The city that grew up: What Dubai's ascent means for global architects

Updated 14th May 2018
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The city that grew up: What Dubai's ascent means for global architects
Written by Thomas Page, CNN
Forty years ago, the Dubai World Trade Center was approaching completion. At 489 feet and 39 stories, it barely registers on the city skyline today, dwarfed by steel and glass behemoths south along the Sheikh Zayed Road. But back in 1978 it was a statement of intent; the first skyscraper in Dubai and a premonition of financial and architectural growth to come.
It would take until 1999 and the Burj Al Arab before the tower would be bested for height. However, the 21st century has ushered in rapid change. April marks 10 years since construction on the Burj Khalifa reached its 160th floor, becoming the world's tallest man-made structure.
Backed with considerable wealth and ambition, the emirate has cemented its position as a new outpost for cutting-edge architecture, attracting some of the world's leading designers to realize its vision. But has raising Dubai from the desert had wider implications?
CNN approached three international firms responsible for some of Dubai's defining buildings, and asked how the emirate -- and its desire for superlatives -- had impacted the industry.

"Other cities might have the potential, but they don't have the will"

"In nature things progress through evolution. But in architecture you can create a new species out of nothing," says William Baker, structural engineering partner at Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM).
The Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, "was a new creature we invented; a new animal, if you will."
Baker led the structural design of the $1.5 billion project, which lays claim to a host of other records and opened in 2010. Designing on this scale -- "virtually 60% taller than anything that had ever been built before" -- meant writing whole new chapters in engineering lore.
"When you think about innovations in construction, it usually relates to systems or materials," he says. "(The Burj Khalifa) has a little bit of both."
The environmental demands included combating the Shamal, a northwesterly wind that crosses the Persian Gulf, and corrosive groundwater. Creating high-quality concrete that could hold up in these conditions, and concrete that could be pumped 2,000-feet up to be set on higher floors, was no small feat.
"The structural system is certainly a benchmark," says Baker, adding he sees the Burj's influence in Saudi Arabia's upcoming Jeddah Tower (a non-SOM project), set to become the world's tallest building in 2020 at 3,280-feet (1,000m).
The Burj Khalifa has also influenced SOM's future practices, says Baker. The firm hired a wind tunnel to test its design, and "found it so useful" that "we've recently built our own in-house for preliminary studies" on its latest projects.
Reflecting on the project, Baker describes a commercial success that became a symbol: "Tall buildings have multiple purposes, one of which is place-making... It's like planting your flag -- and this is one heck of a flag."
Nearly a decade after completion, Baker agrees that Dubai is still a unique proposition for architects.
"Think about New York City in the 1920s. It was all about optimism and the desire to make things happen. As long as you have that optimism ... to take some risks and do something bold and (with) initiative, things happen.
"A lot of other cities might have that potential, but they don't have the will. Dubai has the vision and the will. And that's why it's an exciting place."

"It's a city that has grown up"

"You might think a sustainability pavilion in Dubai is a bit of an oxymoron," says Andrew Whalley, deputy chairman of Grimshaw Architects.
Grimshaw has a new office in Dubai and a flagship project on the horizon in Dubai Expo 2020's Sustainability Pavilion, embodying one of the event's three core themes and a civic institute that will remain after the event closes in 2021.
The hope is the net-zero energy building's holistic approach will serve as a blueprint for design best practice in the emirate and further afield.
The pavilion is partially-sunken to keep it cool, and features photovoltaic shades and "e-trees," solar arrays that rotate with the sun -- biomimicry Whalley describes as akin to sunflowers. Water is recycled and captured as part of the air conditioning system, and the electricity grid engineered to use less power.
"We're really pushing the boundaries on this one, (and) that will have a knock-on effect on other projects we're working on," he adds.
Whalley argues projects like these mark the next chapter in Dubai's relatively short history.
"I think in many ways, Dubai created its -- may I say -- notoriety, to some extent, in its earliest form, because of those sort of superlatives: from slightly odd towers to indoor skiing in the desert.
"I see Dubai as very much a city that has grown up... it's gone from, if you like, a rather youthful teenager to becoming mature and reflecting on its long-term future."
There's opportunity as well as responsibility in its future, he suggests. "By 2050 (there'll be) another 2-2.5 billion people living in cities. And more or less 90% of that growth is in the Middle East and the East.
"What we've seen in Dubai is just the beginning of what's going to happen in many parts of the world," he continues. "Reflecting upon that, and thinking about what the future of 'the city' is, using Dubai possibly as an early test bed is important."

"If we can make it work here, we can probably make it work anywhere"

"It is perhaps a case of if we can make it work here -- in the searing heat of the desert -- we can probably make it work anywhere," says Gerard Evenden, senior executive partner and head of studio at Foster + Partners.
The company opened a Dubai office in April 2017, and last year demonstrated a flair for combining cutting-edge design with local inspiration -- and design needs -- in its Apple store in Dubai Mall. Traditional Arabic Mashrabiya, a style of wooden latticework, were reinterpreted as vast carbon fibre "solar wings" that wrapped around the store's floor-to-ceiling curved glass windows, offering shade as well as a sense of theater.
Foster + Partners also won a commission for the Mobility Pavilion at Expo 2020. Under the expo's title "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future," per the event's website the pavilion will encompass transportation, personal mobility, travel and exploration, logistics and digital connectivity.
"(Dubai's) architecture is a reflection of its progressive spirit that values innovation and creativity," says Evenden. Exactly how the pavilion's themes will manifest inside Foster + Partners' fluid, trefoil design, remains to be seen. Whatever the result, like Grimshaw's Sustainability Pavilion, it will become a permanent fixture in the south of the city.
"We can all learn from Dubai's incredible foresight and forward-thinking as we design for an increasingly urban future," he argues.
With Foster + Partners' masterplan for the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation taking shape, they're making sure they have a say in incubating that vision.