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Grand designs

Home to some of the world’s most advanced architecture, the UAE’s towering skyscrapers and iconic cultural attractions are a feat of ingenuity and engineering.

The transformation of the UAE from a desert oasis to a thriving metropolitan hub has impressed the world, not only due to the sheer speed it took place at but also thanks to the innovation required. Nowhere is this more evident than in the emirate’s architecture.

The transition began in 1979 with the opening of Sheikh Rashid Tower. The 39-storey structure was the country’s first skyscraper, towering above the low-rise buildings that peppered the landscape. Designed by British architect John Harris, its modern concrete-clad design helped attract multinational companies and it quickly became an iconic structure to those living in the emirates. Such was its importance that an image of the building was added to the 100-dirham banknote, which it still adorns today.

However, it would take a further 20 years before another piece of architecture would make such an impact. In late 1999, work on Burj Al Arab Jumeirah would be completed and the exclusive hotel would open its doors. Designed to resemble the sail of a ship and standing at 210 metres, it helped put Dubai on the map and to this day remains one of the most recognisable buildings in the world.

Resting on an artificial island that took three years to construct, the striking hotel contains more than 9,000 tons of steel, boasting 28 double-storey floors and housing a 180-metre-tall atrium that perfectly showcases the unique design of the building. An instant attraction, not only did it garner worldwide attention but it also sparked decades of intense developmemt as the country looked to push the boundaries.

Completed in December 2007, following 11 years of construction, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque showed that the UAE could also impress when tackling Indo-Islamic architecture. Designed by Yousef Abdelky, the Syrian architect was inspired by the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque in Egypt and the Badshahi Mosque in Pakistan, creating an exquisite structure with striking domes, wide archways and towering minarets.

Now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Abu Dhabi, the interiors of the mosque are equally as striking as the exterior. The 96 columns located inside the main prayer hall are clad in marble and inlaid with mother of pearl, one of the few places in the world where this craftsmanship is on display. The courtyard is also remarkable, with its floral design stretching across 17,000 square metres, it’s considered to be the largest example of marble mosaic in the world.

While the mosque was being constructed, there was a project in Dubai also taking inspiration from Islamic architecture. However, the final structure would be far more futuristic in its appearance. Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Burj Khalifa would resemble the spiral minaret at the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, with the tower starting from a wide base and decreasing in size as it stretched upward.

Constructed in just six years, the towering skyscraper features a bundled tube design that was invented by Fazlur Rahman Khan, whose contributions to the design of tall buildings has had a profound impact on architecture and engineering. Soaring to a total height of 829.8 metres, and still holding the record as the tallest building in the world, this modern-day wonder showed why Dubai was rightly earning a reputation as a city where anything was possible.

After Burj Khalifa was completed, a wave of high-rise building and superstructures began to appear throughout the emirates. However, there was always the propensity to step outside the box and create a truly memorable piece of architecture. In Dubai, perhaps the best example is Cayan Tower, a 75-storey build with a twist of 90 degrees.

Designed by the same team behind Burj Khalifa, the twisting design was achieved by rotating each floor 1.2 degrees around a cylindrical elevator and service core. A remarkable feat of engineering, the residential tower was completed in 2013 and remains one of the most remarkable structures in a city teeming with skyscrapers.

The capital also boasts several distinctive towers, including the notable Capital Gate building featuring an incline of 18 degrees. Known as the Leaning Tower of Abu Dhabi, it was able to achieve this gradient through a process known as pre-cambering, which allows floor plates to be stacked vertically up to the 12th storey and staggered one over another. Opened in 2011, it remains one of the most unique buildings in the emirate. 

In more recent years the focus has moved away from skyscrapers, with some of the most significant pieces of architecture acting as cultural attractions. One of the most original concepts is the Dubai Frame, which opened on New Year’s Day in 2018. Located in Zabeel Park, it was positioned in such a way that the landmarks of modern Dubai would be framed from one side, while from the other, the older parts of the city would come into view.

Standing 150 metres high and covered in 15,000 square metres of gold cladding, it is not just a dazzling architectural landmark, but also offers spectacular panoramic views across the city from within its 93-metre long bridge and showcases a vision of what the emirate will look like in the near future.

Louvre Abu Dhabi is another cultural landmark that perfectly demonstrates the UAE’s willingness to embrace bold design. Conceived by acclaimed architect Jean Nouvel, the vast dome features star-shaped latticework that allows rays of sunlight to cast shadows across the white concrete building. Within the museum, the interiors are equally striking, thanks to the materials used, ranging from dark bronze to silvery marble. Since opening in 2017, the museum has earned a reputation as one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the region and proved that not all superstructures need to dominate the skyline.

And while there are grand plans in place for more skyscrapers that are certain to astound, perhaps one of the most interesting projects under development in the UAE is the Museum of the Future in Dubai. Shaping up to be one of the world’s most complex structures, the low-level building, set to open next year, has been designed to look like an eye hollowed out in the middle.

Featuring Arabic calligraphy inscribed on the building’s façade, the smooth exterior will be covered in 890 joint-free stainless steel and fibreglass panels, with the only horizontal surfaces in the building being the floors. A hugely ambitious project, it perfectly encapsulates how architecture in the emirates continues to evolve and inspire. 

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