Out of all the categories this year, the award for Architect of the Year was the most clear-cut, with the jury almost unanimous in its decision to laud George Efstathiou. Although based in Chicago, Efstathiou, was a key figure behind a trio of Dubai’s best high rises – Burj Khalifa, Infinity Tower and Rolex Tower, which won Overall Project of the Year at the 2011 awards.
Dressed in a sharp grey suit, Efstathiou starts by describing his career. “I’ve been at SOM for 38 years. I started off as a technical architect, then became a design architect and then a manager of the design process. I’m the number one ranking architect and the client liaison so I take care of all the business aspects.”
When asked whether he sees high rise buildings as his specialty, Efstathiou replies: “I think anybody at SOM is an expert at high rise buildings – it’s a hallmark of our firm. Yet the super tall building is a totally different animal. They have the same issues as a 50 storey building but a lot more additional challenges.”
SOM’s twisting 330m-high Infinity Tower is undoubtedly the architectural highlight of Dubai Marina, a stand out feat of design and engineering among several unremarkable tower blocks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Efstathiou is far from impressed by the neighbouring designs and cites Downtown Dubai as a better model for urban planning.
He adds: “I have to be careful what I say because I don’t want to offend anybody. We’re not advocates of most of the Marina buildings or the approaches to planning. I’d say that Downtown Dubai is a better model of how to create more density that’s livable. It’s a fantastic place – it’s got great character. “
According to Efstathiou, Infinity Tower is the world’s first ‘truly’ twisting building. He elaborates: “Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso in Sweden looks as if it’s twisting, but it’s just the exterior wall moving . With Infinity Tower, the actual structure is twisting. The floor plates are the same but they rotate almost a degree each time. The columns don’t go straight down, except for the core which contains the elevators and pipes.”
Despite massive construction delays due to a flood, the tower is expected to be completed by the end of 2011. Efstathiou continues: “The structure is all the way up but the cladding is not finished and they are fitting out apartments.”
While Infinity Tower stands out from its neighbours thanks to its panache and pyrotechnics, Rolex Tower – located on the other side of the city on Sheikh Zayed Road – manages to command attention through simplicity.
Efstathiou adds: “As we studied Sheikh Zayed Road we realised that one of our buildings would stand out in a different way. Usually our buildings will come from one strong idea – that’s all you really need. You don’t have to apply ornaments all over your buildings.”
He continues: “What forced us into this simple design was a very tight site and a tight budget. We followed the client’s direction and had some fun with the facade and the shape. It’s really a quiet building but it’s one of the nicer ones around.
In the middle of all the screaming buildings there’s Rolex Tower. When you have great clients you can do different things and be true to the architecture that comes out of the site itself.”
Efstathiou is particularly proud of the Burj Khalifa. “Emaar gave us only two weeks to submit the concept design and we won the competition. Initially it was 550m high tower but the building got stretched and more things got added. In fact, we wind tunnel tested it up to 1km just to see what would happen. We knew we could go higher, but the client chose to keep it at a certain height [828m].”
Efstathiou was disappointed to lose out on the contract to design the Burj’s taller cousin, the 1km Kingdom Tower in Jeddah. “We thought it would be difficult for them not to select us, given that we had worked on the Burj Khalifa with had the same team of engineers and architects. It came down to a beauty contest.
“Prince Al-Waleed put all the competitors in one room with all their models. What was interesting was that all of the submissions, except for a couple, were tapered. They all looked very similar with the same basic profile.
This is because the structure costs would become so high in a straight tower, and the movements would be untenable. The firms with high rise experience knew they had to taper, or change the shape a little bit, or roughen the surface in order to confuse the wind.”
The winning entry went to AS + GG, a firm set up by former SOM employee and chief architect of the Burj Khalifa, Adrian Smith. When asked whether Smith gets most of the credit for Burj Khalifa, Efstathiou replies: “Designers in general get the glory. They come out and say they created the building.
That’s fine, but when you look at the Burj Khalifa, there were 100 architects and engineers underneath Adrian that were doing all kinds of work and studies. Some of the studies were adopted by Adrian. It’s not just one person that does the design.
People in the background like me – that make everything work and get everything coordinated and get the contracts signed – are just the quiet heroes. I was good friends with Adrian and we worked together very well. I was disappointed when he left.”
SOM is currently working on two hotel projects in Saudi – the Park Hyatt in Riyadh the Grand Hyatt in Jeddah – as well as a mixed-use scheme in Lusail, Qatar. Efstathiou also reveals that he has been liaising with a large developer regarding a new mixed-use project in Business Bay, Dubai.
He adds: “There’s still a lot of work in Dubai, Saudi and in Doha. After its blip, Dubai has corrected itself. We are not going to abandon the market. Both our Chicago and New York offices are here, actively marketing monthly. But it’s going to be slow.”
Efstathiou considers Dubai as a second home, although working in foreign cities is part and parcel of his job. “I’m a foreign architect in this country and people have welcomed me here, which makes me feel pretty good.
Recently I looked back at my career and most of my work has been outside the US. But I don’t just bring SOM’s services here, I also bring back the culture of different places. I consider myself to be an architectural diplomat for the United States.”