Back to the old drawing board

Insight Dubai was a wonderland where the world's architects could fulfil their wildest dreams - until the global downturn took hold.

A handout photo of "The Cloud,"  a project of Nadim Karam (Courtesy: Nadim Karam & Atelier Hapsitus) *** Local Caption ***  THE CLOUD, KARAM 03.jpg

There were towers entwined in a sensual waltz, a city resembling a chessboard and an underwater hotel straight from the realms of science fiction. Dubai was going to have it all, at a time when the city was a playground for the architectural world.

Of course, these planned developments did not come cheaply. Dancing Towers was part of a multibillion-dollar project, while Chess City was to cost US$2.6 billion (Dh9.55bn). The Hydropolis underwater hotel would have cost $500 million, while the Dynamic Tower was a $700m development. "In any market that is on the rise there's always a risk of hubris, and that's across the world," says Ian Albert, a regional director at the property consultancy Colliers International.

Renowned architects such as the Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, who designed the Dancing Towers, were lured to the region as developers sought brash, headline-grabbing projects. The Dancing Towers were planned for Dubai's Business Bay and were to be completed by Dubai Properties. At the height of the development boom in 2006, competition was so fierce that there were cases of designers claiming their ideas had been stolen by rivals.

But then reality set in. The global economic crisis shattered the days of easy money, while the aftershocks were felt in Dubai as property prices dropped by 50 per cent last year and building projects were put on hold. In this new world of tighter budgets, architects have had to turn their attention to working up drawings for more grounded projects, such as schools and hospitals. "As markets decline, there's a return to core fundamentals and that's where we are," says Mr Albert.

Now architecture is all about quality and sustainability, with most of the jobs being commissioned by government ministries. "We shifted our focus to the public sector about 12 months ago and now have three projects with the Government," says Mazin al Hakim, the managing director for the MENA region at PRP Architects, based in the UK. "We've created a niche for ourselves, especially on the sustainability side where we see a lot of working coming from."

Mr Mazin says his company is working on two public sector projects in Abu Dhabi, but declines to give details as they are still confidential. He says companies more familiar with designing residential and commercial buildings had to swiftly adapt to public sector work, where methods and client objectives are different. Competition in the sector is still tough, with clients being more selective. "There is more on offer in the market in terms of skills and experience," he says. "They're being more selective with projects and quality of work, while there is more focus on sustainability and quality."

The Dubai office of P&T Architects and Engineers, the Hong Kong company that designed the City of Arabia for the Dh325bn Dubailand project, is also moving away from the private sector. "It's a very competitive market at the moment," says James Abbott, a director at the firm, adding that clients' expectations rose as the volume of work declined. "Fortunately, we had some fairly large projects keeping us busy and we've trimmed down our capacity - but we're looking at healthcare and educational work in the public sector."

While P&T is working on projects in Abu Dhabi, which has fared slightly better than Dubai during the downturn, Mr Abbott says new jobs are still scarce. "There's a lot of talk of work in Abu Dhabi, but there's not a lot actually coming up," he adds, explaining that jobs are taking longer to come to tender while developers try to save costs. Jean-Paul Cassia, a senior partner at the CASSIA Group, believes design firms that are able to diversify their work will be the ones that survive the downturn.

CASSIA has spread its work across the region and is also involved in industrial projects, such as with the National Central Cooling Company, known as Tabreed. "In any speculative environment, when holding on to the fundamentals of good management becomes incompatible with client expectations, the warning signs are there," Mr Cassia says. "Remaining sober helps mitigate the flip side of an over-bearish market and today, those that are able to diversify their work are the ones that will overcome the construction slowdown. In other words, don't put all your eggs in one basket."

Despite the slowdown, architects are confident the sector will rebound and the country is still the place for their inspirations to be brought to life. Richard Krent, a senior design manager at Limitless, the Dubai World-owned property developer, describes the country as a "paradise" for architecture. "Architects are finally becoming known for what they actually do," Mr Krent says. "Basically, they're problem solvers, they're not just focused on the pretty building.

"Every architect needs to look at projects holistically. They need to make it walkable and understand the characteristics of light and air." Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the US-based tall tower specialist that designed the Burj Khalifa, is also confident in the long-term prospects of the country. The firm is about to open an office in Dubai, despite having worked on the 828-metre skyscraper for more than five years.

"There is still a lot of work here. Developers are just being more selective," says George Efstathiou, a partner at the company. "A lot of smart developers are looking at this low right now. "Construction prices are down and the market is down, but by the time you get a building up and running and can sell it, the market's going to come back. There's no question about that. It makes a lot of sense to do a project now, if it's a sizeable one."

Perkins + Will, another US firm, is just as bullish. The company hopes for work in Abu Dhabi and is also bidding for the design contract for Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia, which, if built, could eclipse the Burj Khalifa at 1.1km. "Economies face ups and downs," says Hussein Cholkamy, a director and senior associate at the firm. "We just want to be here when things pick up - we've been hurt in the market just like everyone else, but it's not the end of the world.

"Downturns are good, as they separate the boys from the men."