From the Burj Khalifa to the Bahrain World Trade Center, the Gulf region is known for its penchant for tall buildings.
However, not all high rises are rooted in the context of Arabia, with many towers simply adhering to the generic glass-box model that could be placed in any city in the world. Inspired by the regional tall building boom, and perhaps the proliferation of inappropriate designs, the UK’s University of Nottingham asked Masters students to design a tower for a site in Abu Dhabi.
Philip Oldfield, co-director of the Masters course, adds: “The module entitled ‘Tall Buildings: Climate, Culture, Context’, has become a key feature in the ‘Masters Course in Sustainable Tall Buildings’ at the University – a course and qualification dedicated to tall buildings.”
The course selected a corniche site next to some of Abu Dhabi’s built and under-construction landmarks including KPF’s Adia Tower, The Landmark by Cesar Pelli and Foster + Partner’s Central Market. Oldfield adds: “The site offered students a host of design challenges.
Surrounded by icons, the site demands a design with a strong presence. The project also asked if the inherent qualities, characteristics and challenges of Abu Dhabi and the region can be design drivers for a high-rise building that is truly rooted in its location.”
Oldfield identified four standout projects: Stacked Courtyards by Minh Ngoc Phan, Filtered Light Tower by Arham Daoudi & Akshay Sethi, Shibam Towers by Najla Gunnur, Soha Hirbod & Fahimeh Soltani and Solar Parking Tower by Fei Qian.
Phan’s project references a key residential typology in the Middle East – the courtyard – by providing a semi-open space that is shaded from the harsh desert sun and wind, while also maintaining privacy.
The project aimed to reinterpret the courtyard house within the high-rise realm, and the result is a series of stacked six-storey villages, each centered around a semi-private courtyard. Large mashrabiya screens shade these spaces but are open to the cooling breeze from the Gulf.
As the building rises, the courtyards twist towards the north, maintaining the
best views of the corniche. Residential apartments are wrapped around the courtyard spaces, which are also inspired by local living patterns – many are planned for extended families with access to a smaller, private courtyard space.
Externally the building façade emphasises the courtyards, with glazing restricted to continuous narrow slots for shading purposes, resulting in a dominance of opacity rather than transparency.
Another project to draw inspiration from the Arabian vernacular is the Shibam Towers, which references the 500-year-old mud towers of Shibam, a walled city in Yemen which contains a network of alleyways.
The students reinterpreted the historic towers, and their response to the harsh climate, in a contemporary manner. The result is a series of slender, tightly grouped towers that step up across the site to visually connect the skyline from the Chamber of Commerce Tower to the ADIA Tower.
The vertical masses are clustered around open yet sheltered courtyards, with alleyways providing circulation from a series of shared cores. Sky gardens are carved into the mass of the buildings and are orientated towards the Gulf to maximise views and to harness sea breezes.
The building’s structural strategy is based on large concrete shear walls – a modern take on Shibam’s construction with the same environmental benefits of thermal mass.
Of course, the control of sunlight is a major consideration in the region, and the Filtered Light Tower project looks at light and shade in a tall building, from both an environmental and experiential perspective. Rejecting the fully-glazed tall building model, the design draws inspiration from the quality of filtered light experienced in the Middle East’s souks and mosques.
The external concrete exoskeleton acts as the tower’s main structural system and also doubles as a solar screen to the hotel and residential accommodation, which filters the light and protects occupants from the harsh Abu Dhabi sun.
Informed by Ecotect software analysis, the size of the exoskeleton’s openings respond to the quantity of solar gain – the greater the gain, the denser the façade – meaning that no two elevations are the same.
The exoskeleton also opens up to frame key views and expose the geode-like atria within the tower. A layer of sliding mashrabiya screens provides additional shading where required.
Oldfield’s final pick, Solar Parking Tower, also aims to save energy, namely fossil-fuel from private cars. Inspired by Masdar City’s proposals for all-electric autonomous pod cars, the design envisages an Abu Dhabi of the future, in which the scheme has become city-wide and residents make their daily travels by using vehicles from a number of huge car pools.
The tower itself acts as a storage centre for a car pool, accommodating some 750 vehicles and 200 apartments. This vertical parking strategy would provide sufficient space for the city, freeing up Abu Dhabi’s plentiful ground-level car parks and creating a denser city.
In addition, the tower provides the energy for the cars through the integration of 19,000m2 of photovoltaic panels on the south, east and west facades. These panels also serve to shade the north-facing apartments, and the dramatic full-height central atrium where residents, scientists and visitors would observe the automated car-parking process.
While the schemes are undoubtedly interesting, do they offer any insights for architects in Abu Dhabi? Oldfield believes so, and adds: “For me, the success of these schemes lies in the marrying of fantastic spaces, evocative forms, new functions and innovative technologies with a responsibility to the locale – not only environmentally, but also culturally and socially.”
He continues: “Perhaps it is the latter that is least considered in the region’s built examples.
With an urban future pointing towards an increase in high-rise living, can architects and developers begin to provide the social and communal spaces, typically found at ground level, in the sky? Can the Middle East residential tower of the future incorporate shaded sky gardens, courtyards and atria to allow for interaction and recreation, rather than merely isolate its occupants high above the city?”
Although Oldfield realises the students’ work is free from client needs, he believes the region needs a higher percentage of towers that fully respond to their surroundings.
He concludes: “It is easy for me, as a pedagogical studio leader – and as such liberated from client demands and economics – to point to this experimental work as the way forward for tall building design in the region.
Yet, high-rise development in the Middle East has already shown itself to be at the forefront of innovation and experimentation through examples such as O14, Bahrain World Trade Center and the Burj Khalifa. The challenge now is to build on such successes and to develop high-rise buildings that truly respond to the unique characteristics of the region’s climate, culture and context.”