x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'Dubai was moving and had big plans'

Simon Crispe remembers the day the explosives team arrived in Dubai and the site was cleared for the Burj al Arab's construction.

DUBAI // Simon Crispe remembers the day the explosives team arrived in Dubai and the site was cleared for the Burj al Arab's construction. That was in 1997. The architectural design team, managed by Mr Crispe, was by this time three years into the project. Onlookers say it took just seconds for the Chicago Beach Hotel, popular with British and German tourists, to be reduced to rubble by the UK demolition company Controlled Group.

"It was extraordinary to see," recalled Mr Crispe, now the commercial director for Atkins UAE. "They blew it up sequentially, starting with the upper floors so when it fell, the whole lot collapsed in on itself like a pack of cards." The Chicago Beach, located where the Wild Wadi water park stands today, was, said Mr Crispe, "a dear old place, very of its time. It was very 1970s in its architecture, a slabby concrete structure with small windows and lots of little chalets".

He added: "It was very verdant, an oasis-like place that was still trading very successfully." Adrian Bevan, a tourism expert who spent six years in Dubai as Visit Britain's regional manager, was a regular patron of the hotel. "It was still a very popular hotel and there was a bit of sadness I suppose, but mostly excitement," he said. "The demolition was almost a statement that things were happening in Dubai. It was moving forward and it had big plans."

A team of some 150 engineers and architects from Atkins began work on the landmark project in 1994. Thomas Wright was the architectural concept director for the project and Khuan Chew, of KCA International, led the interior design team. Among the design challenges, Mr Crispe said, were creating a wind-bracing structure that would stabilise such a tall design and building an artificial island that could withstand wave pressure in excess of the strongest wave ever recorded in the Gulf.

At the time, those working on the project had no idea that the Palms would later be built, offering the island greater protection from waves. A decade on, Atkins has grown from a company of 50, Mr Crispe says, to around 2,500, and continues to work on some of the most interesting projects in the region - including the Bahrain World Trade Centre, the world's first commercial building to integrate wind turbines in a mixed-use development, which last month won a Nova Award in Innovation.

Mr Crispe, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, which recently opened a chapter in Dubai, said the experience of working on the landmark had proved invaluable. "We learnt the craft on this amazing seminal project and picked up something special from it", he said. @Email:loatway@thenational.ae