Dubai 6: Burj Al Arab
In ‘Al Manakh’ there are two projects from Dubai that keep appearing, without any argument why these buildings are so important. The first one is the Burj Al Arab hotel; the second one is the Dubai Towers complex that will be discussed later in this series.
In architectural history the word ‘prefiguration’ is an important one. In the case of major inventions there are always predecessors that point in a certain direction, ‘prefigure’ them, but do not take the idea yet as far as it will do later. Tube lighting was in the early twentieth century for instance prefigured by light bulbs put in rows behind translucent glass panels. Mies van der Rohe did designs like that, without actually having tubes yet, which would take that idea into adolescence.
The prefiguration of Dubai is the Burj Al Arab. It was the first project to take the step into the water. It is still a small step, a small island. But conceptually it meant everything; it opened up The Gulf for inhabitation. And just as the delirious New York used the functionalist argument of land-value to justify its densification, so does Dubai use the functionalist argument of beach-length to justify its extension into the sea. The argument is in the end not so important, what counts is the end-result.
Another prefiguration is the metaphor of the sail. It is an iconography that has a triple virtue; contextual (the hotel is sited on an island in the water), timeless (sailing has been around forever) and pointing to leisure (which works like a duck-building for a duck-restaurant). It is brilliant. Just one step further is the idea for an island in the form of a palm, and eventually a group of islands that echo the map of the world.
In ‘Al Manakh’ we also read that the concept of the Burj Al Arab was originally not developed by the architectW.S. Atkins, but by the architect Carlos A. Ott. In an interview with Todd Reisz the architect says he made sketches for the hotel, but forgot to sign them. When his contact with the client got fired, the displacement found drawings without a name, and then turned to W.S. Atkins to develop the idea further.
“My building was identical to Burj Al Arab, but a bit taller. Main concepts – building in the water, sail motif, a restaurant with an aquarium – were my ideas”, Ott says. At about the same time Ott designed a similar looking office building in Montevideo for ANTEL Communications. In the end Ott is the phantom father to the hotel, the anonymous sperm donor so to speak.
Now we also know that that the sail-iconography is an explicit one that has been there since the conception of the building. The back, facing the shore, reminds also to a roach, as Ott also notes.
It has been suggested that the front corner in combination with the meeting room in the sky secretly form a crucifix, a †. That would be a scandal in the Muslim-country, but it merely proves too much people have read Dan Brown. The horizontal line is just too narrow and placed too low to really sustain that suggestion.
With 28 stories the Burj Al Arab is not the highest building around. It is not the size of the building that makes a difference, but its form. It’s main invention and feature is the white exoskeleton. The strong and sleek frame with its enormous circular sweep transforms the building into a distinctive object. There is no building that tops this frame in beauty. Just magnificent.
The cantilevering meeting room and hovering UFO-like helicopter platform are the accessories to this composition, eloquently and very effectively showing off the luxuriousness of the hotel. It is the only 7-star hotel on earth.
The exterior is beautiful, but no show-off. Except for the two tiny clues to the wealth inside it is all very modest and decent. The interior however is a different story. It is a finite Maximalism:
- Maximum color
- Maximum relief
- Maximum form
- Maximum difference
The bright colors and sharply cut patterns just blow you away… Who made up this orgy? Does maximalism indeed equal the end of good taste, as Willem-Jan Neutelings has suggested? It seems like it.
I have also to admit that after looking at the images for some days now, I start to like parts of it. There is a cultural framework that excludes such a use of color. This might however in the future. Color is coming back. (Mark my words!)
Should I write something about the gig of André Agassi and Roger Federer on the heliplatform of the Burj? For me these photographs are super-significant for a number of reasons. Like Richard Branson on The World that event was iconic. Surreal, absurd, unique… it is everything. It becomes something else entirely. And I like Federer just hitting the balls off the building. The hotel has something of a very exclusive circus, and these tennis-players perform in the ring. The Burj Al Arab is about show, a grand show.
And the helicopter-platform of the Burj Al Arab is for a change not just an enhancement of a roof, but it is an actual helicopter-platform. Some things become more real. You have to look careful though.
Dubai 1: The story so far
Dubai 2: Palm Jumeirah
Dubai 3: Palm Jebel-Ali
Dubai 4: Palm Deira
Dubai 5: The World
Dubai 6: Burj Al Arab
Dubai 7: Burj Dubai
Dubai 8: Dubai Towers
Dubai 9: Dubai Renaissance
Dubai 10: The Cloud