Sand and the City (1) Dubai
After a quick trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I can offer a few observations for those who are thinking about going to the United Arab Emirates sometime soon. Dubai first:
Dubai doesn’t disappoint in its Over-the-Top (OTT) architectural rep, and that is even without factoring in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Approaching the city’s skyscrapers emerging in the mist—which turns out to be a sandy haze, owing to the very piquant combination of humidity and heat—I saw at least three hommages to the Chrysler Building and one to Big Ben. Light blue glass was the fenestration du jour, and quite a few highrises were crowned with Helmut’s Helmets—the skyscraper tops that Helmut Jahn made so famous in Philadelphia two decades ago.
Towering above all this was the Burj Khalifa, designed by Adrian Smith and his former firm of SOM. Because of scads of aluminum and Low-E and reflective glass, its curving forms shimmered through the haze as it rose and rose and rose toward the sun. Oddly the tower’s height of 2,717 feet did not seem out of scale with the rest of the cityscape—perhaps because the other towers seem to provide a chorus gathered around the leading actor on an expansive, flat (and sandy) stage. Perhaps, too, the height is mitigated by the tower’s elegant proportions, and its own rhythm and scale. Or you can accuse me of having heat stroke: did I say it was 104 to 117 degrees Fahrenheit, and June is just the beginning of the hottest months? Like most places in the UAE, air conditioning is taken for granted. Coming from an office where I shroud myself in shawls during the summer, I have been a strong advocate of operable windows and passive cooling. But I’m afraid I forgot all about that when I got to Dubai.
If creating this shrine to height (and oil) in the desert is the end of an era—owing to the sober effects of the Great Recession and serious concerns over sustainability—at least the Burj offers a very grand finale. [For more discussion of these matters see Record’s extensive coverage of the Burj Khalifa in its August issue.]
A very informative if dizzying tour of the tower by Eric Tomich, SOM’s associate director there, included offices, which are still being completed, residences (ditto), and of course the observation deck (now open again) at the 124th floor. The heat made walking around the building’s base a little torturous. Nevertheless discomfort was mitigated somewhat by luxuriantly geometric landscaping by SWA and splashy Busby-Berkeley-goes-to-Arabia fountain maneuvers by WET in the manmade lake next to the Burj.
Ducking into the tower’s new Armani Hotel (fashion designer Giorgio Armani’s first such caravansary, which also includes apartments), you enter a cool, calm and chic antidote to the glitz of other hotels in the city: the color scheme ranges the gamut from tan to gray to brown. Adhering to the general design sensibility are the hotel’s all-day Mediterraneo buffet and three restaurants for the evening—the Ristorante (Italian), the Hashi (Japanese), and the Amal (Indian). Speaking of style, a “smart casual” dress code is spelled out in your restaurant reservation confirmation. McGraw-Hill would love its rigor and specificity:
Men: shirt with collar and sleeves and closed shoes; no shorts, bermudas, baggy or torn jeans, t-shirts with large/colorful prints or sports shoes; sandals are allowed if worn with National Dress.
- Ladies: no flip flops, baggy or torn jeans, t-shirts with large/colorful prints or sports shoes.
Frankly, I’m all for even dressier dress codes. But considering it’s Armani, I was hoping that the restaurants, like the Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, would provide the proper covering for visitors. Instead of the mosque’s abaya, you would be given an Armani jacket or dress to wear for your dining experience.
To best conduct Dubaian field research, it is necessary to pay a visit to the Burj al Arab Hotel. Word of forewarning: you actually pay an arm and a leg for the visit: the hotel doesn’t want the hoi polloi to come gawking. Fortunately this starving journalist was a guest for high tea. In the atrium, the aquarium walls and the cascading water fountain (reminiscent of Warren Platner’s old lobby at Met Life in New York) are only the beginning. The 590-foot-tall atrium is enclosed by a façade that bulges out to mimic the sail of the Arabian dhow, along with 22 carat gold leaf columns and trimmings plus Pantone color-chart interior balconies for the floors with duplex (only) suites. We haven’t even gotten to the furniture, but you get the idea.
The hotel, designed by WS Atkins, and finished in 1999, is the second tallest hotel in the world. The tallest hotel for now, the Rose Raylaan Rotana, also in Dubai, climbs to 1093 feet, and was designed by Khakib and Alami Group.
But I didn’t go to the latter hotel. Instead, I went with Khalid Alnajjar, a Dubai architect who studied at Sci-Arc and Columbia, to see the office building 0-14 in the Business Bay district. Designed by Reiser+Umemoto, it was developed by Alnajjar’s business partner, Shahab Lutfi. Now in its final moments of being completed, the 22-story building may be the Napoleon of Dubai office towers in height but nevertheless captures your attention owing to its white exo-skeleton of undulating, poured-in-place concrete punctuated by large biomorphic holes of various sizes. The outer envelope acts as a free-standing brise-soleil; inside is the glazed office building itself with column-free, organically shaped floor plates. Perhaps not the most efficient way to cut solar load, it nevertheless provides an exuberantly different way of attacking the problem.
Alnajjar’s own architecture (for example his own house and an office building he is currently completing) owes more to tautly crafted planes and rectilinear spaces of the Miesian vocabulary, and create something more ethereal than surreal.
After two short days, I had to bid a fond farewell to this mirage in the desert. Next: Abu Dhabi.