Long before the current building boom studded their skylines with six-story concrete office blocks, Dubai and Sharjah were cities of towers ingenious open-sided towers thrust up above rooftops to catch the wind from every quarter and channel it into the rooms below.
Both of these coastal towns of southeast Arabia, in the newly born Union of Arab Emirates (formerly the Trucial States), are picturesquely situated on deep tidal inlets of the Arabian Gulf. Along the shores of the two turquoise-colored creeks, which still shelter fleets of wooden sailing ships. prosperous merchants built comfortable thick-walled houses. Tiny windows and narrow alleyways kept the sun's glare from the dim interiors and the two- or three-story wind towers funneled down whatever small breeze stirred from sea or desert to ventilate them. Arab seafarers probably brought the original idea with them centuries ago from the Persian coast, where similar towers still line the shore.
The wind towers resemble rectangular boxes standing on end. The top, the two central diagonals forming an X, and the four corner edges are solid. The four sides are open to catch the wind, and the bottom (cut by the diagonals into four triangular openings) leads into a vertical shaft which descends to the ceiling of the room below. The open sides are ribbed with vertical columns and sometimes lightly screened with decorative patterns.
Modern air-conditioning has eliminated the need for wind towers atop new buildings, and television antennae now mar the pure cubic geometry of many of the old. But in Dubai, at least, a recent law declaring one harbor-side section of the old city a protected historical site has for the moment quelled fears that the age-old towers might soon disappear forever.