would be doing working for these interdisciplinary, large corporate architecture firms, now, as a client, I could control the conceptual direction.”
Joining Emaar in 2005, Fikree learned to create feasibility studies, like on redeveloping Dubai’s Al Quoz area, which had been sparked by Emaar’s interest in transforming the industrial district into a mixed-use development.
“I still have that study because it triggered my interest in Al Quoz,” Fikree said. “Though the project didn’t pan out because they weren’t getting the internal rate of return that they had established, I started doing trips to various parts of the district, and Emaar was right – it shouldn’t be an industrial district. You have this mix of programmes, from commercial to industrial and with the labour camps as well, all within a really great location.
“When I lived in Toronto, it was my first time living in an urban city. Los Angeles is such a car city, but in Toronto, you have street cars, the underground system, and really accessible walking paths. I would walk 15 to 20 minutes just to stand in a one-hour long line at a small mom-and-pop breakfast joint… so, I thought: Is Dubai an urban city? We have all these various classes and it’s not integrated, and the thinking is largely about designing for the middle and upper classes.”
In 2010, Fikree had joined Dubai Properties. Coming from Burt Hill and Tatweer, Dubai Properties offered her some stability. The economy was beginning to stabilise after the 2008 crash and projects were picking up again. Reaching the ranks of senior manager of architecture within five years, Fikree was on a bullet-train to the top of one of the UAE’s leading development firms – and that is perhaps exactly the catalyst she needed to resign, regroup and rebuild.
“I did try to implement a lot of positive changes that made the system a lot more efficient, and I tried to push for good design,” she said. “But it wasn’t what I wanted to be associated with, and I think at the end of the day, I realised that no one was looking at affordability – and by affordability, I mean if someone is making 2,000AED a month, where do they live and why do they live there?
Why are they so disconnected? Why is the middle class so disconnected? And why don’t we have sidewalks to walk on?”
“So I took time to myself. I resigned and moved to London and stayed there for about a year and a half, but every time I leave Dubai and recharge, I think, ‘Wow, Dubai is so amazing. I just want to go back.’”
Fikree took the time to assess her life and consider what it was that was making her unhappy. And by the end of her absence she came to re-realise the purpose of her life: bettering urban environments.
“I am an architect – so how can I better environments for those who don’t have access to architects and architecture firms,” she said. “In every city, the cost of living is rising and people are being pushed further and further into the outskirts, and that’s fine if that’s what you want, but why do I live in an urban city? Because I love going to the theatre, seeing musicals, and going to a small pizzeria and getting the story of where the owners came from, even if the pizza isn’t necessarily that good. I want to buy into a story because I believe in it – and if I believe in it, then I want to contribute to that business’s growth.”
In March of 2017, Fikree returned to Dubai from London and she continued contemplating many ideas – how can she create something that’s beneficial to society? How can she help Dubai be more inclusive of its various demographics?
“As far as I’m concerned, the city paradigm should be: live, work, play, shop, dine, health and educate. Everything else are the connectors between these paradigms, like transportation and spaces of human interaction. With all of these topics on my mind, I thought, “Well this is far too great for me – who am I to sit there and do all the research.’ And that’s when I realised I have all these great contacts, and this is an opportunity to sit together and have a discussion. Let’s see what gets triggered from conversation.
“So that’s when I started the ‘Affordable City: Reurbanising Dubai’ dialogue sessions,” Fikree added. “It’s unofficial, but I’ve put it under the name Six Degrees DXB, because it’s about connectivity and interaction.”
The first session was held in January of 2018 and the second was held in February in none other than Al Quoz. Those who attended included Haifa Al Basti, assistant director at Dubai Properties; Esmeralda Agapiou, project architect at Hopkins Architects; Mariska Stoffel, project architect at Killa Design; Ivar Krasinski, founding partner and design director at Edge Design; and many others.
“And thus the birth of Six Degrees DXB: a series of informal sessions of ideas, thoughts and knowledge exchange where a diverse group of leaders – both local and expat – from different industries come together to share their personal experiences and professional expertise to explore how we, as a collective, can positively contribute in further developing the urban fabric of the beautiful city we live in and call home.
Fikree’s goal? To publish the results of the discussions, providing the public with a reference point, or a collection of sorts, of ideas about reorganising urban cities, and making them affordable for everyone. The third session is to be held in the coming months, and will likely see an evolving format and programme.
“Through these thought-provoking dialogues, we covered a lot of ground as we identified barriers and opportunities for reimagining Dubai as a truly connected, sustainable, inclusive, healthy community rooted in our universal shared human aspiration: happiness and fulfilment.”
This article was originally published in Middle East Architect magazine. Image credit: ITP Media Group and Sahar Fikree.