They say Yas Island will be to leisure what Saadiyat Island will be to museums. When the first phase opens for the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 1, the public will receive its first chance to judge the merit of that claim.
Not unlike Walt Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (Epcot), this $40 billion (Dh147bn) island's goal is total inclusion - in theory, one could live a full life of leisure without ever visiting the mainland. And though the plans are proof that developers still equate luxury with quality, Yas Island may be among the first examples of design that follows the capital's much-touted 2030 master plan.
The main attraction, of course, is the racetrack, but by the time the island is finished it will hold marinas, polo clubs, golf courses, a water park, Warner Brothers Movie World, 300,000 square metres of retail space and, not least, Ferrari World. Apartments and villas will hold a population of roughly 110,000, and the planned light rail transit lines will connect Yas Island to the mainland and Abu Dhabi island.
Seven hotels will open for race day, among them the Yas Marina Hotel, one of the island's two architectural icons, though the developer, Aldar, says the island isn't an architecture-driven project. "It started with the racetrack and then we had other discussions about other elements," says Rand Abbas, the architecture manager at Aldar. "We want this project to help the economy, tourism. But it's also about place-making."
The other icon is without a doubt the Ferrari World building. Its red hubcap shaped shell will be ready for November 1. Perhaps the most impressive building on the island architecturally, the expressionist Yas Marina Hotel was designed by Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of the New York-based firm Asymptote. "We wanted to take the idea of the glamour, speed and action of racing and do something that's never been done before," Rashid explains.
What they came up with was a dual-structure complex. The wings sit on either side of the racetrack and are connected by a bridge. The architects say they wanted the design to be a physical "celebration of Abu Dhabi in the 21st century". Elements of traditional Islamic architecture - specifically geometric patterns - were incorporated in the design. "We wanted a building form that would speak of the region and its cultural depth," the architects say.
The architects also used advanced software to develop something that looked like fishing net to cover the roof and other parts of the hotel. "In the 1960s and 1970s all you could do was repetition in pattern, such as a single curve," Rashid says. "So you could only make a dome. Each panel on this netting is different. There are double-curved pieces of glass, allowing us to achieve a shape that has traditionally been very difficult."
The outer shell has a utilitarian purposes as well. The large amount of glass allows natural light in and reduces the reliance on indoor lighting. It also acts similarly to the scales on a desert animal, Rashid says. "Hot air is pulled away from the skin while at the same time cool air is pulled in," he says. "It's called the stack effect, and it mimics what happens in nature." In today's architecture, single buildings do not exist in a vacuum, independent of the surrounding urban and cultural landscapes. Instead, modern standards demand that buildings engage with their cities and the people who use them.
Rashid, who believes Abu Dhabi has a different attitude towards development than Dubai, says he wasn't interested in designing a Disneyesque folly. He saw the chance to design the Yas Marina Hotel as an opportunity to set the standard for the city's architecture, and wanted something that appeared to crawl between land and sea, he says. Rashid also wanted light to play a significant role in the building and made the shell out of a wide range of colours. The panels catch sunlight and can be used to run video and project colours. The building, he says, marks a moment in time for architecture.
"We want to start a dialogue with the city, its history," he says. "To give the place a new identity." This is why Rashid steered clear of building a tower, something which now represents the 20th century. Architecturally, he says, this part of the world need not reflect last century's values. If Rashid and Asymptote designed a building to bring Abu Dhabi into a more mature future, the other Yas Island hotels appear to be designed by architects determined to pay homage to the city's architectural past.
Three other firms designed two hotels each, and each pair sits next to one another. Each hotel had a budget and a star rating to fulfil. The end results are big, white boxes. (The Radisson and Park Inn were designed by Aukett Fitzroy Robinson; Rotana and Centro by ML Design, Crowne Plaza and Staybridge by Kann Finch.) The Radisson and Centro hotels could be fraternal twins, though the Radisson is decidedly the more interesting of the two. It is a box, yes, but with scattered windows of different shapes and sizes and wood detail, it has something of a retro allure.
The Centro, on the other hand - well, even Abbas describes it as "bland; verging on bearable". There isn't much to say about the architecture. Perhaps its greatest contribution to the island (and the rest of the city) will be the light rail station built into its ground floor. London's St Pancras station, an example of superbly restored Victorian architecture, has become a destination in itself. It may be an unfair comparison (Centro is a far cry from St Pancras), but as a metro interchange it has the potential to become an important part of civic life.
John Hassock, the project manager at Kann Finch who designed the Crowne Plaza and Staybridge hotels, described the buildings as contemporary in style, adding that the architects used similar architectural language in each, emphasising openness and light in the main areas. It was important, Hassock says, to make the buildings simple, clean and sophisticated. "I think there is a preoccupation with luxury in the region," he says, adding that it doesn't necessarily mean something is good. As the architect Mies van der Rohe famously declared: "Less is more."
Designing hotels in the UAE is different from other countries, Hassock says, because hotels serve as a form of public space, whereas in other cities (perhaps as a function of climate), a greater portion of civic life takes places in outdoor public areas. When finished, Abbas says, Yas Island could be a great place to live. Of course it will be a leisure destination, but allowances have been made to accommodate small businesses, for example, on the residential side of the island. Priority has been given to pedestrian and rail transit; green spaces separate the different parts of the island and special attention has been paid to connectivity between buildings and the creation of vistas from almost everywhere on the island.
"How do you masterplan something that should take 30 years?" Abbas says. "You know, this place erases itself every few years. Development here is fast and furious. We want to do this in a way that it won't be outdated quickly." So, like every city, Yas Island has its good and bad points. There is the great architecture of the Marina Hotel as well as some more nondescript elements. But perhaps that is something to be commended. Rather than packing in as many iconic buildings as possible, the island contains an element of restraint.
"We've been overmarketing the golf courses, the leisure," Abbas says. "Do I want to live on a Ferrari-themed island? No. We're trying to mitigate the impact of these big events. We're also trying to deliver on sustainability and livability."