Day in the Life: The Dubai architect building a futuristic metropolis in the desert

Philip Gillard has spent 23 years working on the Middle East’s evolving cityscapes

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A Day in the Life” allows you to step into the shoes of a UAE resident to experience a typical 24 hours in their work and home life

The UAE’s skyline is one of the most recognisable in the world, thanks to the work of visionary leaders and bold architects such as Philip Gillard.

Mr Gillard, 52, from the UK, has spent more than 20 years transforming Middle Eastern cityscapes, working with royalty and governments to develop revolutionary projects including Dubai’s prestigious DIFC.

Last month, he took the reins at global architectural firm Arquitectonica, overseeing ambitious ventures including Mr. C Residences Jumeirah in Dubai Water Canal and the 71-storey Aire Tower in Al Wasl, Jumeirah.

Elsewhere in the region, Arquitectonica’s works include the master planning for Lulu Island and Al Manhal District in Abu Dhabi, as well as the DenizBank headquarters in Istanbul, the Plus Towers in Beirut and five luxury towers in Jeddah.

Here, The National joins Mr Gillard at the firm’s new Dubai headquarters in D3 to see what goes into building the world’s most futuristic cities.

8am: The morning commute

Mr Gillard heads to the office early, snaking through Dubai’s skyscrapers during a morning commute far removed from his modest upbringing in Bristol, a dockside city in the UK.

“We grew up in a very humble council estate and I left school at 16 to become a junior draftsman at a glass facades company,” he says.

“I had always been interested in design but no one from my school or family had ever been to university so it wasn't on our radar.”

As part of his role, Mr Gillard attended college one evening a week, where he was encouraged to enrol on a formal architecture course.

After excelling in his studies, he was granted a scholarship for a master’s degree in Oklahoma, before graduating from the Architectural Association in London.

“That was the start of seeing the world,” says Mr Gillard. “Architecture transcends concepts, society and culture, and now I've done projects all around the globe, from South America to the Middle East.”

10am: A whole new world

Mr Gillard began working in the region in 2001, becoming part of a vision that would transform the UAE from a desertscape into a thriving modern metropolis.

“Even in that short space of time, the country has matured and grown massively,” he says. “The first project I was involved in was DIFC and back then there was nothing really on Sheikh Zayed Road apart from the Dusit Thani Hotel.

“It’s a great time to be an architect or a designer out here and a fantastic opportunity to get a lot of experience very fast.”

While working in the Middle East, Mr Gillard has had the privilege of meeting Queen Elizabeth II, the Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to discuss various projects.

Now, he is building on his previous experience to further develop the region’s cityscapes, and once the day’s agenda has been set, Mr Gillard often heads on-site to oversee projects in person.

“Often I’ll head to the Mr. C building or visit a new project site,” he says. “Our work isn't just changing people's lives from a financial perspective, but helping them develop their country to make it better for their population. It’s a privilege.”

1pm: Unleashing creativity

At lunchtime, Mr Gillard steps away from the screen to dust off his sketchpad and let the ideas flow.

“There's always a million things going on but we're still being creative, even when we're talking about the logistics of a project,” he says.

“There are always the responsibilities of running offices and looking after clients but at the same time we're architects because we love design and I think clients appreciate the fact that we don't just hand it off to someone else.

“We're giving life to other people's ideas and when you see their vision come alive and you know you've nailed it, it's tremendously rewarding.”

4pm: Nurturing future visionaries

An important part of Mr Gillard’s role is guiding junior colleagues and after meeting clients in the afternoon, he tries to dedicate some time to nurturing the workforce.

“We have a young team so I’m mindful that we need to educate them but also have a laugh,” he says.

“Architecture can be a very corporate profession but it doesn't need to be and the more fun we have, the better our process becomes because everyone buys into wanting to do better.

“It doesn't matter whether it's a small project or planning a city – everything is a design opportunity to learn from and make the world a better place.”

Updated: January 16, 2024, 3:00 AM