Oliver Ephgrave visits Jean Nouvel’s Burj Qatar, recently deemed the best tower in the Middle East and Africa region by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
The striking cylindrical form of Burj Qatar has been a familiar part of Doha’s West Bay skyline for quite some time, yet the functions and appearance of the interior have remained somewhat of a mystery.
Although construction started way back in 2005, at the time of our site visit in mid July, contractor Casco was yet to complete the final handover to operator Hamad bin Saoud (HBS). Given that the 828m Burj Khalifa took five years to construct, there’s no getting around the fact that Jean Nouvel’s 232m tower has taken its time to complete.
The Frenchman’s Doha-based architect partner and area manager Hafid Rakem explains that the tower encountered financial and structural challenges. “We had many problems with the contractor – mainly financial. It made a quote for the facade and then realised it was very complex, so there were disputes.
“Construction began in 2005 but it was very slow at the start. It didn’t really get going until 2008. In addition, the structure was a challenge; the diagrid structure is uncommon, as is the facade.”
When viewed from Doha’s Corniche, the tower may look uncomplicated and almost austere. However, the intricacies become apparent up close. The delicate lattice-like facade, inspired by the traditional Islamic mashrabiya sun screen, is a standout facet.
Rakem explains that the star-shaped pattern was taken from a column in a local mosque. He continues: “From afar you view the facade as a single item. Up close you get the detail, the layers and the thickness.
“Jean Nouvel used the mashrabiya to create a relation with the exterior and a play with shadows.
Unfortunately the Middle East has many ‘aquarium towers’ which are not transparent and have no interaction with outside. Here, the mashrabiya allows us to have clear glass, which is an exception in Qatar.”
Sunken below street level, the entrance to the building is quite unlike other towers. Rakem continues: “The approach for the entrance was a big point of discussion. If you look at other towers, they have a door and you enter; here it is gradual.
The concept is a crater – you go down below the street and this allows you to disconnect from the other towers. The trees are the same level as the pergola so there is an interaction between the manmade and the natural. This is Nouvel’s approach to landscaping.”
Once inside the tower, the quality of the materials and spatial arrangement is evident. The huge 1,700m2 lobby glimmers with its stainless steel floor and ceiling, punctuated by raw diagonal columns in barefaced concrete. The external landscaping, which wraps around the tower, is still clearly visible from inside. A mezzanine floor, covering 686m2, will later be occupied by shops.
Omar Abohaziem, marketing and sales department for HBS, reveals that the client, Sheikh Saoud bin Muhammed Al Thani, plans to place a historic Formula One car in the centre of the lobby.
Rakem adds that the interior materials were chosen to fit in with the times. “The lobby contains floors and ceilings in stainless steel. It is a very strong look – Nouvel wanted to express the current times. You cannot use marble in the 21st century. This look is very contemporary. The barefaced concrete is a bit too strong for some people.”
When asked whether the stainless steel floor is a challenge to maintain, Rakem replies “not so much”. He continues: “We know there will be some scratches, so we have used a random pattern finish in order to confuse the eye. It’s the same as having black marble – that would require maintenance. Nouvel used stainless steel floors in the Institute du Monde Arab in Paris. 20 years later it is almost the same.”
The intended occupants of the Doha tower remain unclear. According to Rakem, there are unconfirmed plans to accommodate a single tenant. The alternative scenario is the tower will be leased to multiple tenants for commercial purposes.
The 44-storey Doha tower is equipped with four Kone elevators that serve levels 27 to 41, which travel at 6m per second. A further two glass panoramic elevators, also by Kone, serve levels 1-27, travelling at 6m per second. Additional private elevators for VIPs are also located within the plan.
A trip in a panoramic elevator, with the tower’s skeletal structure whizzing past, is an architectural adrenaline rush. After passing through the lift lobby on the 27th floor, again lined in stainless steel, the tour enters one of the unoccupied office areas.
For a commercial space it’s truly grand, with the slanting columns reflecting off the galvanised steel floor, and evocative pools of shadow created by the mashrabiya. It would be hard to find a more spectacular office in the region.
The density of the mashrabiya varies according to the orientation. Rakem explains: “There are four layers on the east and west, where the sun in horizontal, three on the south where the sun is vertical and two on the north.
This means there is 55-60% protection on the east and west, 40% on the south, and 25% on the north. Each module measures 4.1m by 4.1m and there are eight subdivisions. The mashrabiya is made of aluminium; this was chosen for its thermal conductivity.”
He also highlights that the artificial lighting is carefully considered. “The lighting is wonderful – we use special glass so the user doesn’t see the lighting fixture. This way the light is more uniform, like a cloud.”
Rakem adds that the cylindrical shape of the tower helps to maximise views over the Corniche. When the shape is likened to an earlier Jean Nouvel project, Torre Aghbar in Barcelona, he concedes the sheikh was influential in the design. “I’m not going to lie to you. The sheikh was very impressed with the Barcelona Tower.
He requested a meeting with Jean Nouvel and asked for something similar. Nouvel said that he can’t replicate but it can be the same typology and adapted to the local situation.
“For Nouvel, they are two different projects with different design criteria. Inside they are totally different. The Burj Qatar offers more views and more interaction with the exterior and the sea. It is Nouvel’s first tower in Middle East and he didn’t want to import schemes from Europe. I’d say the sheikh was very advanced – he anticipated how to give identity to the city.”
The sheikh has reserved a spectacular space at the tip of the tower, an ethereal domed space that could be an ultra-contemporary mosque. “It has a lift to transport food directly from the restaurant – the food will still be hot,” adds Abohaziem.
With an astounding level of detail, the tower contains intricacies such as red-painted stairwells with back-lit metal grilles to hide service pipes. Abohaziem remarks: “The tower was very costly – you could build three or four towers for the same price. The owner wanted something fantastic and treated it as his home.”
The tower’s panache has not gone unnoticed; it recently won the 2012 award from the Council on Tall Building and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) for Best Tall Building in the Middle East and Africa region. Rakem says that the award is an important milestone for Nouvel. “It’s his first award for a Middle East project and he expresses satisfaction. It is part of his story of work, which spans 40 years.”
Abohaziem believes that the award is a source of national pride. “In 2010, the award went to Burj Khalifa and this year the Burj Qatar is the best tall building in the region. The award is a present for the state of Qatar.”