ABU DHABI // UAE building design is looming large at the World Architecture Festival, with four projects vying to be declared World Building of the Year 2010 next month in Spain.
Masdar City, the new Abu Dhabi International Airport terminal and Dubai's forthcoming Arena amphitheatre were shortlisted last week among 236 competing projects by leading firms from 55 countries.
They were joined by the 828-metre Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower, which was honoured twice - in the Housing and Structural Design categories.
The nominations for the November 3-5 competition represent some radical and innovative designs for such a small country, said Jeremy Melvin, the festival's curator.
"If you take the population of the UAE, and consider that, then to have four projects shortlisted in this competition is a very high number," he said.
"The general perception among the architecture community around the world is that the UAE, up to the last two or three years, was building a large amount, but not all of it was of good quality," Mr Melvin said. "This shows a huge boom in building things of enormous quality, and some of the buildings - like the Burj Khalifa - were built with great skill and ingenuity."
As always, the World Architecture Festival involves a jury of famous architects.
Finalists in each category - ranging from cultural projects to sport and office buildings - will advance to a last presentation in Barcelona before the jurors, as well as an audience, to select the World Building of the Year.
The Japanese architect Arata Isozaki - whose notable work includes Kyoto Concert Hall, Japan; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar - heads the judges' panel for this third annual festival.
Sir Norman Foster - whose firm, Foster + Partners, designed Masdar City and Sheikh Zayed National Museum on Saadiyat Island - chaired last year's jury.
Masdar, the world's first carbon-neutral city, was shortlisted in the Future Landscapes bracket this year. Jon Shinkfield, the principal at Aecom, which led the team for Masdar City's Public Realm Design, will be in Barcelona for the awards ceremony.
In a written statement, he said Masdar's landscaping was unique, and while "specific to the region, it is immediately applicable to other parts of the world".
The idea that the UAE is pushing new ideas about future desert habitation, when petrol is not so readily available in the Gulf, could give Masdar a compelling edge with the judges, noted Ray Ryan, a prominent US architecture critic.
"My own guess is that Masdar City is an intriguing thing for them," said Mr Ryan, the curator at Pittsburgh's Heinz Architecture Center. "It might be an interesting possibility.
"The UAE could become a kind of laboratory for environmental design. That would be an amazing contribution to world culture."
Abu Dhabi International Airport's new Midfield Terminal, which was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and shaped like an "X" to maximize efficiency for aircraft and passenger flows, is shortlisted in the Future Infrastructure category.
The firm's design principal, Mustafa Chehabeddine, said the nomination recognises the challenges of functionality in a complex piece of infrastructure.
The Arena, designed by the Danish firm 3XN for Dubai, is shortlisted in the Future Projects Competition category.
The nomination "was a very welcome surprise, since the Arena was a very special project for the studio," said Kim Nielsen, 3XN's principal, adding that he considered the Emirates to be one of the most exciting architectural destinations right now.
"The UAE is fortunate in that it's really understood the value of architecture to tourism, business and establishing itself as a cosmopolitan city in the world," he said.
The scheme involves a geometric ribbon pattern weaving around the bowl-shaped Arena - "a play on the wind moving across the desert sand and a dynamic symbol of the multiple activities taking place inside", Mr Nielsen said. It is designed to accommodate events from ice hockey matches to large music concerts.
Although the UAE has earned considerable recognition on this year's shortlist, Mr Ryan, the critic, wondered about the wisdom behind some of the choices.
"The Burj Khalifa is a phenomenon of sorts in terms of making this thing actually happen," he said. "Whether it's the most beautiful architecture in the world is another question."
Neither Emaar Properties, the developer of the Burj Khalifa, nor its designer, the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, responded to requests for comment about the nominations.
Perhaps what surprised Mr Ryan most was the exclusion of Abu Dhabi's Yas Hotel from the shortlist.
"That's a very provocative project, the Yas," he said. "And then there's the Reiser + Umemoto O-14 Tower in Dubai. They are definitely of interest to a perhaps academic audience."
Winning entries earn bragging rights but no cash prize, according to organisers.