June 30, 2005

Futuristic Dubai — an architect’s paradise

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI (Reuters) - Wealthy Gulf Arab investors have only tosnap their fingers and someone in Dubai's burgeoning communityof Western-trained architects will design the impossible -- orthe unthinkable.

The emirate is fast becoming an architect's playground asmore and more outlandish structures take it closer to its dreamof being the world's most visually striking metropolis.

Architects are flocking to the city of 1.3 million where aconstruction boom fueled by another surge in Gulf petrodollarwealth is changing the landscape.

Within three years this city, which 30 years ago was littlemore than a creek on the edge of the desert, will include theworld's tallest tower and life-size reconstructions of theEiffel Tower, the Tower of Babel and the main Pyramid of Giza.

"Dubai has hundreds of architect offices now, employingthousands of architects and designers. We are bringing (them)from all over the world, and yet it's not enough for the workavailable," said Falah al-Salman, an Iraqi-Canadian architectin Dubai.

"The developers want us to be imaginative and innovativebeyond anything anywhere in the rest of the world. They alsowant to be different from each other in each project, nevermind different from other cities in the world."

One of the most striking of the new wave of buildings is'The Gate' -- the headquarters of Dubai's financial center thatlooks like a giant computer chip, or a traditional fort alongthe Gulf coast, depending on your view.

But many residents find it difficult to recognize some ofthe more flighty designs. One high-rise is supposed to looklike a giant piano keyboard rising out of the ground.

Nearby, a residential complex intended as a mix ofEgyptian, Turkish and Malaysian styles resembles a giant trifledesert.

Hazel Wong, a Chinese-Canadian architect with more than adecade of experience in Dubai, said it was "paradise" for theprofession.

"To me as a designer it's a designer's paradise. You get todo iconic buildings and they have the resources here to see itthrough. This is a revolution in Dubai," she said.

Wong was lead architect for the Emirates Towers, opened in2000. The twin towers, in the shape of triangular prisms, are afavorite with architects and the public.

"Abroad you need to go through certain procedures andzoning rights, but here there is the momentum, speed andexcitement and clients want everything up yesterday. It's verysatisfying."


Leading British architects -- some of whom have themselveswon contracts to design in Dubai -- have slammed the buildingfrenzy in high-profile trade journals, ruing a lack of avernacular tradition to influence the stylistic direction.

A few sprawling hotels and housing compounds have borrowedheavily from local styles, but the space-age look dominates.Expatriates far outnumber locals in what was once a quietBedouin Arab society.

Where heritage is lacking, "themed architecture" hasstepped in. Whole complexes of malls, hotels and apartments arebeing designed to recreate a historic era or style -- often runby people whose background is in film-set design.

Leo Verheyen heads the consultants to a newly openedshopping complex whose different halls are meant to reflect thecountries visited by medieval Arab traveler Ibn Battuta.

"Dubai architecture has that reflection of a vision putforward by its rulers. I'm not saying it's a playground forarchitects, but it has a vision," he said.

Local property firms are constructing man-made islands andcanals which will double Dubai's coastline and further finesseits big-bucks allure -- "bringing water into the desert whilebuilding the land into the ocean," as Wong put it.

Even Syd Mead, a "concept designer" behind the futuristiclook in many Hollywood sci-fi movies, has got in on the actwith an exploratory visit to the UAE earlier this year.

"There is money here in the billions of dollars, so what'shappening here is no surprise," said Mead, who designed privateaircraft interiors for the royals in Saudi Arabia and Oman.

"What's happening here has to be the ultimate extension ofcurrent technology. The future is what's going to happenbecause it can happen and it will be much more exciting that wethink."

Salman said Dubai's critics were fighting the future.

"They would have criticized Paris 300 years ago, Washington400 years ago and Babylon 5,000 years ago," he said, arguingDubai's experimental nature reflected its international mix.

Despite that, Salman confessed an admiration for lateEgyptian architect Hassan Fathy -- a doyen of the profession,idolized around the world for his attempt to create traditionalarchitecture on a human scale for all levels of society.

"I'm happy for him that he's dead," he joked. "He wouldn'tgo for these high-rises and the instant architecture of Dubai."