In recent years, iconic buildings such as Emirates Towers and the Burj al-Arab have achieved international acclaim and attracted architects from all over the world to the region. This influx has upped the ante for those aiming to create something special in the area.

‘Developers in the region are extremely competitive and extremely broad in their thinking. They seek the highest level of design from their architects and are now looking all over the world for cutting-edge design. This is certainly very different from any other market, where the number of cutting-edge commissions is relatively small,’ says Keith Griffiths, chairman of Hong Kong-based Aedas.

A number of large-scale developments will turn stretches of desert and even parts of the sea into new metropolises, each with its own unique profile. By 2010, developments such as Shams Abu Dhabi, Dubai Waterfront, Bahrain Financial Centre and Pearl-Qatar will all have altered the region’s skylines.

Opportunities are almost limitless, as developers combine bold vision with solid financing and accelerated project approval processes, meaning projects that wouldn’t be considered anywhere else in the world can be tackled. ‘In this region things happen, in Europe things take much more time and that stifles the development process,’ says Shaun Killa, head of Atkins’ architectural department.

Developments that involve building entirely new communities give architects a wealth of opportunities they would not experience anywhere else. They also present a range of new challenges, as they have to interpret a concept and transform a developer’s vision into a visually appealing, sustainable city that works. ‘There is a huge difference between designing for an existing city and designing for the birth of a city,’ says Griffiths.

Context is one of the most obvious differences when it comes to designing in an environment that is completely new. In existing cities, an architect knows what buildings are next to or close by, the kind of people that live or work in the area and what it represents. It may be a financial centre or a residential district, affluent or poor. No matter what it is, this context gives the architect the insight required to gauge what type of building is needed.

For new environments the situation is entirely different. Instead of focusing on what is already there, attention is drawn to the future and predicting what will be built alongside a building. ‘What is interesting is that even with a blank canvas, everything is filling up very quickly, so you have to foresee what your neighbours are doing,’ says Andrew Bromberg, director at Aedas. ‘The problem then becomes that things are happening so quickly that you are not aware of what your neighbours are doing.’

The obvious way to overcome the dilemma is to commission a single architect to control the whole development. It may limit many of the co-ordination issues that arise, but it also has a severe impact on the diversity of the development.

Older cities do have the benefit of diversity. Within several square kilometres in London one can see architectural styles ranging from Christopher Wren in the 17th century, right through to Norman Foster’s early 21st-century designs. To a lesser extent, the same is true of newer cities such as Hong Kong, where the granite and glass of the early 1980s have given way to the glass and metal structures of the 1990s.

To achieve diversity in a short period of time, developers tend to turn to a variety of architects with different styles to create a rich urban fabric. ‘One of the issues in China at the moment is that one architect will design a huge community, and even though it may be very well designed they lose some of the richness that inner cities should have,’ says Bromberg.

However, the line between diversity and lack of co-ordination is a thin one