John Harris Dubai's Master Planner 1960s-70s

John Harris developed Dubai's First Master Plan. The Harris Master Plan addressed the fundamentals: a map, a road system and directions for growth. This plan guided Dubai’s modest early development until the discovery of oil in 1966. It demonstrates why Sheikh Rashid chose to hire a young and largely unknown architect instead of more experienced British Town Planners. John’s plan accepted the logic and economies of the existing settlement and proposed a road system that would weave the old town into Dubai’s future growth. He did not try to impose preconceived ideas of urban form or raze the old city, as had happened elsewhere. John walked down every track in the old town.

Dubai's First Master Plan

John Harris

In the 1950s, John Harris and his wife formed a successful Architectural partnership together. Their first major achievement was winning RIBA's international competition for the design and supervision of Doha's new State Hospital in 1952. Their design was chosen for its intelligent approach to climate and environmental concerns which was advanced thinking in 1950s. In 1959 John Harris was introduced to Sheikh Rashid by then British Political Agent Sir Donald Hawley. John rapidly won Sheikh Rashid's trust and became the Ruler's Expert Adviser on Dubai's new Master Plan. He developed a means of working that wedded Sheikh Rashid’s ambitions with an architecture both respected and respectful. During modern Dubai’s founding, John Harris’s work went largely unnoticed by British and European press and by fellow architects and planners. John’s seemingly anonymous work paralleled the quiet but steady early progress of Dubai rising from the open desert.

Simple but Daunting Tasks

John Harris’s tasks in 1960 in developing Dubai's Master Plan were daunting and simple. Dubai had no paved roads, no utility networks or modern ports of supply. Water was only available from cans brought into town by donkeys. Traveling to Dubai from London took several days in unreliable piston-engine planes with overnight stops. Communication was also difficult. There were few telephones and cables were sent by radio. When oil was found in August 1966 he witnessed the presentation of a “jam jar” full of oil to Sheikh Rashid in the Majlis. Sheikh Rashid told John to progress with plans for the Rashid Hospital and subsequently other hospitals, a modern school, banks and commercial buildings. The Master Plan was also updated.

Dubai's World Trade Centre

John Harris

In the 1970s John Harris and his firm designed the Dubai World Trade Centre, conceived even before the first World Trade Center in New York City had been completed. Harris recalls how he was introduced to Dubai’s important project: “I was leaving Dubai and flying back to London. My suitcase had been placed on the new hoist at Dubai’s international airport and sent down to the loader below. At that moment a hand rested on my shoulder and a voice said, ‘Sheikh Rashid wants to see you.’ I explained about my luggage, but of course my suitcase went one way and I went the other.

The World Trade Centre became Sheikh Rashid’s final tribute to his state. John dedicated much of the next seven years to its completion. At 40 storeys it became the tallest building in the Arab world for 20 years and Dubai’s first emblem. The Queen’s presence at the opening of the building in 1979 heralded the start of Dubai’s global success — the city had finally been born.

Today in fast-paced Dubai one must search to find all of John Harris’s contributions to the city. The World Trade Centre still stands and traffic still negotiates the roads that Harris laid out on paper. The tower is preserved and incorporated into a new Master Plan. John’s World Trade Centre may well be not only the city’s first skyscraper, but one of its most loved.

Abridged from an Article in The Times UK March 21, 2008 (NB: Page now only accessible to Registered Readers)

John Harris's First Dubai Master Plan 1960





John Harris's Dubai Master Plan 1971





Dubai World Trade Centre under construction





Abu Dhabi Road circa 1979 (now Sheikh Zayed Road)






John Harris's first Dubai Master Plan focused on developing Dubai as it used to be in 1960. The cost of buying existing land and lack of available land within the town boundaries led to several rethinks of the Plan, the last being in 1971. Irony is John Harris designed World Trade Centre was seen as being "out of town" yet its existence and ready availability of land on either side of the Abu Dhabi Road meant this area developed instead, leading to Dubai's modern development.