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An artistic rendering shows the proposed Convention Exhibition Centre in Ras al Khaimah, which is intended to become the emirate's landmark building.
An artistic rendering shows the proposed Convention Exhibition Centre in Ras al Khaimah, which is intended to become the emirate's landmark building.

RAK highlights modernisation

US$400m exhibition venue is symbolic of emirate's efforts to develop over next 15 years without going against historical roots.

Ras al Khaimah yesterday unveiled the design of its much-anticipated Convention Exhibition Centre - a spectacular ceramic-covered, dune-shaped complex - intended to symbolise its measured march into the future. Designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta, the building will sit just outside the city centre. Behind it, vast sand dunes will remain undeveloped.

This was intentional, said Yahia Kambris, senior development manager at Rakeen, the developer, since sand dunes inspired the design. The 270,000-square-metre complex will have a soft, curving exterior and a tower in the centre. Much of the roof space is open, which will allow sunlight to illuminate the water features and gardens in the middle of the complex intended to resemble an oasis. It is expected to become the emirate's landmark building.

Neither a port city nor possessing vast oil reserves, Ras al Khaimah's development has proceeded much more slowly than that of Dubai or Abu Dhabi. But since 2003, when Sheikh Saud bin Saqr became Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler, renewed efforts have been made to expand the emirate's industrial sector. RAK is determined to take a more thoughtful route to modernisation. "We are determined not to deny our past, but also not to be stuck to it," said Mr Kambris. "We want to use our history in a modern way, and with this project we are connecting our modernisation to our history."

The cost of building the convention centre is estimated at about US$400 million (Dh1.4 billion), much of which will go towards creating the building's exterior. RAK has a long history of ceramics production, and in the 1980s RAK Ceramics became the largest producer of the material in the world. It was important, Mr Kambris said, for Rakeen and Snohetta to incorporate the material into the convention centre's design.

The outer walls of the building will feature a repeating geometric pattern made from special tiles designed by RAK Ceramics. "We developed the tiles specifically for this project; they absorb sunlight during the day and at night the building is illuminated," said Mr Kambris. "This repeating pattern made the soft shape possible. The challenge was to find the right pattern." The complex will include an exhibition space, a shopping and entertainment centre, a convention centre seating 1,500 as well as a five-star, 200-metre-tall hotel.

Thomas Fagerness, senior architect at Snohetta and project manager for the convention centre, said the original design did not use a tower for the hotel space, but that Rakeen insisted on the feature. Symbolic of a new, modern RAK, the building needed to be instantly identifiable, it said, and at least part of it had to be seen from the roads leading to the city. "This building will mark the start of a city as something quite spectacular," Mr Fagerness said.

Having worked mostly on cultural projects such as the Oslo Opera House, Mr Fagerness said Snohetta focused on making the public areas of the complex "as good as possible". A concourse runs for almost two kilometres through the ground floor, from the exhibition space, under the hotel tower, past gardens and water features to the shopping and entertainment centres. "We made this concourse thinking that anyone can come without feeling alienated. It is a space of many scales, with more intimate areas."

Building is due to start next June and is expected to take 40 months. The centre is only part of the blueprint to modernise the emirate. "RAKIA [RAK Investment Authority] has just issued 1,500 licences for new light and heavy industry projects," said Mr Kambris. "There is a housing crisis in other emirates that is affecting RAK, and we need more housing for our own expanding population as well. There is an international airport here, a hospital, a university is coming. We think RAK will become a hub for regional transportation. This will attract people here. They will need this convention centre."

Mr Kambris expects it will be at least 15 years before RAK is transformed. But there is no rush, he said. The idea is to develop the city in the best way possible; rather than destroying the old to make way for the new, RAK wants its modernisation process, above all, to respect its past and respond to the city's needs in a sensitive way. "We want to be modern, but we need to be considerate of the culture that already exists here," he said. "We don't have oil; so we're building our city in a more sustainable way. We want this to last." @Email:jhume@thenational.ae

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