Abu Dhabi Builds Its Architectural Cred

The building boom in the United Arab Emirates capital rivals that of Dubai, but Abu Dhabi is banking on ambitious green architecture

In recent weeks, the rivalry between neighboring United Arab Emirates Dubai and Abu Dhabi has been heating up on a world stage—most notably with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority's purchase of a $7.5 billion stake in Citigroup (C) (BusinessWeek.com, 11/27/07), which came on the heels of Dubai's investment in Sony (SNE) in late November.

At the same time, the two cities have been competing on another playing field: the rapid construction of show-stopping, record-breaking buildings. These new structures and complexes—from soaring skyscrapers and indoor ski slopes (in Dubai) (BusinessWeek.com, 3/2/06) to a desert outpost of France's Louvre museum and a glitzy update of the traditional Middle Eastern market (in Abu Dhabi)—are intended to establish each city as a destination for tourists.

Recently, though, a new twist has characterized the architectural rivalry. July, 2006, saw the launch of the Emirates' Green Building Council in Dubai—which involves all of the UAE. The Council is adapting the ratings standards of LEED to the desert climate of the UAE. And on May 31, 2007, the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) kicked off a two-phase green-building initiative.

The First Zero-Carbon City

First, a gap analysis report will compare international green-building procedures with current practices in Abu Dhabi. The second phase centers on the establishment of government-backed Green Buildings Guidelines (GBG). According to the EAD (as reported in Arabian Business), the implementation of sustainable building practices is vital as the emirate is expecting a 25% yearly increase in construction over the next three years. But it's clear Abu Dhabi is also vying to be "greener" than Dubai.

Sustainably minded projects include Masdar, which aims to be the first zero-carbon city in the world—not just the Middle East. The product of an initiative sparked by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyana, the walled, car-free, city-within-a-city was designed by London architects Foster + Partners and is being developed by the government-funded organization leading the project.

Also in Abu Dhabi, Tameer Towers is a $100 million mixed-use development from Tameer Holding (based in the emirate of Sharjah), which says it has a portfolio of construction projects in the region with a gross value of $11 billion. This complex is being designed by international architecture firm Gensler and will incorporate details such as shade from landscaped terraces and an eco-friendly plan to use local, rather than imported, materials to create the 72-story building.

The Oil Paradox

Other environmentally friendly projects include the 83-story Sky Tower, from Miami architectural firm Arquitectonica, which plans to use sunlight-controlling glazes to keep the building cool, as well as water-saving fixtures throughout the structure. Both of these buildings are hoping to receive LEED certification—before any other projects in the UAE. Although the ultra-ambitious Masdar project doesn't have a set date for opening, the other two structures are scheduled to be completed within the next four years.

The overall environmentally savvy strategy Abu Dhabi is developing might seem paradoxical, given its 100-billion-barrel oil reserves. At the same time, investing in solar power technologies makes sense in a desert region where sunlight is abundant. Given its oil-rich economy, the emirate's developers are also able to sink billions of dollars into new construction. And even Abu Dhabi's vast petroleum reserves will someday be used up, so the forward-thinking green-business initiatives of the emirate's government seem wise.

The "green" strategy was not always front and center in Abu Dhabi's plans to create new wonders of the world to attract tourists and new forms of business revenue from the tourist industry. In early 2007, Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), which manages the real estate assets of the emirate's government, announced the development of a $27 billion cultural district on Saadiyat Island. It was a move intended to cast Abu Dhabi as a sophisticated player on the global culture scene. The Saadiyat Island project aims to open, by 2012, a collection of museums and performing art spaces by globally renowned "starchitects" including Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, and Frank Gehry.

The idea is to create destination architecture that will lure visitors from around the world to this city of 1.8 million. Think of Beijing's changing landscape (BusinessWeek.com, 12/23/05), with its growing crop of chic contemporary buildings by architects such as Rem Koolhaas, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and Herzog and de Meuron, set to open in time for the 2008 Olympics.

Proven Strategy to Attract Attention

The precedent, however, was set by Gehry's design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the sweeping metallic structure that has attracted millions of visitors to a sleepy fishing town since its opening in 1997. Now Abu Dhabi will get a Gehry-designed Guggenheim.

Other high-profile buildings, such as Hadid's performing arts center, Ando's maritime museum, and Nouvel's Louvre tap into a proven strategy to attract attention on a global level. And, important for Abu Dhabi, the move toward highbrow institutions by marquee-name architects contrasts with Dubai's Las Vegas-style array of spectacular, theme park-like developments, such as man-made islands shaped like miniature versions of the world's continents or soaring skyscrapers.

But Abu Dhabi's instant cultural district drew critics from around the world. In France, for example, resistance to the Jean Nouvel Louvre was so strong that thousands of people signed a petition against the project, the result of a whopping $1.3 billion deal with France for the use of the Louvre name and to borrow from its art collection. And experts on the region also began looking at Abu Dhabi's building boom as a dubious way to boost its already robust economy.

What's Inside the Buildings

"Architecture does not make a great economy, especially when the architects are foreign. Economic activity (technology, including inventions and innovations, production, and marketing are the main tools for economic development and growth," writes Elias Tuma, professor emeritus of economics at the University of California-Davis, a specialist in the political economy in the Middle East, in an e-mail.

"Architecture may help in marketing, but what do you market if you do not design and produce? Architecture could help if it is efficiency-oriented and not only an image-making instrument," Tuma observes. In other words, it's what's inside the fancy buildings that will really count.

Some Western architects involved in the green-building projects—truly "efficiency-oriented" architecture, as Tuma puts it—are seeing Abu Dhabi's evolving green mandate as a way to challenge themselves, by researching and implementing traditional Islamic architectural ideas to offer centuries-old inspiration for contemporary, eco-friendly design.

Middle East-Meets-West Design

"We noticed that the orientation of traditional buildings in historic settlements placed them closer together; they had high thermal mass, and were oriented to the right direction in relation to the sun to avoid high thermal heat, and to have shading," says Gerard Evenden, senior partner at Foster + Partners in London, who is in charge of the Masdar design. "We looked at that scientifically and asked, can it be translated into a new city? We learned that streets that are 70 meters in length have a better microclimate than those that are 150 meters in length because of the way wind moves through them, and then we started to design."

The Middle East-meets-West approach to design is sure to provoke critics, who might interpret such a strategy as a superficial Western nod to Islamic architecture. But given Foster + Partners' emphasis on incorporating research on wind, thermal effects, and other climate-related aspects of ancient Islamic architecture, rather than simply slapping on mosaics or other regional design elements to the Masdar buildings, it is sure to draw applause, too. Such an approach not only keeps regional architecture alive in the area, but also updates the efficiencies of many centuries-old Islamic design elements to a 21st-century environment.

Evenden emphasizes that the Islamic references in Masdar's design also will help Abu Dhabi brand itself as a unique tourist destination, compared to other areas relying on starchitect buildings to draw attention, such as Beijing or Dubai.

An Architect's Dream City

"Abu Dhabi sees itself as the mature older brother. Dubai is the runaway child who does all the crazy things. Abu Dhabi is far wealthier," says Duncan Swinhoe, Gensler's design director for the Tameer Towers. "Abu Dhabi is becoming assertive now. They are projecting the emirate as more restrained and responsible than Dubai."

Swinhoe adds that furthering sustainable architecture is one reason international architects are drawn to the emirate. The large budgets of real estate developers in Abu Dhabi—not to mention the lack of planning permits and historical zoning committees that can slow down projects in cities such as London and New York-—mean inventive architectural designs can be transformed into concrete, glass, and, well, solar panels more quickly than in other parts of the world.

"Abu Dhabi sees it is defining the region," Swinhoe concludes. "Architects realize that their wild imaginations have the chance to be realized. It's a huge motivation."

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