A framed portrait of Tupac Shakur gives the game away. Hanging above a sculptural chair in a sun-drenched nook in the new Canvas show apartment, it’s an immediate indicator that this isn’t your average, cookie-cutter residential project.
Mohammed bin Zaal, former chief executive of Al Barari, had become increasingly frustrated with Dubai’s stagnant real-estate offerings, so he decided to set up his own company, Koa, to address a new demographic. Apartments in Canvas, Koa’s first project, are now on sale, and two interconnecting show apartments – a studio and a two-bedroom – were unveiled on February 2.
"I didn’t feel like there were any substantial changes happening," Bin Zaal explains, as he walks me through the apartments. "Everything seemed to be a repeat of 10 years ago, or 15 years ago. It was quite a frustrating time for me, so I decided to start this new brand."
Canvas is a mixed-used development consisting of 70 studio, one, two and three-bedroom apartments, set on an enormous plot off Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road, just beyond Al Barari. What makes this project different is that it’s anchored by a co-working space targeted at Dubai’s creative community. In turn, this is complemented by a multipurpose amphitheatre, screening rooms, photography studios, as well as a gourmet market, fitness facilities, three swimming pools and spa treatment rooms. The aim is to create a community, open to residents and members, that facilitates collaboration, creativity and social engagement.
"If you look at things like Dubai Design District and Alserkal Avenue, there is this huge cultural and creative push, which is not being seen in one of our biggest industries," Bin Zaal says.
Because the Koa ethos centres on individuality and identity, there are 43 different floor plans for the 70 Canvas apartments. "I didn’t want to create something generic that would appease everybody," Bin Zaal says. "It also helps with capital appreciation and rental and all sorts of other things. Having 43 different floor plans means you are reducing competition. The problem that we have in Dubai is that you have thousands of units, many of which are exactly the same, so if someone decides to drop their price, it drops everywhere. So we’re expecting to have a healthy rental market, as well as a healthy appreciation."
To transform his vision into a reality, Bin Zaal enlisted the help of Tarik Zaharna, founder and director of T.ZED Architects. "Because of my previous roles, I had a lot of the big architecture firms pitching to me, saying they’d done 5,000-home communities," Bin Zaal says. "But that’s not what I was trying to do. The first time I met Tarik, he pulled out this leather pouch that holds his architectural pens and pencils, and he started sketching. And I thought: ‘This is the guy I want.’"
As the name of the project suggests, the idea was to offer a canvas that residents could then make their own. "We’re trying to be really honest with the material use here. We kept the palette quite simple," Zaharna explains. "We’ve used white American oak on the floors and we’ve maximised on the ceiling heights in the way that we’ve designed the ducting and the ventilation system. There’s a lot of exposed concrete, so we’ve exposed the structure of the building. We’ve tried to really strip back the architecture and create an open, raw canvas that is very refined at the same time."
It figures, then, that the two-bedroom show apartment acts as Bin Zaal’s own personal canvas. From a 130-year-old Persian rug, antique chandelier and original Gaudí chair, to artwork by Dale Chihuly and the aforementioned Tupac poster, the show apartment is filled with pieces that Bin Zaal has collected over the years. It’s a further indicator of how personal this project is to him.
The space tells a story, and reveals itself gradually. You enter into a single-height entrance area that opens up into a double-height living room that is entirely glass-fronted, offering expansive views of the landscape beyond. Throughout the design, priority has been given to natural light and the maximisation of views – even in the bathrooms, which is extremely rare. In the studio, a clear pane of glass is all that separates the shower cubicle from the elements. This can be frosted, but given that Canvas sits on 250,000 square feet of land, and the only thing you can see for miles is a private racecourse, you don’t have to worry too much about anyone peeking in.
The project is defined by its generous allocation of space. So many developers, not just in the UAE, will try to squeeze as much as they can into every available inch of a building. Here, there’s an almost lavish approach to space allocation, from the sizeable balcony that leads off from the studio, to the double-height ceilings in the living room in the two-bedroom apartment. There’s an indoor balcony on the first floor, which overlooks the living room and has a bookshelf running along its length; there are hidden nooks; and an open "gallery space" on the landing leading onto the bedrooms.
The show apartment offers an interesting comment on definitions of luxury, and how they’re evolving. At Canvas, luxury means high-quality but "quiet" materials, centred on a palette of natural stone, wood and metal; it means lots of natural light and ample space; it means Poggenpohl kitchens, enormous walk-in wardrobes and meticulous attention to detail, whether in frame less doors or hidden AC vents.
Bin Zaal was equally keen to do something different when it came to the landscaping of the project. It helps that his sister is Kamelia Zaal, one of the UAE’s leading landscape designers and the first Emirati to create a show garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. "I had to use her," Bin Zaal says, with a laugh.
"Not only are we creating an atmospheric environment where the community can actually enjoy the landscape in different ways, but really it is about wanting the building itself to sit within its natural environment, which is the desert," Kamelia Zaal explains. "We have basically used a very unique pallette of plants in that it is all 80 per cent indigenous and 20 per cent native or adaptive plants. It has never been done before for any commercial project in the UAE."
The apartments are priced at Dh1,000 to Dh1,200 per square foot, and housed in two separate buildings, the first of which is due for completion in the first quarter of next year.
Zaharna and Bin Zaal are both confident that Canvas can drive real change in how communities are built in the UAE. "We are always only as good as our clients," Zaharna says. "It’s difficult to find a client that has a vision, not only in terms of short-term goals for creating an interesting building, but who wants to make an impact on the way people perceive our living culture, in general. This whole project encourages social interaction and it’s all part of a larger conversation about how we view the city as a space to interact. I really think that it is going to spearhead how other people will start thinking about their projects."
"This is the third cycle,"Bin Zaal says. "Dubai went through its boom and then went through the recession, when developers addressed how they would do things. But over the last four or five years, all I’ve really seen is people adjusting within their brackets, so adjusting prices and payment plans, but not really re-evaluating what they should be doing and asking the question: ‘Who are we building for and why are we building?’"