From blueprint to building: how a Canadian architect created a rainforest in Dubai

Green Planet, the biodome that houses 3,000 species in the middle of Dubai is both a learning tool for conservationists as well as a potential wellness centre

“What if you had a hospital with a facility like Green Planet attached to it, whereby you could visit a clinic for treatment, and then head into a rainforest to heal?”

Brad McTavish, the Principal at architecture firm Grout McTavish, is musing on the potential restorative benefits of environments such as Green Planet. The rainforest-near-a-desert has not only proved that the city can house more than just skyscrapers, but also the potential benefits of natural spaces such as these in urban environments.

The project, completed in 2016, houses more than 3,000 species under its glass dome, from toucans to boa constrictors. Below, McTavish explains the process of creating the environment, as well as its potential applications.

I’ve been thinking about how we treat hospitals like highly-tuned machines but we don’t give people any respite from these machines. They are now applying studies and lessons learned in what we call a wellness factor for buildings. For me, I would think it would be great if the Green Planet was used as a healing centre. There is a book about forest therapy in Japan that is growing in stature in the US, where the sounds and tranquillity of the forest are used to accelerate healing.

I had never worked in Dubai before. One scheme [we proposed] was biomes of the world, from the Savannah, to the sub-Arctic, to the tropical rainforest. It was going to be a very large building, and it was so large that it would almost be impossible to construct that in a timely fashion and populate it with plants and species. From that, we took the key element in that and thought, 'what’s the most demonstrable experience of nature in the ecosystem?' and it became quite clear that it was the rainforest. We took the heart of it which was the rainforest, the lungs of the world, and tailored our project around that.

What is interesting about working in Dubai is that the idea is prized above all. They want to see the concept, and they push you to think, which is a very unique attribute. The city is not so narrowly focused on specifics like size or money, they just want the ideas they want to be inspired 

At one point, we had a plot of 60x60, but then we were told, what can you do with 30x30? We thought, we can’t do this, we need more site... and at that point I sat down and thought about the nature of the rainforest, and kept coming back to the kapok tree. Their birth, life and decay all tie into the cycle of the rainforest, so rather than making a horizontal experience, where you’d wander around the paths of a rainforest garden, I made it a vertical experience. You would enter and ascend, and then spiral around the kapok tree, experiencing different species within its umbrella, from birds and butterflies at the top, all the way down to the ants and bugs on the rainforest floor.

Symbolically the rainforest is within a circle, which represents heaven, and then it is protected and shielded from the environment by a cube, based upon a fujimoto cube. This cube represents our world and how it needs to protect its fragile ecosystem within.

In the event that there’s no resources or a power outage, it was essential to make a sustainable building where you can keep the species alive. We considered the core principles around this environment we are creating, and how to cut down on the amount of electricity or water in the event that we have neither one of them. So create more natural systems. 

One of the surprising aspects to the building is how its really been embraced by the Ministry of Education and been incorporated into the curriculum of schools. I would hope that when Expo 2020 comes up, some of the architects would reach out to us and engage with us when they create their own pavilions. Ultimately, its about inspiring and engaging with an experience. When you create experiences that are almost like AR [augmented reality], it's at that point that people really start to learn and change their perception. At Green Planet, the stars of the show are the species within. You can have the most expensive building but it is the life sets within the building that make it special.

Brad McTavish is the Principal Architect at Vancouver-based firm Grout McTavish