How many sugar cubes built the Burj Khalifa and a global business?

Brendan Jamison and Mark Revels’ free-standing sugar cube structures are artistic marvels in their own right, but they also convey important lessons in science, health and even urban design. Vision speaks to the duo about the meaning behind their unusual business

The humble sugar cube: good in coffee, even better for teaching subjects ranging from art and architecture to science, engineering and health. This according to Northern Irish sculpting duo Brendan Jamison and Mark Revels, whose recent trip to Dubai saw them transform 5,040 sugar cubes into a twinkling, crystalline Burj Khalifa. 

“Sugar is a very accessible material which everyone is familiar with,” says Jamison, who started working with sugar in 2003 and now does commissions all over the world, while running educational workshops for young people alongside the projects. 

Their method involves using specialist blades to carve the sugar cubes into intricate and complex forms before applying an adhesive that permanently binds the granules. Using this process, it took them three weeks to construct their model of the world’s tallest free-standing structure. 

Pioneering through their work may be, it is the project’s educational message that both Jamison and Revels are passionate about. “Mark and I are driven by a passion for cross-pollinating the worlds of art, design, science, engineering, mathematics and urban studies,” says Jamison, who invited Revels to start working with him on some large-scale projects in their native Northern Ireland four years ago. 

The pair were in Dubai last month for Think Science Dubai, an event sponsored by the Emirates Foundation that is designed to inspire the next generation of young scientists. Their project, ‘Science Cube’, saw them create a metropolis made entirely from sugar, including a replica of the Tom Wright-designed Burj al Arab, as well as Owings & Merrill’s twisting Cayan Tower, which rotates at a 90-degree angle. 

We want the participants to use their own imagination to build the future they would like to inhabit

A series of workshops addressed topics including diabetes as well as the science of construction, contemporary design and urban planning. Those taking part in the events could make their own free-standing structures and hear Jamison and Revels speak about the importance of urban planning in an expanding city. “We want the participants to use their own imagination to build the future they would like to inhabit,” says Jamison. “We are engaging with the future generation of scientists and engineers and so we want them to feel empowered.”  

With the high rate of diabetes in the region (Jamison and Revels also have family members who suffer from the disease), the links between sugar and diabetes were a major focus. This they addressed using their self-coined ‘Sugar Equations’ – infographics showing the calculations between the numbers of cubes, the number of carbohydrates and the quantity of insulin required to offset the amount of sugar a human would consume if they ate the sculpture models of the Burj Khalifa, the Burj al Arab or the Cayan Tower. 

Has this didactic element always been a part of their work?  

“We have always been active with socially-engaged art projects and education initiatives through workshops and talks at universities and schools around the world,” says Jamison. “We feel a certain level of responsibility towards providing an educational angle in terms of global medical concerns.”

Their world mission continues in Ukraine, where they are currently hosting sugar cube sculpture workshops with children and teenagers in Kiev, followed by an eight-week ‘sculpture tour’ of America, where they will trawl their confection constructions and sugar equations across the country in an RV.

Thankfully, the complexity of parts of their message is offset by the pair’s sense of humour and positive energy, which is a trademark of their workshops. “We strive to bring lots of fun and happiness to our projects”, says Revels. 

“I love saying to teenagers: "We are all architects of the future,’” says Jamison, “no matter what area of society we end up working in as adults. It is a project about hope, optimism and wonderment at all the potential the future has to offer.”