David Marks and Julia Barfield have earned the right to call themselves designers of iconic structures; after all, they conceived, designed and built the London Eye. However, they believe that apart from those rare buildings that are from the outset indubitably iconic - those instantly recognisable properties such as Burj Al Arab, for example - good buildings should be more about function, experience, and context than profile.
And it is that guiding philosophy that will help shape The Pebbles, the three compact residential structures that make up a key element of one of Dubai's new developments, Dubai Arts District (DAD). Inspired by the shapes and colours of the land - compact, softly rounded, gentle - the designers behind Marks Barfield Architects, the award-winning London-based practice, are aiming for an organic look that is informed by nature.
DAD, a project by Abyaar, a Kuwaiti boutique real estate developer, is a 26-hectare commercial, residential and retail project within Dubai's International Media Production Zone. And Marks Barfield has been commissioned to design several core components of it: 11 residential buildings with a gross built area of 2.1 million sq. ft., a central clubhouse, children's playground and seven retail units. Central to the project will be the three Pebble buildings. Construction is scheduled for completion in the last quarter of 2011.
In designing the trio, Marks and Barfield set out to deliver a plan that would stand up to the elements, while at the same time meet their commitment to work that is underpinned by values of quality of life, community responsibility and sustainability. "It is such an incredibly harsh environment that our instinct with The Pebbles was to try to create something soft and flowing, easy on the eye and sympathetic to context," Marks says. Hence the reference to the shapes and colours of the earth. "You could say, too, that our proposal was a reaction to the severity of some of the design one is seeing in Dubai." Sand and stone tones will also be used on the exterior.
More important than this form, however, is function: for example, deeply recessed balconies will provide shaded outdoor living spaces for use in the cooler months while at the same time increasing privacy - an important aspect of UAE family life. This means that the balconies are incorporated into the living area in a way that is rare in this part of the world. The functionality intersects with sustainability here, in that the depth of the balconies will prevent direct sunlight, thereby assisting with cooling, while the round aerodynamic shape and compact form of the buildings will channel the prevailing wind to provide some cooling to the outdoor area of every apartment.
"We are interested in understanding and interpreting the fundamental principles behind local traditions and heritage and interpreting them appropriately to the 21st century using modern materials and technology, rather than merely repeating symbols from the past in an over-scaled traditional pastiche, or an out-of-context western modernism," says Barfield. Marks and Barfield recognise that minimising environmental impact in the UAE is not easy but they are committed to this approach. Features such as waste water recovery and ease of maintenance and cleaning, for example, are at the heart of The Pebbles' design.
The intention is for the unpretentious scheme of the exterior to flow through to the interiors, all of which are being designed by the German architectural firm Hollin + Radoske, known for their minimalist approach. Typical apartments, which range from studio to three bedrooms, will be uncluttered, with open-plan living and dining areas. The Pebbles are most certainly intended to be striking and aesthetically appealing, a positive addition to the Dubai landscape. But as for "iconic", Marks and Barfield will leave that to the passage of time.