UAE architecture: informed by the zeitgeist

From futuristic museum plans and award-winning bridges to iconic hotels and dizzying superscrapers, some of the world’s boldest architectural developments are currently to be found in the Gulf region. Vision meets some of the architects behind these iconic buildings

The transformation of Dubai from remote trading post to global business hub has been remarkable in its rapidity, and nowhere is the leap more obvious than in the emirate’s changing architecture. Twenty years ago the considerably smaller city was mostly made up of simple, low-rise structures. Completion of the Burj Al Arab in 1999, however, changed all that. Designed to resemble the billowing sail of a dhow boat, the hotel sits on its own island. It has since become the unofficial symbol of Dubai, recreated in miniature in gift shops across the emirate. Other iconic buildings soon followed, including Hazel Wong’s elegant Emirates Towers, and a decade of activity that saw ambitious projects, including the Palm Jumeirah and Dubai Marina, realised. Then, in 2010, came Dubai’s crowning glory: Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Down the road in Abu Dhabi, a more gradual metamorphosis has been taking place. It will be a few years until Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District is complete, but Jean Nouvel’s design for the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum, set to open in 2015, and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, slated for 2017, are already piquing international interest. In the meantime, the Zaha Hadid-designed Sheikh Zayed bridge opened in 2010, Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture’s curvilinear Yas Hotel, part-sheathed in a steel and glass shell, and RMJM’s Capital Gate with its steeply leaning tower (leaning 18 degrees westwards it holds the record for the world’s furthest incline) are lending the city’s skyline a fresh perspective.
Here, the architects behind three of these iconic buildings share the inspiration behind their work.

Adrian Smith

(Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill Architecture, previously of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill), Designer of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai

“My design is geometric in plan, starting with three branches and three pods. Views of the Arabian Gulf and city are maximised throughout the building through the use of a Y-shaped floor plan inspired in part by certain early designs of Mies van der Rohe as well as Chicago’s Lake Point Tower.

“The developer, Emaar Properties, was interested in having the project be the tallest building in the world, but that standard could have been met with a building much shorter than the one I ended up designing. I envisioned Burj as a very elegant, slender building, and to resolve the design in an appropriately proportional way required a great deal of height – quite a bit more than Emaar had originally expected.

“For me, as a designer of super-tall towers, one of the most significant issues is wind resistance, a phenomenon in which vortices tend to build up vertically around superscrapers and cause lateral movement that can be sensed by occupants.

Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot over the years about how architectural form can be manipulated in ways that significantly reduce the build-up of wind vortices around a building, making it more stable. Burj Khalifa was highly enlightening in this respect; we learned that we could mitigate those negative wind forces by means of a pattern of stepping setbacks.

“When the building opened amid great fanfare on 4 January 2010, it was the culmination of many years of work and one of the most thrilling moments of my career. I think that Burj Khalifa creates a tremendous impression on the viewer as the defining element of the Dubai skyline.”

Tom Wright

(Atkins Global), Designer of the Burj Al Arab, Dubai

“The brief we were given was to create a building that would put Dubai on the map, so we knew we had to come up with a form that was memorable, and that hadn’t been done before.

“Once it was finished, it still took about four years before it started to appear in media around the world; that was when people started talking about Dubai. It gradually grew into this symbol.

“At the time we wondered why they wanted it 15km from the creek because it seemed like a million miles from anywhere. We didn’t have any idea how much investment was going to be poured into Dubai over 10 years.

“We discussed whether the Burj Al Arab should be the tallest building in the world but the aim was to have something totally different from a form point of view, so we rejected that idea.

“Millions of people have got Dubai on their agenda and are yet to visit. A lot of that can be attributed to the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa – they’re places that people want to go and see.”

The five-second rule
“The buildings that have really become successful landmarks are all unique,” says Tom Wright. “When we were deciding on the design for the Burj Al Arab, the way that we proved how unique they were visually was how quickly you could draw them.” And with five seconds to play with, Tom Wright’s results (pictured) are, well, not that surprising: the Pyramids of Giza, the leaning Tower of Pisa, the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower.

“There aren’t many of them,” Wright adds. “If you draw the Burj Al Arab people get it immediately.”

Chris Jones

(RMJM) Designers of Capital Gate, Abu Dhabi

“What the client asked for was an iconic piece of design and architecture. Our design linked the historic element of the existing grandstand, where the ruling family sit and have all the processions and the military events, to something that was futuristic and modern. So you had the legacy and heritage of Abu Dhabi right next to a very new icon.

“The idea of this wave breaking over the grandstand was inspired by nature. These ideas are often informed by the zeitgeist and by what is happening culturally. One of our inspirations was not from architecture but from the film The Matrix, and those freeze-frame scenes where you could see the force of energy.

“We’re very happy with it and proud. Like any good building, you read it differently as you get closer to it. It opens itself up to you so there is more to see. From a distance the silhouette is very powerful, while close up the fabric of the diagrid [a design for constructing large buildings with steel that creates triangular structures with diagonal support beams] and the glass is something else.”