Towers take turn for the worse
ABU DHABI // At the height of the property boom, developers in Dubai competed to outdo each other with increasingly grand designs. But no rivalry was as interesting as the race to build buildings that rotate, giving home owners 360-degree views of the world. For an industry obsessed with views, it was the ultimate prize that would translate into large premiums and healthy profits. While builders in Brazil and the US had built smaller rotating buildings, three developers in Dubai announced buildings that would have put the UAE in the architectural vanguard.
But after the global financial crisis, these projects have come under pressure and it is unclear when, or if, Dubai will see one of these wonders. Many of the most ambitious architectural projects in Dubai have been scaled back or slowed down. "The further away you get from an ordinary rectangular building, the more expensive it is," says Andrew Schofield, the head of buildings at the consultancy Aecom Middle East.
"In a market like Dubai, developers are probably struggling to attract tenants. It's hard to see why they would be increasing the costs of their buildings." The idea of rotating homes took hold in 2006 with the launch of 55 Time Dubai from Dubai Property Ring, a group based in London. The company's designs called for the entire Dh700 million (US$190.6m) building to rotate 50cm every hour for a complete revolution once a week. The tower would be the first of 24, one in each time zone.
Then came the quirkier Rotating Residences from High Rise Properties, announced in 2007 with a design that looked like something out of a science fiction movie. Meanwhile, contractors were working on another ambitious project with rotating floors, called the Cobalt Tower, which would be built near Emirates Towers. No project, however, was to receive as much attention as the Rotating Tower, a Dh2.6 billion structure with 80 moving floors. The project was featured in newspapers, television segments and magazines around the world. The charismatic architect and developer, David Fisher, was named "Worldwide Architect of the Year" by the Developers and Builders Alliance, based in Florida.
At a presentation to construction contractors at Emirates Palace in February, Mr Fisher touted the project as "the world's first building in motion" as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey played in the background. While the Rotating Tower may have received the most attention, it is also the project with the most question marks over its future. Dubai Property Ring says it is "on the verge of handing the land to the contractor", National Piling, and has 120 investors.
Last week, Mr Fisher said the project would begin after Ramadan and finish construction in the autumn of 2011. He would not say where the tower would be built, or give any other details because he wanted to keep it a surprise. Mr Fisher's tower is hampered by a hurdle other than the financial crisis. One of his original backers in Dubai has recently distanced himself from the project. But more than anything, these developers are coming up against the challenges of building an ambitious project in lean times; a situation faced by everyone from Emaar, which is finishing the world's tallest building, to Nakheel, which has yet to finish work on its artificial island projects, Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira.
Rotating Residences is simply stalled because of the property slowdown. Cobalt Tower was never officially announced and has been quietly halted. Tav Singh, the director of Dubai Property Ring - the builder behind 55 Time Dubai - said he had given investors more time to come up with payments rather than push forward with construction earlier. "We need to ensure these investors are going to keep paying," Mr Singh said last month.
With the property market maturing, the things people are increasingly looking for in buildings are the finishes, amenities, transport and the proximity of schools, not peculiar architecture or super-tall buildings. "The level of product differentiation during the boom period was more than we've seen anything like that anywhere else in the world," says Martin Seward-Case, the UAE chairman of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
"Where we are now is more like a back to basics. Product differentiation is now about homes being delivered on time, and properly done construction." Another challenge for the rotating tower developers is the fact that they were each trying to devise the technology for the buildings from scratch, says David Berg, the chief executive of 3sixty Technology in Vegas, which successfully built a rotating home on a mountain over San Diego, California.
"It takes a long time to get past the fire and safety issues," Mr Berg says. "Then you have to deal with plumbing and electrical systems that rotate, which are the most important part of the building." The basic internal workings of a rotating building require the use of technologies from a variety of industries, including major hydraulic levers from bridges and electrical set-ups like trains that are powered by contact with a electrically charged metal rail.
Despite these setbacks, Mr Berg is confident one day there will be rotating structures in cities such as Las Vegas, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. "Our vision is that kinetic architecture will still play a part in the skylines around the world," he says. "Not just towers, but pieces of buildings will move." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * with additional reporting from Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv