The Story of Ealing Hospital's Desert Architect

How John Harris raised a city from the sands in Dubai

Ealing Hospital opening in 1979 (left) and the Dubai World Trade Centre (right)

July 8, 2024

John Harris helped raise Dubai from the desert as its first master planner helping shape the city’s skyline before the United Arab Emirates struck oil and unimaginable wealth in the 1960s.

His achievements included the 40-storey World Trade Centre which was, for twenty years, the tallest building in the Arab world until the construction of the Burj Al Arab.

Harris was the architect who would later design Ealing Hospital in response to the health needs of a rapidly growing population.

Harris’s entry into the Arab world as a young and relatively unknown architect was via a competition winning entry to design a state hospital in Doha.

The work caught the eye of ruler Sheikh Rashid and the pair struck up a partnership which married the Shiekh’s vision of modernism with a respect for culture and tradition.

There were no paved roads in Dubai in 1960, no utility networks such as water sewage, gas and electricity, and drinking water was only available from cans bought into town by donkey.

Harris patiently walked every dusty track of the old town to get a feel of the task ahead and subsequently laid down the basic infrastructure upon which the modern day was built.

He was in attendance when the Sheik was first presented with a jam jar of oil in 1966 which transformed the country’s fortunes supercharging its growth and Harris’s planning brief.

He spent many years travelling between the UK and Dubai realising the Sheikh’s vision but in the 1970s oversaw the design for Ealing Hospital.

The local community had been served by several smaller cottage hospitals but London’s post-war growth eventually called for the creation of larger municipal hospitals.

The £8m project was not without its problems and one could only wonder at the architect’s frustration with the building industry and vagaries of the weather.

The Government had ambitiously promised the new hospital by 1974 but it wouldn’t open for a further five years and was £4million over budget.

The developers remained tight-lipped during the ensuing furore as a succession of strikes hit building works.

Some of the problems descended into farce including furniture being installed, removed and then reinstalled because the painters hadn’t been allowed in first.

Lifts were out-of-action meaning equipment had to be carried up the stairs - no joke in a ten-storey building - a fire destroyed electrical cabling, and even the weather was blamed for making site conditions unworkable.

The hospital finally opened in 1979.

Steve Watkins


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