Dubai as architects’ paradise

DUBAI – Wealthy Gulf Arab investors have only to snap their fingers and someone in Dubai’s burgeoning community of Western-trained architects will design the impossible – or the unthinkable.

The emirate is fast becoming an architect’s playground as more and more outlandish structures take it closer to its dream of being the world’s most visually striking metropolis.

Architects are flocking to the city of 1.3 million where a construction boom fueled by another surge in Gulf petrodollar wealth is changing the landscape.

Within three years this city will include the world’s tallest tower and life-size reconstructions of the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of Babel and the main Pyramid of Giza.

“Dubai has hundreds of architect offices now, employing thousands of architects and designers. We are bringing (them) from all over the world, and yet it’s not enough for the work available,” said Falah al-Salman, an Iraqi-Canadian architect in Dubai.

One of the most striking of the new wave of buildings is The Gate – the headquarters of Dubai’s financial center that looks like a giant computer chip, or a traditional fort along the Gulf coast, depending on your view.

But many residents find it difficult to recognize some of the more flighty designs. One high-rise is supposed to look like a giant piano keyboard rising out of the ground. Nearby, a residential complex intended as a mix of Egyptian, Turkish and Malaysian styles resembles a giant trifle dessert.

Hazel Wong, a Chinese-Canadian architect with more than a decade of experience in Dubai, said it was “paradise” for the profession. “To me as a designer it’s a designer’s paradise. You get to do iconic buildings and they have the resources here to see it through. This is a revolution in Dubai,” she said.

Wong was lead architect for the Emirates Towers, opened in 2000. The twin towers, in the shape of triangular prisms, are a favorite with architects and the public.

“Abroad you need to go through certain procedures and zoning rights, but here there is the momentum, speed and excitement and clients want everything up yesterday. It’s very satisfying,” she said.

A few sprawling hotels and housing compounds have borrowed heavily from local styles, but the Space Age look dominates. Expatriates far outnumber locals in what was once a quiet Bedouin Arab society.

Where heritage is lacking, “themed architecture” has stepped in. Whole complexes of malls, hotels and apartments are being designed to recreate a historic era or style – often run by people whose background is in film-set design.

Leo Verheyen heads the consultants to a newly opened shopping complex whose different halls are meant to reflect the countries visited by medieval Arab traveler Ibn Battuta. “Dubai architecture has that reflection of a vision put forward by its rulers,” he said.

Local property firms are constructing man-made islands and canals which will double Dubai’s coastline and further finesse its big-bucks allure – “bringing water into the desert while building the land into the ocean,” as Wong put it.

Even Syd Mead, a “concept designer” behind the futuristic look in many Hollywood sci-fi movies, is participating with an exploratory visit to the UAE earlier this year. “There is money here in the billions of dollars, so what’s happening here is no surprise,” said Mead, who designed private aircraft interiors for the royals in Saudi Arabia and Oman.

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