Sun in the Sand: A Talent Exchange Odyssey

By Ashley Sun
Photo at beach

As a firm with over 20 offices spread across the globe, Perkins&Will can seem like a pretty big place for an emerging designer. We recently began experimenting with a Talent Exchange program, encouraging people from one office to work in another Perkins&Will location. For our first Talent Exchange, landscape architect Ashley Sun recorded her experience of what it was like going from our San Francisco office to one 13,000km away. 


There I was, a healthy person with jet lag, unable to walk more than eight minutes without a break. It was 112 degrees, well past dark, and extremely humid. I bought a giant iced soda just to feel something cold in my hands. Clutching my drink, I continued down the empty sidewalk of Dubai’s Marina. For the next two months, this was going to be my home.

I’ve been working in the San Francisco office of Perkins&Will since 2015. One day, I learned that the Dubai office needed a landscape architect for a number of projects. Enlisting myself in the Talent Exchange program took about four weeks. I contacted some colleagues, filled out some paperwork, and sat through a 16-hour flight. Now, immediately after dropping off my luggage at the hotel, I wanted to try out the walk to the office before starting work the next day. Per Google Maps, it would take me 23 minutes. It turned out to take 45 .

The next morning, I jumped in a taxi with no hesitation. I expected a “23-minute” walk to become a 5-minute drive down the road and straight to the office. But the taxi went in the other direction and got on the highway. It was my first chance to see this young and glamorous city up close by day, with high-rise towers as the backdrop, and futuristic, elevated metro lines in the foreground. Roughly 13 minutes later, I arrived.

After a quick glance at the 28-story commercial tower with its contemporary arabesque detailing, I dashed inside to avoid the heat, and took the elevator to Perkins&Will’s 10th-floor office. I was relieved to see an interior similar to the one I know in San Francisco. But unlike San Francisco, everyone was quite dressed up, and most were speaking British English, which reminded me more of my time working in Madrid than anywhere else. Suddenly I got excited to immerse myself in a new office dynamic and culture. I began taking photos of the workspace and my new officemates—there were almost 100! Soon my colleagues showed me the work I’d been assigned. Most projects were local (in the UAE and surrounding countries) and in high-end hospitality. Pretty different from San Francisco. I could tell this was going to be really fun and intense.


It was a Saturday—my first weekend in Dubai. Now that I had recovered from my jet lag, I wanted to explore the Burj Khalifa tower and the Dubai Mall.

For a variety of reasons—climate, the development market, economics—Dubai’s streetscape developed in a way that does not prioritize pedestrians. Most streetscapes were designed for perspectives from a car, from a lounge in a high-rise, or maybe even from helicopters. However, as a pedestrian, you feel pretty ignored. This doesn’t mean that pedestrian-friendly streets and plazas are missing. They’re hidden inside the shopping malls! I detected a typology in Dubai: a high-rise building paired with a shopping mall, such as the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall. Each shopping mall I visited felt more like a small town than like a large building. It linked together cinemas, restaurants, even amusement parks visible from the mall interior—I passed a ski resort, for instance. Multiple domed areas inside the Dubai Mall functioned like urban plazas, hosting pop-up markets, food trucks, and performances. I began to daydream about holding a running event—a 10k, or a half-marathon—inside these enormous, air-conditioned spaces. Anyway, mall trip accomplished, I was now thoroughly exhausted, and there was still a half-mile to walk before the metro station back to the hotel.

These real-world experiences turned out to be very helpful for getting into the mindset of Middle-Eastern project work, with its emphasis on amenities, retail integration, and managing pedestrian and vehicular circulation.

I found that despite the city’s status as a campus for “starchitects” exercising their unique voices, there was an intriguing consistency of scale and effect. As opposed to a country with centuries of built history to draw on, Dubai’s built environment has only a few decades of history serving as precedent. Buildings turn easily dated through the extravagance of their materials, geometry, and even their massing, but they are no less impressive. Take the Burj Khalifa for example—it wants to show that Dubai is ambitious, prosperous, and full of technical skill. And it succeeds!


Ever since I first arrived, I had been expecting to see camels. And for more than a week, I saw no camels. But then there were two, walking slowly along the Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), across from the Perkins&Will office. I couldn’t help but run towards them. They were technically not free-roaming camels, but belonged to a tour guide dressed in traditional Arabic clothing who charged tourists to ride them.

After the camel distraction, I returned to my original plan: picking up my rental car to survive the next few weeks. I then checked out The Beach at JBR, a pedestrian-friendly, open-air shopping district. Just as with the Dubai Mall, once residents are accustomed to shopping areas of this size (and this one is enormous), everything else seems small by comparison. I saw playfully patterned pavers and building elevations that recalled mosaics, and all so beautifully installed. My exchange experience was growing on me. I found that it integrated the familiar pleasure of design practice with the novelty of a very long site visit. I could also tell it that I would become a more thoughtful and inclusive designer because of it. For instance, I have had the opportunity to work on several Middle Eastern projects in the San Francisco office. Now that I’ve visited the Middle East, it’s much easier to adopt a Middle-Eastern user’s point of view.


After a two-hour drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, I decided to take a break from cars and try something new (well, new to me): Personal Rapid Transit. PRT is a system of self-driving podcars following pre-determined routes in Masdar City, a planned community in Abu Dhabi designed by Foster + Partners.

Masdar City’s original master plan envisioned a city functioning on its own grid with full carbon neutrality. However, the development was later hooked into the public system, and by 2016 its managers determined that the city would never reach net-zero carbon. Even so, its self-reliant intent is obvious. Parts of it seem to function well enough, using solar energy and other renewable sources.

Western urban designers often speak of streets as “urban rooms,” where the proportion of building height and street width are roughly equal. In Masdar City, however, the proportions were totally uneven: tall buildings are separated by narrow alleys. The architects use these proportions intentionally to shade the alleys and cool down the space. Aside from bringing me a bit of shade, the effect was extremely evocative of history, especially where playful traditional patterns adorn concrete façades. It was like combining the contemporary and the historic in one moment.


With less than a dozen days before the end of my Dubai stay, I grew eager to experience another part of the city: Deira, the “Old Town” of Dubai. “Old” is relative in Dubai: the newer part began its growth in 2003, yet the Old Town was mostly established in the 1970s. Many office friends told me that visiting the Old Souk, a row of shops in the Old Town, was a must-do experience, along with bargaining with its vendors.

Of course I had to drive there, and ended up parking in a shopping center 15 minutes away, so my arrival wasn’t quite the pedestrian experience I had imagined. Still, it was amazing for the intense colors of fabric, smells of Arabic spices, and the energetic salesmen. All the subtle elements created a very a welcoming atmosphere, full of life and energy.

Just as with my visit to the Grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the souk refused to follow any of my expectations of local Arabic tradition. Even though Deira was only 20-minute drive from the Dubai Mall, I could see a significant difference between the people living in Deira versus those I interacted with in the larger city: things felt so much more traditional. Deira felt like a true record of local history, even though now it felt like a separate island. Having experienced fast changes in my home country (China) as I grew up, I started to think about how locals perceived their town over the past decade of change. Very unlike the typical tourist in the Old Souk looking for saffron—a major import to Dubai—I bargained with a vendor from Pakistan over two colored-glass mosaic lights from Turkey.


It was my last night in Dubai, and a group of office friends were sending me off with a happy hour at a nightlife center known as Pier 7, which felt as crowded, noisy, and fancy as any place I visited in the Dubai Marina. It was an atmosphere I knew I would miss. (I had been briefly tempted to stay when I heard that apartments are much cheaper to rent there than in San Francisco—almost 70% less!)

Since arriving in Dubai, quite a few of my coworkers became more than just coworkers—they not only showed me the city, they introduced me to their friends. Now, going back to San Francisco feels like an exciting re-entry. I expect to find a different perspective on workflow, project character, social dynamics and technical details. As a designer, traveling to a different design culture is always inspiring, and the opportunity to fold travel into my professional experience was a real luxury. Oh, and the weather cooperated: after many weeks of struggling through the heat, I finally experienced a pleasant and comfortable walk.


I’m sitting in the San Francisco office, looking through the windows at Pier 28 and the East Bay beyond. It’s been four months since I left Dubai. The glass lights I bought in the Souk are back at home on my bed stand, where they look rather awesome.

One specific tool I brought back has been the 3D modeling and rendering software, Lumion, which I learned in Dubai. I worked with some project teams to get it installed here, and we’re ready to use it in proposals and design studies that require a photorealistic perspective in far less time than our standard workflow. I am still helping Dubai’s Cities+Sites team on a few projects occasionally.

There are dozens of differences between Dubai and the Bay Area, but my favorites are these two: it’s easier here to head out for a comfortable walk around the neighborhood at the end of a long day. And in Dubai, some of the most fascinating architecture in the world is just outside.