Monday, January 18, 2010


"A building becomes iconic when its form is simple and unique. If you can draw a building with a few sweeps of the pen and everyone recognises not only the structure but also associates it with a place on earth, you have gone a long way towards creating something iconic” "
Thomas Wright

There are few buildings that did become the symbol of a city and even of a country. The Pyramids of Giza, the Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Parliament (Big Ben) in London, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Colosseum in Rome, the Opera House in Sydney and more recently the Beijing stadium, belong to this select group of buildings whose very image evokes the country where they are standing.

In 1994 a group of young British architects led by Thomas Willis Wright received the commission of their lives: to design a building that would become the symbol of a city, Dubai, and a country, the United Arab Emirates. The client was none other than the actual ruler of Dubai, His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. At that time few people were aware of the existence of the emirate, but it was the Burj Al Arab, the Tower of the Arabs, the one put Dubai on the map.


Dubai's impressive economic boom was due in big part to oil, however their leaders noticed that their oil reserves would run out in 2016. Therefore, they decided to shift the emirate's economy to luxury tourism. The Burj Al Arab hotel was to be the new symbol of this emirate, and led Dubai to become one of the of the world's largest real estate development areas.

When it was completed in 1999, the Burj Al Arab was the tallest hotel in the world, reaching 321 meters (today that record belongs to the Burj Dubai).

Photos courtesy of mukks and D53

Nevertheless, it is not just its height but its particular form that makes it distinctive, inspired by a sail swollen by the wind, as the many boats reaching Dubai's port, an important destination in the Persian Gulf, long before the oil era.

Photo courtesy of Sporty Morty

The building's layout is organized around two blocks forming a V shape enclosing a main courtyard. Two steel arches, separated from the main structure, give the Burj Al Arab its characteristic form.

Photo courtesy of Pink Sushi

The facade is covered with two layers of canvas, separated 60 cm from each other, in order to isolate the excessive heat and sunlight. The canvas are another reference to the vessels sailing the emirate.

The building is crowned by a suspended inverted cone, which when not working as a heliport, it is an impressive tennis court.

The first artificial island in Dubai

The hotel was built on top of its own artificial island, separated 250 meters from the beach, to give the impression that is floating on water. Another reason for this was to prevent that such a tall building would overshadow the neighbouring beaches of Jumeirah.

Photo courtesy of Andy Bryant

The construction of the artificial island on which the hotel stands began in 1994. That was the first artificial island in Dubai, which later became famous for projects like the Palm Island or The World. However, this island had to be low, to give the impression that the building was floating, a decision that on the other hand had to face the risk of flooding by storms that occur in the Persian Gulf. This problem was solved by mounting perforated concrete blocks on a bed of rock, designed to reduce the impact of the waves, acting as a giant artificial sponge.

Structural design

Some of the criticisms stressed that the Burj Al Arab's formalism caused overcosts due to the highly complex construction techniques.

For example, because of the thinness of the sand soil, 250 reinforced concrete piles were embedded 40 meters into the seabed, in order to give stability to the structure and to strengthen the foundation (a similar process has been explained for the Burj Dubai).

The 202 rooms, each suite consisting of two levels, were prefabricated and installed on site, fitted on a concrete structure. Each suite forms a curved facade that in turn defined a balcony to the upper suite.

Photo courtesy of Erikf

In order to make better use of space in the rooms, architects proposed the use of thin walls in the two blocks, that would not had be sufficiently resistant to winds and earthquakes. Therefore, the architects proposed that these two blocks were braced by beams which intersect in front of the Burj Al Arab.

Also, stiffness is increased by the use of giant metal trusses of triangular section, located on the exterior side walls, a kind of exoskeleton, which diagonally braces the two side trusses and the large concrete column in the back of the hotel. Each one of these structures measures 85 m long and weighs 165 tons, and they had to be mounted using special cranes used for mining.

To solve the problems of expansion and contraction of the trusses (that can reach 5 cm in a day) due to the extreme changes in temperature, a special steering linkage rod was designed.

Hanging Restaurant

The most dramatic element in the composition is the restaurant Al Muntaha ("The Highest") which, with its outstanding C section, is suspended 200 meters above the sea, projecting itself 30 meters on each side of the central column.
The idea of the architect was to give diners the feeling that you're dining in the air, with an uninterrupted view of the surroundings.

The secret of its construction relies is a series of metal beams of 1.6 m thick, arranged in a fan way from the concrete column towards the edges of the restaurant, which has been built in aluminum and glass to reduce its weight.

These metallic elements can withstand wind pressure against the glass


While the exterior design is remarkable for its sculptural form and its elegant and iconic form, its interior design is opulent, palatial, and in my personal opinion, over ornated, eclectic and baroque.

The categorization of hotels ranges from 1 to 5 stars, therefore Burj Dubai's designation as "the only 7-star hotel" implies a service that goes far beyond usual levels in 5-star hotels. It was obvious that His Majesty Mohammed wanted the hotel to become a display of luxury.

Its interior design was carried out by Chinese designer Khuan Chew, famous decorator of great hotels in the world. Her concept, she said, was based on the four elements of the ancient world: water, fire, wind and earth.

Water is present in aquariums and fountains at various points in the hotel. Earth is represented by 24,000 m2 of marble and precious stones used. The air is represented in the steam that rises from the fountains, and the fire in another fountain at the entrance of the hotel. I was very surprised about that... how can water ignite?

The golden color abounds everywhere, but it is not gold painting. "Here, all that glitters is gold," said Chew. Throughout the hotel 2,000 m2 of gold foil were used.

Upon entering the lobby (with its 180 m. is the highest in the world), I was overwhelmed by its pomp. A shell on the ceiling and the columns in the lobby are covered with gold, contrasting with the lush colors of the suites and furniture.

At first the designer had left the court completely white, so that the character of the lobby would be given by the volumetry of the suites and the hundreds of curved facades. However, the Sheik flatly rejected the minimalist proposal and demanded more color and pageantry. Well, what can you say to a customer like that? I guess this is one this cases in which the architect becomes a mere executor of the client's ideas.

Chew then decided to work a scale of colors similar to the spectrum of rainbow, from blue to yellow, slightly changing its tone as it gains altitude. The floors would be carpeted in blue, which has a vivid effect when seen from above.

She also included staggered dancing fountains, a group of aquarius and illumination shows to provide more dramatism to the entrance of the hotel .

The decoration of the restaurants is also designed to impress. The restaurant Al Mahara (the oyster) is surrounded by huge water tanks containing a variety of sea flora and fauna. You enter the restaurant through a simulation of a submarine.

For the Al Muntaha, the panoramic restaurant, the designer chose a decorative motif on blue and green, representing the waves of the sea. In my view, it reduced the clarity and simplicity of the curved roof, visible from the outside.

The entrance to the restaurant resembles a spaceship

And finally the suites were decorated like little palaces, including a grand staircase, classical columns, marble, velvet and gold, along with many sophisticated electronic devices.

The extreme baroque style in the interior, which contrasts with contemporary lines and aerodynamic exterior, creates a contradictory and even counterproductive perception and a sense of exhaustion under such ostentation.

But, again, that is a personal appreciation. I'm sure there are many who are fascinated by this hotel, and found it grandiose, pompous and majestic. Sheikh Mohammed among them.


My friend Ahmed tells me a little-known anecdote concerning the Burj Al Arab Hotel. Once completed, the local people was so awed by the building that began to reproduce its image even on the license plates. To do this they chose the image of the hotel as seen from the sea.
The impressive horizontal restaurant embedded in the vertical column form a cross, as is seen from the sea. How is that a Muslim country like the UAE is carrying the image of the cross on the plates of their cars? As a result the sheik ordered the removal of all plates of vehicles with that image and replace them with an oblique view of the hotel as seen from the beach.

The hotel, when seen from the sea, has an embedded "cross". Was this a conspiracy from the Vatican? Pay attention, Dan Brown, here is material for your next novel: "The Dubai Code".



Together with my good friend and kind host Ahmed, at the Muntaha restaurant. .The lunch included plates from everywhere and surely it was delicious, but to be honest I still prefer the exquisite traditional Arab food.


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