As Dubai prepares to host the next World Expo in 2020, the emirate is planning to outdo itself with an array of awesome new architecture
In the years leading up to 2010, as Dubai’s soaring monolith Burj Khalifa rose like a magical beanstalk out of the desert, many saw it as the apogee of the emirate’s decade-long love affair with audacious architecture. Palm-shaped islands visible from space, shopping malls the size of suburban towns and a skyline that Hollywood deemed a perfect backdrop for this summer’s sci-fi blockbuster Star Trek Beyond, this emirate has certainly proved its mettle when it comes to epochal urban planning. After Burj Khalifa, topping out at 828 metres to become the world’s tallest building, put Dubai firmly in the record books, what else was there left to prove? Well, rather a lot as it turns out.
In four years’ time, the city will host the 2020 World Exposition, an event billed in the words of HRH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of Expo 2020, as “a festival of human ingenuity”. That same edict will undoubtedly apply to the architecture that will herald the Expo’s arrival and stand as its legacy for generations to come. Again (and, naturally, for Dubai) the uber-developments planned to wow the world will be as record-breaking as they are groundbreaking. Take The Tower at Dubai Creek Harbour, a mega project that will envelop a much older part of the city that has escaped the imagination of Dubai’s more outré developers until recently. Costing a cool US$1bn, it will stand “a notch” higher than the Burj Khalifa. Like Paris’s Eiffel Tower, it aspires to epitomise a country, according to its architect, the Spanish-Swiss visionary Santiago Calatrava. “There’s no doubt that the Eiffel Tower has inspired for more than 100 years,” he said at the building’s launch. “It represents a city, a whole nation… I feel so proud to be part of a team that aims to obtain a similar achievement.”
Calatrava is no stranger to iconic design. His impressive portfolio includes the World Trade Centre Transportation Hub in New York and the Olympic Athletic Centre in Athens. Calatrava’s style of architecture has been described as “marrying engineering with biology” and The Tower at Dubai Creek Harbour is no exception. Designed as a confection of slim cables supporting a dramatic central spire, it gently swells into a form inspiredby traditional Islamic minarets.
Similar to its Parisian counterpart, which was built for the Paris Exposition of 1889, the tower will mainly serve as an architectural masterpiece rather than a fully inhabited building. However, between 18 and 20 of its upper floors will house a luxury hotel with observation decks galore — one emulating the splendour of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — and balconies that rotate outside the tower’s façade, offering steely-nerved observers a panoramic view.
The structure will serve as a spectacular anchor for Dubai Creek Harbour, a 6sq km lifestyle development currently taking shape along the city’s historic waterway. According to Mohamed Alabbar, the charismatic chairman of Emaar Properties, the project’s master developer: “[The Tower] will position Dubai Creek Harbour as one of the most desired residential, leisure and touristic attractions, providing visitors and residents with a modern, luxurious and sustainable environment in which to live, work, learn and entertain.”
However, it may come in for some stiff competition from Meydan One, just across town. Here, the world’s tallest “residential” tower is planned. This soaring, sleek column, rumoured to be 711 metres when completed, will be the focal point of another huge 5sq km destination. Apart from being home to 87,000 people, it will incorporate a mega mall, the world’s largest indoor ski slope, a 25,000sq metre indoor sports arena, the largest dancing fountains in the world, a beach, marina, lagoons and a heritage village. In essence, Meydan One will be a microcosm of Dubai itself. “The development is forward thinking, interactive, enterprising and geared towards the Dubai of tomorrow,” announced Saeed Humaid al Tayer, chairman of developer Meydan.
Undoubtedly, it is constantly thinking about “tomorrow” that has got Dubai where it is in such a relatively short time, building up the infrastructure to rival any city in the world in a few short decades. Yet the master planning is not all geared towards apartments, hotels and shopping malls that many new developments may suggest. The emirate’s ruler, HRH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, intends for his people to become forward-thinking innovators to spur on the city’s growth in the decades ahead when energy revenues finally dwindle out.
To that end, he has planned The Museum of the Future, which by the time the Expo comes to town, will have become a unique incubator for futuristic technology and design. He described it on Twitter as “an integrated environment, empowering creative minds to test, fund and market ideas for futuristic prototypes and services and a destination for the best and brightest inventors and entrepreneurs”. He added: “The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it and execute it. While others try to predict the future, we will create it.”
Located next to the Emirates Towers on Dubai’s main arterial highway, Sheikh Zayed Road, the US$136m museum will be housed in an extraordinary mirrored, elliptical, egg-shaped building, featuring a void at the centre, and will be partly constructed using a three-dimensional concrete printing technique. The museum’s architect, Shaun Killa —who was on the design team for Dubai’s original architectural icon, the Burj Al Arab hotel — sees the solid element of the museum as symbolising what we know now and what we know to be the future, while the void represents unknown possibilities. The only light to enter the building will be through perforations made in its façade by Arabic script — poetry, in fact, created by none other than the emirate’s talented bard, Sheikh Mohammed himself.
The Sheikh’s love of poetry is perhaps only matched by his love of sport. As Dubai looked towards its neighbour, Qatar, and the six mega stadiums under construction in preparation for the country’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, it was only a matter of time before Dubai announced plans for a world-class stadium of its own. The Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid football stadium has as yet no date for delivery, but the project will cost around US$800m and is the catalyst for a plan to inspire youngsters to take sport to elite levels.
The stadium will have a capacity for 60,000 spectators and complies with FIFA standards, which will allow it to host international soccer matches (that the emirate covets hosting a major tournament of its own in the future is no secret) as well as high-profile athletics meetings. The model, approved by the ruler in May, depicts a perfect, raised, half-football shape, its interiors more in line with the lobby of a luxury hotel than a sports venue. Designer Perkins & Will has also ensured that the stadium is fully air-conditioned, allowing it to be used in the scorching summer months, and have plenty of car-parking space — a perennial problem around Dubai’s leisure destinations.
That particular logistical headache has been niftily solved at Bluewaters, a US$1.63bn manmade island project featuring what will be the world’s largest observation wheel, just off the coast of the emirate’s Jumeirah Beach. In anticipation of the three million visitors a year expected to the island, a 1.4km futuristic bridge will transport them with two lanes dedicated to driverless “podcars” from the nearby metro station. Once there, they can step aboard one of the 48 capsules on board the 210-metre-tall “Ain Dubai”, 76 metres taller than the London Eye. Each pod will offer “an oasis in the sky” according to developers Meraas, with 1,400 guests at each rotation enjoying sumptuous interiors with lounge and restaurant-style seating and top-notch hospitality. Elsewhere on Bluewaters, there will be souk-style retail, upmarket restaurants and cafés, a boutique hotel and low-level luxury apartments.
There’s no doubt that, come October 2020, the 25 million Expo visitors descending on Dubai during the six-month fair will experience the emirate’s unerring ability to deliver its inimitable “wow” factor in spades — and it will be especially evident at the Expo site itself. Situated in Jebel Ali, a port city between Dubai and its neighbouring emirate, Abu Dhabi, the 438-hectare location is already laying foundations for the type of buildings that Dubai most certainly does best.
In July 2015, a fierce competition was launched by Emaar on behalf of the Expo Committee to find designers for three main themed pavilions: Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. These three anchor buildings, along with the UAE pavilion (another stunning Calatrava offering inspired by a falcon in flight) will centre around the Al Wasl Meeting Plaza, the “heart” of Expo 2020. A stellar line-up of leading architects took up the challenge with the winning entries unveiled in March.
Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (currently co-designing the new Google headquarters in California) was awarded the design for Opportunity with a vast, dynamic structure based on exploration. The soft, undulating contours of the light-filled pavilion blur the lines between inside and out, evoking the traditional Arabic home where the courtyard is an important lifestyle feature.
British architects Foster & Partners took the prize for Mobility, unveiling a design that inspires “smarter and more and more productive physical and virtual connections” in the form of a lavish, clover-shaped building surrounded by several illuminated, tiered plazas. Grimshaw, the architects behind the UK’s Eden Project, will tackle Sustainability with an array of satellite-dish-style towers — all ecologically sound of course — inspired by “progress without compromise”.
They are so different, yet each one has been designed for longevity after the Expo has left town. The site will be renamed as a new city, Dubai South, and become home to an exhibition centre, academic and research institutes and a technology hub. Served by three international airports, brand new roads and an extended metro, by 2021 it will be one of the most aesthetically cool places to live and work.
And what of beyond? Will the UAE’s relentless quest for bigger, better, higher and longer ever be satiated? It’s doubtful, especially as there may be designs on Mother Nature herself. In May, online magazineArabian Business reported that the country was in the middle of detailed studies to test the feasibility and cost of constructing a manmade mountain. This would create cloud cover and the ability to increase rainfall in the UAE through seeding (a practice the country already employs to augment its average five days rain a year).
“What we are looking at is basically evaluating the effects on weather through the type of mountain, how high it should be and how the slopes should be,” Roelof Bruintjes, a research expert from the US-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research told the website, adding the understatement: “Building a mountain is not a simple thing.”
There has been no official comment on the project. It may well be added to the “pending” pile of fantastical developments that have been mooted for years, including Hydroplis, an underwater hotel, and Dynamic Tower, a skyscraper with revolving floors powered by wind turbines where residents can swing the angle of their apartment to change the view at the touch of a button. Will they ever come to fruition? The thing is with Dubai, you just know that anything’s possible.