Boasting breathtaking skylines of sail-shaped buildings, dancing towers, twisting skyscrapers, and even a tuning fork, the audacious architecture of Dubai makes the city a delight to visit for architects, designers, photographers, and travellers.
I will never forget a conversation we overheard one day between a little boy and his father as Terence and I strolled by a construction site in Dubai. The son looked enquiringly at his dad and asked: “Daddy, when are they going to finish Dubai?”
From sleepy village to fast paced metropolis
Talk to any young adult Emirati from any corner of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and they’ll tell you how, as a child, their families drove them to Dubai on a special outing to see the country’s first skyscraper, the World Trade Centre.
That was in 1979 when the World Trade Centre, one of the first energy-efficient buildings in the region, was Dubai’s only high-rise and at the time it stood like a lighthouse at the end of some strange lunar landscape, surrounded by flat desert sands with little else around.
Almost 30 years later, the city’s beloved beehive-like tower stands to attention on the corner of what is one of the world’s most stunning architectural strips, home to some of the most audacious architecture in Dubai and Dubai’s most-photographed skyline, Sheikh Zayed Road.
Like a beacon the building stands, striking a rather retro pose, to alerts motorists cornering Trade Centre Roundabout that they are about to cruise down one of the world’s most extraordinary architectural landscapes, a seemingly-endless superhighway lined with shiny futuristic skyscrapers of a kind never seen anywhere on the globe before. “Look at me!” the tower says, “I’m the one that started all this.”
The visionary family of rulers that initiated the astonishingly rapid progress of Dubai, the Maktoum family, reside just around the corner in Za’abeel Palace. From here, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s far-sighted Ruler and foremost futurist, can admire the splendid skyline that he and his late brother, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and late father, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum created.
It was during Sheikh Rashid’s 32-year rule from 1979 to 1990 that Dubai’s phenomenal transformation from a sleepy fishing village and centuries-old trading port to a fast-paced towering metropolis took place.
A city of iconic landmarks and architectural marvels
It was under Sheikh Maktoum’s government from 1990 to 2006 that some of Dubai’s most iconic edifices — from the Sydney Opera House-inspired Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club to the dhow sail shaped Burj Al Arab — were erected, and the attention-seeking Arabian Gulf city started to catch the world’s eye. Based upon its futuristic architecture, this was when Dubai’s reputation as a dynamic ‘city of the future’ was sealed.
However, it has been Sheikh Mohammed’s imagination and vision that has given rise to some of the greatest architectural icons and the most audacious architecture of Dubai. It is often repeated during dinner party conversation in Dubai that Sheikh Mohammed’s brief to the architects of the Burj Al Arab was to build a landmark so strikingly simple that anyone, even a child, could sketch the outline on a paper napkin. The Sheikh wanted an eye-catching icon as memorable and as easily reproducible as the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower.
With the Burj Al Arab, Dubai proved to the world that it was the place to create architectural marvels and miracles, that anything was possible, and if it was going to happen anywhere — if any extraordinary feats of engineering were to be achieved or seemingly impossible architectural challenges were to be overcome — then it was going to happen in Dubai.
This was also the period when some of Sheikh Mohammed’s wildest dreams were realised, when just off the coast of Dubai in the Arabian Gulf Sea, man-made islands were formed into the earth’s continents at ‘The World’ archipelago and enormous palm trees formed from calligraphic poetry (written by Sheikh Mohammed, also an esteemed poet) were carved from the sand. ‘Countries’ and ‘fronds’ were sold to some of the world’s richest and most powerful people and A-list celebrities.
But the city’s growth didn’t end there. Sheikh Mohammed envisaged metropolis like no other. Next there was the construction of the world’s tallest building, Burj Dubai, renamed Burj Khalifa out of respect for the President of the United Arab Emirates and Crown Prince of neighbouring Abu Dhabi emirate.
The sprawling Disneyworld-cum-Las Vegas-style development of Dubailand, a theme-park-of-a-city that is slowly taking shape in the desert, featuring cities within cities, including Global Village, Dubai Outlet City, Dubai Sports City, and Motor City to name a few. While under the sea, the 260-hectare Hydropolis, the world’s first underwater hotel is being imagined.
The expectation of audacity and untamed creativity
This anything goes philosophy and go-getting can-do attitude is what has been attracting some of the world’s most talented architects and engineers to Dubai, a city where they can design without restraint, in an environment where vision and audacity is expected, where passion is admired, and where untamed creativity is encouraged.
The world’s most renowned architects have been heading to Dubai in droves — because nowhere else has a city’s leaders encouraged such architectural enterprise and expression, and ‘freedom to create’ (one of the city’s catch-phrases), as they have in Dubai.
‘Starchitects’ who have been lured to the city by opportunities include Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaus and Bernard Khoury.
Norman Foster’s Foster and Partners architectural firm built eco-friendly Index Tower (formerly known as One Central Park), situated within Dubai International Financial Centre and completed in 2011.
Designed in the quintessential sleek, airy, light-filled style we’ve come to associate with Foster, the 80-storey, 328m, mixed-use tower development of offices, restaurants and luxury loft residences feature the world’s highest apartments.
Zaha Hadid has a number of projects underway, including the playful Signature Towers (referred to as the ‘dancing towers’ as the skyscrapers appear to curve at their ‘waist’, as if bumping hips), The Opus (two structures conceived as a single cube that appear to hover above the ground), both at Business Bay.
The award for the most astonishing project of all must go to Rem Koolhaas’ OMA firm, which is building a massive Manhattan-like Waterfront City on a square-shaped artificial island linked to four distinct high density neighbourhoods.
In partnership with Nakheel, Koolhaas envisages that the new island-city will be an urban experiment like no other, with high towers clustered to shade the city from the fierce sun, planned mixed use developments to create a natural flow of street life day and night, bridges on all four sides, and shaded arcades.
One neighbourhood, Madinat Al Soor is primarily residential, inspired by historic Arab settlements, with an intricate web of clusters of buildings, shaded alleyways, and waterfront promenades, creating private and public spaces.
Iconic buildings include an enormous 44-storey Sphere perched on the edge of the water and an 82-storey coiling tower that evokes classical Arabic architecture and, like the World Trade Centre all those years ago, serves as a beacon for the entire city.
A landmark to frame the city
Not all architectural projects are sensational. Some important projects currently underway include a new eco-friendly fish market; Al Fahidi Market; a new bird and animal market, featuring a pet hotel; and a new 60-hectare zoo, to replace the embarrassment that has long been on Jumeirah Beach Road.
Others are elegant like the $816.9 million Fxfowle-designed bridge inspired by “the rhythmic grace of Dubai Creek’s current, the elegant splendour of the sand dunes adjacent to the city, the lighting patterns of the lunar cycle…”
On completion in 2015 the large 12-lane bridge, which will include a metro station and ferry terminal, will become the world’s longest arch bridge, overtaking Shanghai’s Lupu Bridge as the longest in the world. Naturally.
But one of the most interesting is symbolic. The winner of a competition that attracted over 1,000 entries to design the Dubai Landmark, decided by a panel headed by one of the world’s greatest architects Sir Michael Hopkins, is set for Za’abeel Park, Dubai’s equivalent of Central Park.
The colossal 150-metre high ‘picture frame’, by Mexican architect Fernando Donis, will feature a gallery/library on ground level and an observation deck and terrace café on top. The idea was to frame that breathtaking Dubai skyline, including the World Trade Centre and other iconic Dubai landmarks.
Dubai’s architectural milestones and most iconic landmarks
These are some of the most photographed buildings in Dubai to look out for when you visit:
World Trade Centre
One for Wallpaper* fans, the retro beehive-style of the city’s first skyscraper, built in 1979, has made it an architectural icon.
Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club
Inspired by the white sails of a traditional wooden dhow boat, this striking 1993 stunner tips its hat to the Sydney Opera House.
It may look like a tuning fork, yet this 153 metre-high inverted ‘Y’ shape — actually two towers joined to form one — is intended to evoke Thailand’s welcoming ‘wai’ greeting of two hands joined together.
National Bank of Dubai
Another stunner inspired by the billowing shape of a dhow sail, the striking Carlos Ott-designed building on Dubai Creek was completed in 1997. The bronzed curved glass exterior reflects the shimmering water and Creek action at sunset.
Jumeirah Beach Hotel
The azure-coloured Gulf Sea reflects exquisitely in the glass and aluminium façade of this long S-shaped construction. Representing a wave, it’s a nod to Dubai’s maritime heritage.
Still Sheikh Zayed Road’s most striking address, these twin, metal-grey glass towers soar skywards. Amongst the world’s highest buildings, the tallest tower at 355 metres is home to offices including Sheikh Mohammed’s, while the other at 305 metres is a hotel, shopping and dining complex.
Burj Al Arab
This much-photographed 60 floor, 321 metre-high, sail-shaped masterpiece, set on an artificial island 300m off-shore, was completed to great fan-fare in 1999. The translucent fibreglass shield protects the interior from the scorching sun by day and acts as a screen for a spectacular light show at night.
A contemporary incarnation of the medieval skyscraper cities of Yemen, this Arabian Nights-style complex of hotels, entertainment, leisure, and conference facilities, represented a new stage in Dubai’s architectural maturity and a newfound pride in the region’s culture and history, starting the Arabian Chic trend in design and architecture.
Located at Downtown Dubai, the modern development that is also home to The Dubai Mall, this was Dubai’s first mega-tall skyscraper. Designed and built by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and completed in 2009, it is currently, at 829.8 metres high and 163 floors, the tallest man-made structure in the world. The design was inspired by the desert flower Hymenocallis, as well as Islamic architecture, including the spiral minaret that becomes more slender as it rises, such as that of the Great Mosque of Samarra.
Update, 2014: One of Dubai’s newest landmarks and one of the most talked-about architectural projects of recent years, the twisting helix shaped Cayan Tower (formerly known as Infinity Tower) opened in 2013 at Dubai Marina.
The world’s tallest tower featuring a 90-degree twist — achieved by rotating each floor by 1.2 degrees — it was designed by the Burj Khalifa architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and was this year named one of the world’s best new high-rises at the Emporis Skyscraper Awards.
No doubt the Cayan will appear on a list of Dubai’s architectural landmarks one day. I wonder what other buildings will be on that list, say, ten years down the track. And, no, I don’t think they’re ever going to finish Dubai.