Gulf architecture goes back to its roots

07 December 2007
While the region's many iconic, signature buildings are attracting global attention, simpler, more traditional designs are quietly making a comeback

The Burj Dubai, the Guggenheim Museum at Abu Dhabiís Saadiyat island, Dubai's Burj Al-Arab, the Abu Dhabi Museum of Modern Art and The Gate in Kuwait City are just some of the Gulf projects, designed by international architects, that are making headlines around the world.

Perhaps the most famous is the Burj Dubai, which in July surpassed the 508-metre Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan to become the world's tallest building. Upon completion, it will not just be a fraction higher than 101; at more than 800m tall, it will dwarf it. In getting there, it will push the boundaries of building design and construction. Techniques such as complex concrete pour operations have been developed specifically for the project.

A decade ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the cream of the world's architects descending on the Gulf. Project opportunities were limited and competition had driven down fees to bargain-basement prices. Put simply, the region was not an attractive option for the worldís most successful architects.

Regional transformation

Today, the situation has turned full circle. Over the past five years, the Gulf has become a lucrative hunting ground for architects. Vast cash reserves generated by high oil prices, a diversification drive and a 'build-it-and-they-will-come' philosophy has transformed the region into a collection of dazzling developments with a winning formula of limitless tracts of undeveloped land, and ambitious clients determined to make their mark on the world stage.
"Huge developments have become the order of the day and single-storey buildings have become a novelty," says Raj Patel, senior principal designer at Kuwait-based KEO International Consultants. "Instead, we see big urban mega-projects comprising multistorey towers."

Clients are driving the change. Today's Gulf master developers are corporations with aspirations of becoming global real estate giants - a far cry from the government departments running schemes in the 1980s. "I have increasingly more clients that report to shareholders in large real estate and development firms,î says Patel. ìFor this type of client, it is all about corporate visibility, as much as driving up the share price."

But some experts say there is another reason for the growth in signature architecture. "There is a culture of private enterprise fuelled by free zones," says Renier de Graf, head of the Middle East business of Dutch architect OMA. "This attracts FDI [foreign direct investment]. The region is looking to orchestrate a different economy by importing people. The projects are as much announcements and marketing campaigns as urban plans. The region is therefore driven to signature architecture."

This is clearly a strategy governments are using. Signature architects are increasingly being brought in to design public buildings, such as the region's own Guggenheim and Louvre. "When planning projects, we realised the architecture alone could be a tourist attraction," says Lee Tabler, chief executive officer of Saadiyat island developer the Tourism Development & Investment Company.

Today, international firms are working throughout the region. In the UAE, UK-based Foster & Partners designed the Index tower at Dubai International Financial Centre, as well as the new central market. London-based Zaha Hadid has a rapidly growing portfolio that includes a futuristic opera house on the creek, the three twisting Signature towers - known as the dancing towers - and the Opus building, both to be built at Business Bay.

To the west in Qatar, Burj Dubai architect SOM has designed a new administration complex for Qatar Petroleum, while another US firm synonymous with tall buildings, IM Pei Associates, has designed Dohaís unique marble-clad, offshore museum of Islamic arts, which appears to float on the waterís surface.

At Education City on the outskirts of Doha, the government-backed Qatar Foundation has brought in a multitude of international architects to design the campus. US firms Cesar Pelli & Associates and Ellerbe Becket, who are designing the Sidra Medical & Research Centre, join Asian architects such as Hong Kong-based Leigh & Orange on the Al-Shaqab equestrian academy and Japan's Arata Isozaki on the landmark convention centre.

Building tall

In Bahrain, SOM has also been designing the financial towers at Bahrain Bay, together with the UKís Atkins. Other prominent architects working in the kingdom include Denmarkís Henning Larsen, which has prepared designs for a 1,022m tower set to overtake the Burj Dubai, should the concept become reality.

Kuwait is determined not to be left behind in the race to build the tallest tower and has commissioned Atkins to design the centrepiece of its $86bn City of Silk development, a 1,001m tower known as Mubarak al-Kabir.

Such developments have characterised the region's construction boom, but new criteria are beginning to drive designs. Green codes will force buildings to be more energy efficient, and clients want buildings that are practical as well as beautiful. "Buildings should be designed from the inside out," says Ronald Barrott, chief executive officer of Aldar Properties, referring to the need to consider the buildingís end use rather than just the way it looks. "If you do it the other way around, you will get a bad building."

OMAís De Graf says the market is reacting to the overwhelming number of signature-style projects. "Signature architecture is usually a right reserved [for only the most expert and world-renowned architects]," he says. "But there is pressure on everyone to create this, which gives rise to copycats and unregistered firms. Each is trying to outdo the other.

"Our idea [at OMA] is that once everything is iconic its value lessens, giving rise to a new type of architecture, a new simplicity - branded the non-icon - that is as boring as it can possibly be. In the context where nothing is normal, buildings will stand out by their simplicity."
Another issue is that ambitious infrastructure can be expensive to build. "The fuller Dubai gets, the more it will have to incorporate a degree of normality," says De Graf.

Businesses and residents have long complained of sky-high rents and the lack of affordable housing. Signature architecture does not necessarily create homes.

In the bid to create more environmentally and economically sustainable architecture, superlatives are being replaced by a new impetus to safeguard the regionís long-term future. "The hot topic we are trying to promote to the client is sustainability and Leed [Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design] certification," says KEO's Patel. "That comes ahead of building tall."

This is where more traditional design techniques come into their own. "There are a number of projects that are actively seeking to reinstate original principals," says de Graf. "For example, we are working on a city in Ras al-Khaimah where we have decided to incorporate density, natural staging and walking distances. Look at cities in Yemen. There is a lot of stone, thick walls, narrow shaded streets, vernacular architecture, which does a number of things naturally. Going back to the roots of original design, local traditions deal with the climate perfectly."

Renewable energy

The sustainability drive is beginning to show in recently commissioned projects. The first to attract attention was the Bahrain World Trade Centre designed by Atkins, which will use wind power to meet up to 15 per cent of its electricity requirements. The company is now working on a second design that will incorporate turbines, for the Lighthouse tower at Dubai International Financial Centre.

Also in Dubai, the Dubiotech headquarters building designed by US-based CUH2A recently won the Design & Sustainability Honour Award from the US American Institute of Architects (AIA) for its environmentally friendly design credentials.

In Kuwait, KEO International Consultants recently won a design competition for the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), with a design focusing heavily on sustainability through its use of renewable energy, such as wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, to supplement the buildingís power supply.

For architects, an added advantage of sustainable design is the emphasis on quality. "Sustainability gives different branding and identity to a building," says Patel, who led the KIA project design team. "It helps designers as it allocates precise design through engineering systems, and the buildings do not get whittled away through the process of value engineering.

"Generally, sustainable features cost money, and even though clients were prepared to pay for them in the past, they were taken out. Today, to be Leed certified, you cannot detract from efficient materials and systems, and the design remains intact, truer to the architectís vision."

In late November, Dubai became the first city in the region to make green buildings mandatory by issuing guidelines requiring all buildings in the emirate to be constructed according to a green code from 2008 onwards (see feature, page 65).

The criteria will require developers to demonstrate energy savings through the use of design - cutting air conditioning and cooling energy requirements by 30 per cent and reducing lighting by 9 per cent. The guidelines will also call for up to 30 per cent water conservation by treating and re-using water on site.

As regulations demand a reduction in the energy and water needed to maintain developments, contract awards will increasingly go to firms that can both meet these criteria and create unique structures. Preventing solar gain, encouraging natural ventilation and minimising the use of water are key principals that have driven architectural design in hot countries since construction began. The Gulf is going back to basics.

History of Gulf architecture

In terms of historical development, the majority of Gulf architecture is new. As such, it takes its influence from the wealth of local and international styles.

An underlying theme of ‘Arabic architecture’ appears to run throughout the region, but of course this is a generic term. It is often used to describe a range of styles that are actually Persian, Mughal or Turkish in origin. It is also used to describe Islamic architecture, which again has developed in tandem with these cultural styles.

The earliest influence on Islamic architecture is considered to be the Quba mosque in Medina, built by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century. By contrast, the roots of the Persian empire date back to the 6th century BC.

However, there are many similar themes in all the styles. Common building types include forts, mosques and palaces, and common features include the use of pillars and sweeping archways, domes and wind towers. The use of repetitive pattern and geometrical shapes is also a key feature, as is the use of calligraphy, particularly versus from the Quran.

As it has developed, mixing historic religious roots with modern European commercial infrastructure, Gulf architecture has developed its own style, albeit one that leans heavily on ideas imported in the 1970s.

OMA architect Todd Rice, editor of the historical Gulf architecture survey Al-Manakh, explains: “It has a certain quality about it that becomes regional. There is a certain aesthetic that is a symbol of success and global reach. A main criticism is that it does not have its own unique architecture. There is a lot of importation of Western ideas, but leaders are trying to confront this as the danger is that you get exactly what there is elsewhere in cities - a lack of public space and lots of towers and malls.”

He says some of the best designs, which incorporate sustainable measures to counter heat, can be found in Kuwait. “There was some amazing modern architecture built between the 1950s and the 1970s,” he says. “Beautiful examples can be found in Kuwait, such as the Kuwait National Museum. A lot about it is typical European. There is a beautiful courtyard, a natural material shading system [created by low walls] and a porous roof making it a few degrees cooler than it is outside.

“In modern buildings, these systems have been replaced with air-conditioning. However, older sections of Kuwait City are now being torn down to make way for taller towers.”

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