x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'Pillar of salt' could be city's new icon

An architect has drawn up plans for a gleaming white tower for Dubai's Zabeel Park, which would be equal parts art work and science experiment.

An architect's dream of a 170m pillar of salt rising out of Zabeel Park is, by his own admission, far-fetched - but if there were ever a city to embrace Thom Faulders's wild originality, then that city would surely be Dubai. Colin Simpson explains

DUBAI // A gleaming white tower rises from the grasslands of Zabeel Park. Punctuated by weird, organic-looking holes, the surface is rough, somehow living. And as the years pass it changes, its translucent skin hardening to crystalline white.

For now, the 170m tower is no more than an idea dreamt up by a firm of American architects. But the ideas it embodies are very real.

The GEOtube starts with a double-layered steel lattice support structure. The inner layer would be covered with a polymer mesh with large holes cut into it, while the outer layer would carry an elaborate network of pipes and nozzles, providing the mesh with a continual mist of seawater drawn from the Gulf.

As the water evaporates - which rarely takes long, especially with a little help from the shamal wind - salt would gradually build up on the mesh. Over time, it would form thick walls. Some could even be harvested.

The building was conceived as an icon for the city that would attract birds and other wildlife, as well as international attention.

The plans have been drawn up by San Francisco's Faulders Studio to show how the process would work. But the architect Thom Faulders, head of the firm, is hopeful that eventually a building will be constructed using this method.

"It is far-fetched as a building proposal - it is a provocation," he said. "And yet, the processes involved are quite robust and simple, and therefore I can certainly imagine further analysis and testing leading to a construction of this kind, even if at a much smaller scale.

"While we have put many hours into the building system, it remains, at this point, a proposal. We would be thrilled to move forward."

He believes the technique could even be used to create buildings in which people could live.

"The salt skin on the GEOtube tower provides an open-air mesh. Any enclosed building space would require a secondary building skin that would provide waterproofing and environmental controls."

The key is the combination of Dubai's climate and the fact that the Gulf, along with the Red Sea, has the most saline oceanic waters in the world.

That water would reach the building from the sea through a dedicated 4.6km pipeline, running under the northern section of Jumeirah Beach Road before turning right and heading up to Zabeel Park, following the route of Al Diyafah Street and passing beneath the Trade Centre Roundabout.

It would pour into a large open-air distillation pond at the foot of the building, with some of it evaporating to make what remained more saline still.

The water would then be pumped up to a huge cistern at the top of the structure, from which gravity would provide the pressure required to deliver a constant mist of salty water to the walls below - a method Faulders Studio calls a vertical salt deposit growth system.

On top of the cistern would be a cafe and viewing platform. Birds would be able to fly in and out of the structure through large holes in the mesh, and Mr Faulders believes wildlife would thrive.

He points out that many birds and other wildlife flourish in the harsh, high salt and mineral environment of Dubai's coastal salt flats, known as sabkha.

The practice says the GEOtube "is entirely grown rather than constructed; is in continual formation rather than fully completed; and is created locally rather than imported. As the water evaporates and salt mineral deposits aggregate over time, the tower's appearance transforms from a transparent veil to a vibrant white vertical plane.

"GEOtube extends Zabeel Park skyward, and broadcasts Dubai's innovative integration with the natural environment globally."

The salt walls could even have health benefits, it says. "Salt crystals produce air saturated with healthy negative ions. Research has proven the therapeutic values of salt caves and their positive influence in the treatment of respiratory diseases."

"I was interested in creating an architectural proposal that could originate directly from its location - in this case, Dubai," added Mr Faulders. "If you think about it, so much of what is being built in Dubai must be imported from elsewhere.

"In reversing this trajectory, I wanted to discover a unique quality that could emerge from the city and its regional/local environment itself.

"Being adjacent to the Gulf and sabkha salt planes, I created an architectural method for harnessing this material into a building production process.

"Secondly, as a point of contrast to the fast-paced urbanism of Dubai, I was interested in creating a building proposal that would take many years to achieve completion.

"Dubai is not only a city of the present, but of the future. Architecture ought to be about the future as well, and so GEOtube grows into its own skin, so to speak, as the years accumulate."

But what happens to a tower of salt when it rains? Some would be washed away, admits Mr Faulders. "We anticipate these environmental forces as a necessary means to strip away loose particles, allowing the more durable crystalline surfaces to remain.

"It is possible to harvest the salt crystals for use, and this could become an effective means of stewardship and cultivation of the salt skin.

"All buildings require this kind of stewardship - otherwise know as building maintenance. Without this continued monitoring, any building will begin to erode and falter."

Sandstorms would also assist with maintenance by scrubbing down rough edges and removing loose particles.

The use of local salt - rather than imported conventional materials - is not the only environmental advantage of the proposal.

Solar panels floating on the surface of the distillation pond would generate electricity to light the building and pump water up to the rooftop cistern.

Faulders Studio has won a number of awards for its work. In addition to designing buildings of various sizes, as well as interiors and exhibitions, it engages in research.

Mr Faulders added: "I am a huge fan of Dubai and have been there on multiple occasions. Whenever I return back to San Francisco, where I am currently living, my thinking of Dubai is further reinforced - anything is possible there!"