Dubai architects survey new landscape

Architects in the emirate put the past behind them and alter their working practices the play with the cards they have been dealt.

Dubai - May 29, 2010 -  The skyline along Sheikh Zayed Road near Emirates Hills in Dubai May 29, 2010. STOCK (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)
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Three years ago the Dubai office of the architects P&T Group was designing a rotating building and working on the City of Arabia, a Dubai development of 1.85 million square metres.
Today, staff numbers have been cut by half and two thirds of its projects around the region are characterised as "on hold".
"It's still a developing market," says James Abbott, the director of P&T's Dubai office. "If you want to be a player you have to deal with the way things are."
P&T is one of several architecture firms whose operations in the UAE have been downsized and restructured in the wake of the property market downturn in Dubai. Instead of designing flashy towers, many firms in the emirate are focusing on hospitals, educational facilities and transport centres.
And the majority of their work is outside Dubai, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar attracting the most interest.
In Dubai, some US$356 billion (Dh1.3 trillion) worth of projects have been put on hold since 2008 and another $27bn cancelled, according to MEED Projects, which tracks developments. And there is little new work for architects in the pipeline.
"Dubai is very quiet," says Eric Tomich, the associate director of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the designers of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower.
The company recently completed work on the Rolex Tower in Dubai and it is in the final stages of the "twisted" Infinity Tower, also in Dubai.
"We're really not working on new projects in the UAE," Mr Tomich says.
Architects say more emphasis is now placed on "speciality niches" in the Emirates.
"Transportation has become gigantic" in the region, says Steven Miller, the regional director of the Middle East for Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, which is designing the $6.4bn expansion of the Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Many of the local offices of international architects now run streamlined business development operations, deploying personnel to areas with projects under way.
In Dubai, the focus is on getting paid for projects that were delayed or cancelled, says Mr Miller.
"A big part of what we all do is collect money on all the things we do in Dubai. We're stuck playing collection officer all the time."
Several firms are owed between Dh2 million and Dh5m, says Mr Miller, who was the managing director at the Dubai office of the US architects FxFowle until September.
P&T, based in Hong Kong, is in arbitration with Nakheel, formerly one of its primary employers, over payment for work done on the Dubai Maritime City development, Mr Abbott says. He declined to reveal how much P&T was claiming.
P&T remains committed to Dubai, Mr Abbott emphasised. The company recently moved its Dubai office into the new Sheikh Hamdan Awards Complexbuilding on Jumeirah Beach Road.
But it's a very different business landscape now than in 2004, when the firm opened its UAE operation and started work on the planning for City of Arabia, part of Dubailand. The development includes Mall of Arabia, planned to be one of the world's largest shopping centres.
"We're not doing anything at City of Arabia," Mr Abbott says. "We're waiting to see when it starts up again, subject to the property market."
In 2007, 90 per cent of work P&T's Dubai office undertook was in the UAE; now it is about 35 per cent. The firm's biggest local project is the City of Lights, the Dh1.5bn development with five towers on Abu Dhabi's Reem Island. P&T's only new commissions in the UAE in the past year have been two healthcare facilities, developed in conjunction with TAHPI, an Australian healthcare specialist.
Major international projects include the tallest tower in Uganda and a mixed-use tower in Riyadh.
Of the 35 projects P&T has worked on since 2004, about one third are on-going, Mr Abbott says.
"A good portion will happen when the market is right," he says.
 
kbrass@thenational.ae