Innovation & Design

Dubai's Architectural Wonders


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There's more than one Dubai drama playing out on the world stage these days. Besides the fracas over whether U.S. ports should be overseen by Dubai Ports World (see BW Online, 3/6/06, "The Real Shipping News") the emirate is gaining widespread attention and generating buzz in architecture, design, and real-estate circles. Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, is engaged in a building boom of epic proportions.

By the beginning of the next decade, relatively tiny Dubai -- it's smaller than Canada's Prince Edward Island, and has a population of about 1.4 million citizens -- will be home to an astonishing number of superlative architectural projects. These include Earth's tallest skyscraper, the first luxury underwater hotel, and a man-made archipelago of private, residential islands (yes, the biggest development of its kind) that will resemble a map of the world when seen from above.

Most of Dubai's ambitious building projects are in planning or early construction stages. The emirate's current skyline is dotted with cranes. According to the most recent study published by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Dubai's construction and building sector contributes 12.2% of the emirate's non-oil GDP and has grown annually at an average rate of 27%.

CONSPICUOUS CONSTRUCTION. Why the sudden construction boom? Dubai's Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the Defense Minister of the United Arab Emirates and the president of the Dubai Development and Investment Authority (DDIA), has set a goal to attract 15 million tourists in the year 2010 (up from 5.24 million in 2003). Interestingly, that's the same year that, according to The Economist, Dubai's known oil reserves will be tapped.

The DDIA reports that today, 90% of Dubai's diversified economy is fueled by non-oil sectors, indicating that Dubai is clearly racing to fuel new industries such as tourism. To rev up its tourism industry, Dubai's developers are engaged in an intense reshaping of the urban landscape.

The ambitious scale and breakneck pace of building echoes what's happening in China, a much, much larger nation engaged in its own race to redefine its skylines (see BW Online, 12/23/05, "China's New Architectural Wonders") in preparation for the 2008 Olympic games. As if competing in an unofficial architectural Olympics, Dubai is striving to break as many records as it can in terms of "tallest," "largest," or, simply, "first."

PHOTO OPPORTUNITY. Dubai's developers hope to win tourists not only from the Middle East, but from Europe and even Asia, where rapid economic development is creating a new wealthy class.

If all goes as planned, there will be plenty for future tourists to capture in keepsake digital photos. Dubai will soon be home to world's tallest building, the sleek and spectacular Burj Dubai, designed by American firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). When it is completed in 2009, it will knock Taiwan's pagoda-shaped Taipei 101 from its roost as Earth's loftiest. Another Western firm, Britain's Foster & Partners, has designed One Central Park, a mixed-use, eco-friendly building 80 stories high.

One Central Park will be the world's highest residential apartment building when it opens its doors in 2008. And Singapore's DP Architects have designed the 1,000-store, 5-million-square-foot Dubai Mall, which will be the biggest shopping center on the planet when it opens this year.

FLY ME TO THE MOON. While impressive, these structures are rather traditional compared to some of the construction efforts in Dubai. There's Hydropolis, an underwater hotel developed and designed by Germany's Joachim Hauser, scheduled to open at the end of 2007. And there's Palm Islands, a set of man-made resort islands shaped to look like a palm tree when seen from a jet, which will open later this year. This year the same developer will also complete The World, a series of manufactured residential islands that, when seen from above, resemble smaller versions of the seven continents.

And speaking of space, the American firm Space Adventures (known for launching the first civilian orbital space flights) is developing the UAE spaceport, the first commercial spacecraft flight center in nearby emirate Ras Al-Khaimah, minutes away from Dubai. Dubai's citizens, no doubt, will consider the UAE spaceport their hometown spaceport, just as New Yorkers look upon Newark Airport, in nearby New Jersey, as one of their local hubs. No completion date has been set for the spaceport.

That Dubai is pushing for extreme architecture shouldn't come as a surprise if you look at the emirate's history of firsts. In 1979, the biggest man-made port opened at Jebel Ali in Dubai, and in 1999, Dubai became the site of the world's first 7-star hotel, when the iconic, sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab opened for business.

WORLD WORLD. A particularly ambitious project in the works is Dubailand, partially funded by Dubai's government and developed by Dubailand LLC. It's a massive, sprawling, and totally built-from-scratch city-as-tourist attraction that suggests the theme-park atmosphere of Disneyworld (DIS) or Las Vegas, only more so. Located only 10 minutes from the Dubai International Airport, Dubailand will cover 3 billion square feet and feature six different "worlds."

Dubailand's more "conventional" family-oriented offerings are Attractions and Experience World, devoted to roller coasters, waterslides, and other mechanical rides; Sports and Outdoor World, with a variety of stadiums (designed by German architectural firm von Gerkan Marg & Partner) and other athletic venues; and Downtown, which will be a downtown center with movie theaters, restaurants, and bowling alleys.

Eco-Tourism World, which will present "natural" environments and biosphere structures, promises to be the most forward-thinking offering. Leisure and Vacation World -- a spa environment, and Retail & Entertainment World, which will house low-end to high-end retail, seem to be giant playgrounds for grownups. Currently, initial infrastructure (utilities, roads) is being built, and the goal is to have a portion operational by 2008.

While all of Dubai shouldn't be conflated with Dubailand and its pure entertainment value, it's clear that the emirate will soon be overflowing with attractions, whether amusement-park rides or serious architecture. Like Las Vegas, Dubai's dramatic new developments won't be without their critics. Love them or hate them, these new wonders of the world are just that -- wonders.


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