Going with the flow: the designer's story behind Yas Waterworld

The architects and designers behind Yas Waterworld, which opens next week, say that by starting with the client's request for a narrative theme, the conception and engineering of the whimsical and world-class attraction's thrills and spills fell more easily into place.

“This is the place where the falcon, Shaheen, lives,” says Kevin Johnson, beckoning up a steep set of stairs and rushing up them to point out the views.

“The falcons all live on these big crags, we had them designed ­specially.”

Meeting the Atkins associate and one of the principal architects behind Yas Waterworld, the Dh900 million (US$245m) waterpark set to open in Abu Dhabi next week, one can’t help wondering, first, how Mr Johnson ended up in the position of having to tell a bizarre tale to a group of journalists, and second, whether it has sent him, ever so slightly, away with the fairies.

Which may be exactly where he needs to be, given the magical landscape Mr Johnson was tasked with creating more than two years ago.

As part of the team of four lead architects who bid for the Aldar contract in 2009 and were awarded it in 2010, Mr Johnson has been thoroughly immersed in Waterworld for the past two years in a role that involves master planning and designing the entire 15-hectare site. And clearly the 43 rides, slides and attractions have whetted his imagination.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the first design meeting for the park in February 2010 held with Atkins architects and engineers, Aldar executives and a couple of former general managers and the operations director of Dubai’s Wild Wadi when the team discussed the project.

“There was an overarching mandatory item on the brief we were given from the client, and that was that the entire park had to have an endearing story,” says Mr Johnson.

“So strangely enough, with a group of architects and engineers all sat around the table, the first thing we had to write was a story – just like the sort of Ladybird storybook story that you read your children at night.”

“It had to be a really captivating story that demonstrated the progress Abu Dhabi wishes to make on the international market. We picked the central character with the client and with the full support of the client... The story then embedded itself all around the park.”

Kate Lockey, a fellow Atkins designer who fell into waterpark architecture after studying graphic design, says it was “a very useful tool to have”.

“Once you have a story, the design then follows through and everything has its own justification as to why it’s there. You can’t go outside of this pallet,” she says.

“So the pearl has to be the central feature and that rises up on a crag which then generates the reason to have that crag because you can’t build a mountain like that without ­justification.

“So then all the ride platforms then come off that. Then the oasis is where she finds the pearl in the story, so you’ve got the wave pool next to it.

“Then you start looking at the ride mix. There are two huge rides and we knew where we wanted them to go. So we had a discussion with the ride manufacturer – we want them to start here, to finish here, but we want to have a main focal point here so that people can see into it.”

Atkins was asked to reflect traditional Emirati architecture in Waterworld’s design. So to find influences for the park, which is designed to attract about 6,000 guests a day with a queuing time of 10 minutes per ride, the team spent much of its time visiting the nation’s forts and heritage villages. The locally inspired design of the souq, which has no windows, will save 16 to 18 per cent on air conditioning costs alone, Atkins estimates.

“The budget gave us the flexibility to bring in some of the world’s firsts into the park to give it the international status, and secondly, to really deliver a spectacular theming,” says Mr Johnson. “If you actually look at the evolving Emirati architecture, it’s not a specific language like baroque because it’s a series of interpretations.

“But you can boil it down to the skeleton. Buildings tend to be made of plain rendered walls based on coral stone. They have simple features. They tend to be square, rectangular or a circle. They are always covered in shade. They allow wind to blow through but not the sun to penetrate. So if you then follow through a descriptive language of understanding the principal factors of Emirati architecture, you can recreate it.”

So what’s next for Atkins’s team of wacky designers?

“We’re just in the process of writing another story for another waterpark proposal,” says Mr Larkin, smiling. “I can’t tell you where the park is, but the story features an eccentric Englishman this time.”

Whatever the outcome, the Yas Waterworld architects and operators will be hoping that the Abu Dhabi park’s story has a happy ending in reality as well as in ­fiction.