Crown Jewel

Devina Divecha visits Sowwah Square, the heart of Abu Dhabi’s new commercial business district, designed by Goettsch Partners for Mubadala.

A dusty morning does nothing to dampen the commanding nature of Sowwah Square, the quadruple-tower centrepiece of Abu Dhabi’s new commercial business district and headquarters for the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange.

Steven Nilles, partner, and Matthew Berglund, associate, of project architect Goettsch Partners sit in the ethereal atrium of Tower One, with Nilles sipping on a hot coffee as he dives into the particulars of the scheme in the UAE capital.

With headquarters in Chicago, a branch office in Shanghai and now another in Sowwah Square, Goettsch Partners won the project in an international design competition in 2007, for client Mubadala Real Estate and Infrastructure (MREI).

“There was a requirement to deliver an iconic stock exchange building but also to surround that with very efficient and Class A international standard office buildings,” says Nilles. The scheme contains over 290,000m2 of office space and also incorporates two levels of retail and two parking structures to the north and south of the square.

He comments on how the firm kept in mind the stock exchange, in terms of its programmatic requirement needed to be a four-storey building.

“We decided to really create something very special at the plaza level,” adds Nilles.
To do this, Nilles and his team looked at opportunities for core supportive buildings, a concept which has been emphasised in architecture over the last many years.

He explains: “Everybody seems to be fascinated and focused on the tower at the top; we are also fascinated and focused on the base of the building. It’s the spaces in between the spaces that I think are very special on this project.”

Abdulla Al Shamsi, vice president, Mubadala Real Estate and Infrastructure (MREI), explains the background to the project. “The vision for Sowwah Square, and the greater Al Maryah Island, was to create a model urban district designed with functionality, sustainability and quality as its guiding principles, and project a powerful image of Abu Dhabi as a premier contemporary Arab city,” he remarked.

“Architecturally we wanted to create a mixed-use destination that was inviting, easily accessible, and encouraged the flow of integration between the commercial, financial, retail and leisure facilities. The latest master plan is paired with architectural design controls, which are intended to ensure the quality of design and construction for all of the islands buildings.

“These controls are establishing an architectural identity that is based on performance-driven criteria. For instance, the screens and shading devices – mandated as part of a building’s adherence to Estidama principles – profoundly shape the look and feel of the project. Goettsch Partners worked within these parameters to bring the vision to life through innovative design and  seamless architectural applications.”

A landscaped plaza connects the four buildings, ranging from 31-37 storeys in height, and the exchange. Glass-enclosed, with a roof the size of a football field, the stock exchange building rises 27m above a water feature on four massive granite piers. The piers house the stairs, mechanical risers and service elements.

All the columns have been transferred to open up the entrances and the lobby, and also to elevate the exchange building on four legs. Nilles reflects that in projects Goettsch Partners designed recently, all focused in different ways on creating an urban environment, with no transition between the interior and exterior space.

He proudly says the lobbies in the four office towers are dramatic, because of the glass non-reflective cable wall enclosure that functions like an exterior space. Due to the glass, visitors to the buildings cannot feel the division between outside and in, and the core supportive design lends to the lobbies feeling more open than they actually are.

“These are not tall buildings; if you compare this to Dubai, they’re nothing. They’re background buildings in some respects. But yet this composition of office towers really creates a setting for the exchange building and that’s really the crown jewel of the project,” says Nilles.

Designing the stock exchange led to various challenges. The building is oriented in an East-West direction, which is not ideal for solar exposure. The team came up with ideas to design the building in a cross-orientation that is solar-effective.

Cantilevered glass screen walls have been installed that buffer the building from the exposures. On the surrounding towers, motorised shades follow the sun angle in the form of active sunscreens.

A double-wall façade has been created in the buildings to create a form of thermal control. All structures need to have a certain percentage of outside air entering inside for air pressure, and for every cubic foot of air coming in, a similar amount has to be thrown out.

“Instead of throwing the air out like every other building in the world, we actually throw it into that cavity to create a thermal pillow and then extract the air. So you take the exhaust air, you create a thermal buffer within the cavity, which is all sealed and then you extract it. That picks up the heat, so it’s a thermal control. These walls are cool as a cucumber,” says Nilles enthusiastically.

Another challenge was being selective about materials. “The environment in this region is incredibly corrosive. The humidity, the heat, the sun, the temperature and the dust and condensation that forms on the outside of the building will turn even normal stainless steel into mush,” Nilles says emphatically.

He says there is no substitution for glass, and even with detailing stone architects need to be careful. He warns against curvilinear buildings as it’s easier to notice dust on such structures. “A prime example is the armadillo-shaped transit stations in Dubai. You’re better off going straight. Once you start curving, it’s almost like your eye just knows it’s dirty,” he says.

Sustainability is high on the agenda; Sowwah Square is the first project in Abu Dhabi to be pre-certified LEED-CS Gold. In addition to the double-skin façade and the thermal controls, the  design incorporates condensation collection from cooling coils to supply the water feature as well as providing irrigation. It also features the use of recycled and low toxicity materials and low flow plumbing fixtures.

The project did not apply for LEED Platinum because of the “point of diminishing returns”, according to its architects. “When you get to LEED Platinum in this instance, there’s a point of diminishing returns. You can keep dialling in things but it’s going to cost a lot of money,” explains Nilles.

“Every project has got its potential. Every project that Goettsch Partners designs is not only environmentally sustainable, but is economically sustainable,” adds Nilles.

He adds that the firm creates a “value-driven solution”, where the project turns out to make money as well. “At the end of the day, we figure out what’s best for our client and what’s best for the project, and what’s economically viable,” Nilles says.

Berglund chimes in and says while architects can meet and exceed metrics on the LEED scorecard, there are some pointers such as occupant comfort that do not show up in the rating system, but will be reflected in the users’ attitude to the space.

Al Shamsi clarified the project also follows the Estidama Pearl Rating System for Abu Dhabi.
Another eco-friendly feature of the buildings is what Nilles refers to as “tech-zone” lighting systems. All of the light fixtures in the square can be controlled with a Building Management System (BMS). Possessing daylight sensors, they can dim down or light up automatically.

As Nilles and Berglund walk around the development, the stock exchange building stands in prominence despite being shorter than the surrounding office towers.

Berglund comments: “One thing that came to mind is that it’s put in a context before there even was a context. It went first and everything was built around it.”

Sowwah Square’s architecture is complemented by the creations of American landscape architect Martha Schwartz. This, added to the core supportive building style, lends to the square being more pedestrian-friendly. Berglund said in Dubai, the typical situation is that buildings have a podium with a tower on top, which is a complete block for pedestrians.

“There’s no pedestrian experience whatsoever, but here you’re essentially on top of that podium since the island is on a raised level and the pedestrians have space. ”

“Everything is engineered; it looks so simple but it’s not. It’s very involved,” says Nilles.
A pool will soon appear under the stock exchange building, which Nilles refers to proudly as “a jewel box”. It will feature blue pearl granite and floating electronic lily pads. The latter are light fixtures of 15 different sizes and are tethered to random spots around the pool.

The ceiling is made of a textured, patterned, non-reflective laminated glass that will provide a soft glow at all times of the day. “I think it’s going to be quite dramatic,” says Nilles, looking over the ongoing construction of the pool. The construction is slated to finish in a couple of months.

The journey from the lobby to the stock exchange area is made via a glass elevator. As the elevator goes up, the surrounding islands come into view. “A lot of financial districts shut down at 5pm, but that’s not what we’re doing in Abu Dhabi,” says Nilles as the floors whizz past.

The interior of the stock exchange is luxurious yet functional, and it comes as a surprise to see the room is circular, bearing in mind the external shell is a rectangle. Gensler worked on the interior, with Goettsch Partners responsible for the core-and-shell. “The whole concept of a circle within a rectilinear form was something we all worked together on as the common point to the geometry of the grid.”

Nilles then compares the ceiling to a skylight. “The curve on the top is always fascinating to see. Again, you can build all the models and do all the renderings in the world but until you create a space like that, you don’t know what you’ve got.”

The sloped floors seem more impressive from inside the building. Nilles says he prefers them to some of the views at the top, because it feels like one can have an interaction with the people in the plaza. “We looked at a lot of different options, but really, if you just envision this thing as a big loaf of bread on four legs, it doesn’t look so good,” he adds.

As a light drizzle falls from the skies, Nilles becomes nostalgic and talks about the first visit to the site five years ago. “When we started this it was just a strip of sand. There was absolutely nothing out here — all we saw was a desert fox and cat missing half its ear. We had to create our own context within the framework of the masterplan, and that’s what we did. It’s not going to feel like an island.”

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