The concrete square tower block is not yet an endangered species in the UAE, but there are definite signs that it is facing some competition. Whether it be in Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Sharjah, a growing band of architects and developers are seeking to break the mould, convinced that the future lies in a challenging design, material innovation and the highest quality. And their message is beginning to be heard. Following in the footsteps of the Baynounah tower in Abu Dhabi and the chamber of commerce & industry building in Dubai, plans are now taking shape for the next generation of landmark buildings to grace the UAE skyline.

International architects operating at the top end of the building market were the first to detect the change. ‘Up until about two years ago, both architects and clients were inclined to give the calculator total power,’ says one. ‘That was why building designs were not that exciting here. Cost was the overriding concern. But now people are not only thinking of just quantity, but also quality.’

At the same time, government and banks began taking on board the benefits of strong building design in fostering an identity. ‘Banks in particular are now recognising that a headquarters’ building holds a commanding position in the make-up of their public image. They have therefore become far more aware of the importance of a building’s design,’ says a partner in a Dubai architectural practice.

The management at Emirates Bank International (EBI) agrees. The Dubai- based institution has commissioned the UK’s Sir Norman Foster & Partners to design its new headquarters, which will be located opposite the dhow wharfage complex on the creek. ‘The building will be very functional and simple,’ says Anis Jallaf, EBI’s managing director and chief executive. ‘It will demonstrate the philosophy of the EBI group, showing that we are straight forward, combining our heritage and security aspects, with our friendly and welcoming service.’

Similar considerations went into the designs of the new National Bank of Dubai building, which is currently under construction on the creek. The building, designed by international architect Carlos Ott, will be in the shape of a dhow sail and boast two contrasting facades. ‘It will demonstrate the bank’s strength and solidness,’ says an architect closely associated with the project. ‘It will also be welcoming. People won’t be afraid to enter.’ Considerable time and attention has also been given to the building’s services, facilities and management, an area that will be the key to the structure’s success.

The scope for establishing a landmark building varies from location to location and depends much upon the working environment and the attitude of government departments. On Abu Dhabi island, architects come up against space limitations and an already crowded skyline. ‘Along Abu Dhabi corniche, you can argue that each building is already a landmark, because of the height factor,’ says the international architect. To stand out from the rest, buildings have either to go ever higher or adopt a striking design, such as the recently completed Baynounah tower or Forte Grand hotel building.

In Dubai and Sharjah such constraints are not so apparent. Nevertheless, governments in both emirates are looking to push back the boundaries in design and size. In Dubai, the centrepiece in recent architectural developments is the Chicago Beach resort project. Spread across a 75-acre site on the Dubai shoreline, the resort will incorporate the tallest hotel tower in the world at 321 metres. Designed by the UK’s WS Atkins & Partners (Overseas), the sail-shaped tower will be located on a triangular, reclaimed island and will have 200 suites fitted out to the highest standards.

Sharjah’s ambitions are pinned on a new trade centre and exhibition complex, located on the Al-Khan lagoon beside the Dubai to Sharjah highway. Swiss consultant Hediger & Partners was given the go-ahead in late October to commence designs on the project, which will have as its landmark a 320- metre-high triangular-shaped tower leaning at a slight angle. The 54-storey- high structure will house the chamber of commerce, a conference hall, a five-star hotel and restaurants. It will be complemented by a separate 20,000-square metre exhibition hall in a traditional Islamic design.

Outside the prestigious building sector, recent developments in the market have not so much focused on size and design, but on materials used. This summer has provided evidence that structural steel is making a belated entry at the expense of the all-dominant reinforced concrete. In Abu Dhabi, the local Darwish Bin Ahmed & Sons Group of Companies is developing a new 20-storey office block, with a reinforced concrete core and a steel structure. In Dubai, a similar seven-storey building, known as the Al- Masaood tower, is taking shape close to the clock tower roundabout.

One reason for the prevalence of reinforced concrete in the Gulf building market has been the availability of raw materials locally, unlike structural steel, which has to be imported and is usually more expensive. Yet, structural steel does have advantages over its rival. It is generally more flexible to work with and lasts longer. It maximises office space available as it does not require the construction of internal columns. It is easier to maintain and service. In sum, over the long run, structural steel can give higher returns than its concrete competitor, even though initial capital outlays can be greater.

Such factors came into consideration in the planning of the latest Dubai and Abu Dhabi buildings, which will be among the first of their type in the UAE. The choice of material also proved that some developers are thinking long term. ‘I think the mentality of people is changing,’ says a supplier in Abu Dhabi. ‘No longer is it just a question of having a building for five-10 years and then knocking it down. People are becoming more aware that buildings can and should last for much longer and when that happens, issues such as servicing and maintenance have a much higher priority.’

For those architects, seeking to introduce innovation into the UAE building sector, recent developments in design and materials have been most welcome. They argue that the breadth and depth of the market can only be improved by people willing to challenge the norm and offer alternative ideas. Nevertheless, few are under the illusion that their mission is complete, aware that it takes time for attitudes and practices to change. ‘I see more new designs, more new materials and more new ideas, coming into the UAE over the next five years,’ says the foreign architect. ‘There will always be a place for the standard tower block. But at least now, there is more choice.’