x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Why the only way is up

Taller towers get you noticed. Just ask any of the architects visiting Dubai next week to talk about skyscrapers.

Hyder Consulting's Za´abeel Park competition entry.
Hyder Consulting's Za´abeel Park competition entry.

When Dubai officials invited architects to design an iconic structure summing up the new face of the city, the criteria were simple. It had to be emblematic, unique and pull in tourists but most important of all, it had to be tall. Indeed, the only thing to curb the enthusiasm of architects building skywards was the minor inconvenience of a flight path nearby, which meant the monument had to be restricted to a maximum 170 metres.

Like so much of the city's distinctive skyline, which has transformed the desert into a glistening megalopolis of steel and glass, the message is clear: reaching for the skies in such a tangible and visible way is analogous to Dubai's phenomenal growth from tiny fishing village to international trading centre in the space of a generation. Next month Dubai Municipality, together with competition organisers from ThyssenKrupp Elevator, will unveil a winner from among 2,967 entries submitted by 4,651 architects from 108 countries. For the chosen entry, there will be the prestige of seeing their vision immortalised in Zabeel Park, an honour far surpassing the top prize of US$100,000 (Dh367,310).

Hussain Nasser Lootah, director general of the municipality, said it was important to "continue promoting awareness of good design and show what architects can do for our community". "Launching a competition is a successful way of attracting international talent and adding world-class design ideas for the city of Dubai," he added. But much more than that, building tall has come to represent not only Dubai's astonishing rise from dusty plains into a towering testament to wealth and power but, more recently, a defiant stance in the face of a faltering economy.

When the Burj Dubai is completed later this year, it will officially become the world's tallest building, exceeding 800m with more than 160 floors. Its soaring height has already become a draw for tourists and locals alike as they crane their heads backwards to squint at the pinnacle. But by 2020, it will become one of eight Dubai supersized monuments featuring among the top 30 tallest buildings across the globe, making the city the most predominant on the revered list, beating the likes of Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Chicago.

Of the skyscrapers which have already been completed, Dubai currently comes in a lowly 13th with the 363m Almas Tower, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), based in the US. That will change with the Nakheel tower, which will top one kilometre and leave the Burj Dubai trailing when construction eventually gets under way, as well as the 618m Pentominium residential tower and the 510m Burj Al Alam office and hotel block, both due to open in 2012.

It is a phenomenon at the top of the agenda for the two-day Building Tall conference organised by MEED financial forum and taking place in The Westin hotel from Monday, where architects, consultants and engineers from around the world will gather to pay homage to the design and construction of high-rise towers. "The development of tall buildings these days is usually the result of urban density," said Jan Klerks, communications and research manager for the CTBUH.

"In Dubai though, there is not the same reason of land scarcity as it is all desert. It comes down much more to iconic reasons. "It is all about how Dubai wants to represent itself to the world. Its skyscrapers really embody how Dubai has embraced business and finance; they are very visible signs of that. They are a way of saying 'we have got the power to create this'. "Dubai never fails to amaze me because if it can be imagined, the city makes it possible."

He added that while the financial crisis has stayed some projects, such as the Nakheel tower which has been delayed for a year, he did not believe it would stunt the city's desire to reach for the skies in the long term. "If you look at New York in the 1930s when it was in the throes of a depression, there were some excellent examples of tall buildings being completed," he said. "Similarly the Burj Dubai will be opening in the middle of an economic crisis. The crisis is temporary. What Dubai has done is going to be there a lot longer. I am sure the Burj Dubai will remain the tallest building in the world for a long time to come."

The CTBUH, which has been accepted as the world authority on skyscrapers for the past 40 years, judges them by their blueprint and compiles its data based on the architectural height. Mr Klerks said: "Competing to be the tallest building in the world is a bit of a sport, while to be involved in the engineering or construction is quite an accomplishment. "There is great prestige attached to having an office in one too: it is instantly recognisable and a postman would not have to ask twice where to deliver mail to."

Arguably the world's first skyscraper could have been the tower of Babel, which according to the Bible was built so its citizens could have a building so immense it would have "its top in the heavens". The Quran has a parallel story in which Pharoah asks Haman to build a clay tower so he can climb to heaven and confront God. Archaeologists have found the ruins of several giant towers or ziggurats on the site of ancient Babylon, now modern-day Iraq.

The ethos behind these monuments to power is one of affluence and the drive to reach the very pinnacle of human achievement. It is no coincidence that the towers of old usually housed a shrine at their summit while modern-day skyscrapers have their own temples where one can marvel at the sheer engineering feat of building ever upward: think of the 63rd floor Neos bar at The Address hotel in Downtown Burj Dubai, the soon-to-be-opened 124th floor observatory in the tower itself and the viewing platform at the top of the Empire State Building in New York.

Nor is it any surprise that by targeting New York's World Trade Center, the September 11 terrorists seemed not just to be attacking a modern megalith to business and financial might but civilisation itself. G K Chesterton, the English writer, described architecture as "the alphabet of giants; it is the largest set of symbols ever made to meet the eyes of men. A tower stands up like a sort of simplified statue, of much more than heroic size."

While Abu Dhabi appears to be venturing down the route of extraordinary, breathtaking architecture which stops people in their tracks - from the coin-shaped Aldar headquarters nearing completion to the waves of the Sheikh Zayed bridge and the sugar cubes of the Guggenheim museum - Dubai continues to look skywards. Andy Davids, property director of Hyder Consulting Middle East and the former Dubai representative on the CTBUH panel, said: "At one stage last year, we had about 10 buildings over 100 storeys each under construction. This country has been in existence for less than 40 years and was formed by people from Bedouin stock. Their history is one of itinerant travel; they never put down roots.

"It was Sheikh Rashid and his son after him who decided to put Dubai on the world map and plug into the western world. "Anyone who does that has to signal that they are global citizens and create icons people can identify with, be it buildings, airlines such as Emirates or research." Hyder Consulting helped create the twin Emirates Towers in 2000 and is behind the Pentominium project. The company has also submitted an entry to the Zabeel Park competition, a giant maypole surrounded by swirling metal ribbons.

Mr Davids said: "Iconic buildings give visitors something to point to and instantly recognise. They are needed to be part of the process of nation-building, they set records and are automatically visible. "For Dubai, it is an easy way to make a statement. We cannot compete with the history of London or Paris so interest has to be created another way. "The crisis has had a profound effect here. We are all trying to sort the difference between what is cancelled and what is on hold. But while interest has dropped off, that has not stopped tenders coming in entirely and there is one on the board which is even bigger than the Nakheel tower.

"In a few months construction prices will come down and people will start buying again. There is still an appetite for major development but not for the frenetic construction that got out of hand last year. "What we will see is a more measured response. In a way, things have not changed in the last 2,000 years and buildings that mark a nation's place in the world will always be in demand." tyaqoob@thenational.ae