A building taking shape along Sheikh Zayed Road opposite the Dubai International Financial Centre, bears a remarkable resemblance to the clock tower housing Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament in London.
Four years after construction began, the Dubai tower stands about 60 storeys high with room at the top for what might eventually be clock faces. While financial constraints have put many of the emirate's big building projects on hold, it may be only a matter of time before a clock starts ticking in the tower, says a site engineer, asking not to be identified. "We are working on the interior now so it should be finished next year," he says, adding that although the building is called Al Yaqoub Tower, it is likely to be renamed Clock Tower.
The project by Al Yaqoub Group, with Lebanon's Arabian Construction Company as the main contractor, was designed by Dubai's Adnan Saffarini Engineering. It may be the last remnant of an era when developers tried to outdo each other with brash, gimmicky designs. The tower was born in controversy, with Dubai Municipality initially rejecting the idea because of the clock and asking the developer to build it instead at Nakheel's International City, a project close to Dubai International Airport.
Municipal officials said they feared the structure would distract drivers on the busy Sheikh Zayed Road. The plans were eventually approved and work began in 2006. But it was not long before another hiccup occurred: the developer decided to turn the project commercial, possibly to include a hotel, as opposed to residential. The design changes stalled progress in 2007. Yet even with the subsequent financial crisis, this boom-era project is heading towards completion, albeit three years past the original deadline.
It could also stand the test of time, says Ian Albert, a regional director at the property consultancy Colliers International. "Some of the excesses do lead to a cultural landmark that can exceed well beyond the period in which they were built," Mr Albert says. "Yes, you could point to some of these things as follies but they're only follies in the short term. They tend to become design classics and true icons in the long term.
"Look at Palm Jumeirah. At the time, everyone thought, 'who would build an island in the shape of a Palm?' Yet it's been received worldwide. Then there's Burj Khalifa, an extravagance that has already become a global landmark." Mr Albert points to New York's 102-storey Empire State Building, which was built in one year and 45 days and opened during the Great Depression in 1931. "It's a design classic, yet it was seen as a folly to design extravagance of the pre-Depression era," he says. Other ambitious projects mooted between 2005 and 2007 have not seen the light of day.
Among them were Chess City, which was to have cost US$2.6 billion (Dh9.55bn), the $500m Hydropolis underwater hotel, and Dynamic Tower, a spinning skyscraper with independently rotating floors that would have cost $700m to build. At the time, the big-name architects were being hired to make buildings in Dubai stand out: the Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid designed the Dancing Towers, which were to have been built at Business Bay, a sprawling development along Sheikh Zayed Road.
"If you look at the sheer density of construction in Business Bay, all the projects sought to outdo one another with architecture that was more about self-promotion than city building or integration of design within a context," says Jean-Paul Cassia, a senior partner at the CASSIA Group, an architecture company. For Mr Cassia, Al Yaqoub Tower marks the end of Dubai's emphasis on external extravagance in building design.
"It's over … it's about proper design from the inside out," he says. "So many projects today are put on the market that have very poor maintenance contracts - and of course people struggle. "They pay a dear price for their apartments but the airconditioning units fail, or you have electrical problems or water infiltration. All of that is just a result of very bad design. "It's [now] going to be about designing buildings and habitations from the inside out and taking the end users into consideration."