How important is a recognisable skyline to the success of a global city?

'You have to be realistic as architects, you cannot solve every problem on the drawing board and, as cultures shift, you can’t write the book for everything

The Burj Khalifa skyscraper, center, stands above other skyscrapers on the city skyline in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photographer: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

What makes a building spectacular? At this week's Cityscape Global 2018 at Dubai's World Trade Centre, developers presented a raft of new real estate opportunities in the UAE and wider region, while on the sidelines, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) conducted a series of talks exploring best practice in international architecture.

As the future-facing discussions examined how new technology is facilitating construction and interaction with communities to create more user-friendly cities, RIBA architect Jonathan Ashmore, founder and director of Anarchitect, presented a reflective panel session entitled Constructing Extraordinary Reputations: What Makes A Building Truly Iconic.  

Does bigger mean better?

Ashmore proposed that the impetus for remarkable architecture and structures comes from “an ambition of the client, or the ambition of a particular country wanting to make a statement on a more global platform”. In the UAE, the thinking is that grand buildings act as a catalyst, helping to transform the country into a global destination of note, on par with other established international cities such as London, Paris, New York and Sydney, where symbolic buildings create an easily recognisable skyline. This, ultimately, becomes an attraction, increases tourism and supports redevelopment and inward investment.

In contrast to the UAE, other globally recognised cities have for the most part emerged over the course of centuries, rather than decades. As a consequence, Ashmore says that in the early years in the UAE, the benefit of the public realm had not been thoroughly considered as part of the country’s forward drive. “Ten years ago it was very much still developer driven and obviously return on investment-driven. You can’t put parks and public realm on a spreadsheet and get an immediate number for what the investment return is.

“Yet, we all know now through the likes of Meraas and The Beach, and Emaar and Downtown Dubai, that there is great value to be derived from public realm and successful mixed use development,” Ashmore adds. It is these spaces that bind impressive buildings and create the layers that a successful city and its communities need.

The iconic Burj Khalifa

For Ashmore, Emaar’s Burj Khalifa, by architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, is still the UAE’s standout piece of architecture. “View it from above, and the obsession with the level of detail reveals an expanding rose which radiates into every single paving stone and plant, down to details in materials, furniture, interiors and the wider landscape; it reads on the horizontal and it reads down to the ground.”

Irrespective of its height, which may at some point be surpassed, Ashmore believes that it’s the unique time, place, vision and a willingness to invest in that level of detail that ensures that the Burj Khalifa has a singular place in the lexicon of seminal architecture. That a single developer controlled the construction not only of the Burj Khalifa, but also much of the surrounding Downtown Dubai area, played a major role in creating a special synergy between this building and the wider landscape and community. 

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, May 26, 2017:     Street art along December 2 streetin the Al Satwa area of Dubai on May 26, 2017. Christopher Pike / The National

Job ID: 34726
Reporter:  N/A
Section: News
Keywords:  *** Local Caption ***  CP0526-na-projects-street art-02.JPG
A UAE street scene used as inspiration by Dr Khaled Alawadi. Christopher Pike / The National 

Where the UAE once looked at how remarkable buildings could contribute in creating a global destination, Ashmore believes that there is now an opportunity to explore how new life can be breathed into some of the existing structures of the 1960s and 1970s that are either redundant or not necessarily used to their full potential.

Mixing in the old with the new

In London in the United Kingdom, for example, listed buildings such as the Battersea Power Station and Tate Modern, both former power stations, have grown beyond their original purpose and over time become much-loved features of the urban landscape. “Both are good examples of how saving these great structures by giving them new function has created a new kind of iconography. This means they are accessible again and have a life beyond their original aesthetics and structure,” says Ashmore. 

There is the idea that instead of regeneration through clearing, some of the UAE’s concrete buildings from the 1960s and 1970s (which were considered ambitious at the time and are still significant) could be saved, and be granted with a new function and purpose within a modern landscape. They can be re-engaged as symbols and icons of the city. “There are opportunities to look at the old building stock and the areas around Karama, Satwa and Deira. On the Dubai Creek, there are some really good examples of the general public realm created in the 1970s and 1980s, before the big shift to ‘New’ Dubai.”

What's next?

Today, engagement with communities and end users is increasingly seen as best practice by developers and architects working on new projects. This year, Dr Khaled Alawadi, an Emirati scholar and architect who specialises in the design of sustainable cities, was appointed to curate the UAE’s presence at the Venice Architecture Biennale. His pavilion, dubbed “Lifescapes Beyond Bigness”, explored the value of places that sit in the shadow of “bigness” in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Dr Khaled Alawadi’s UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE
Dr Khaled Alawadi’s UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE

Part of Alawadi’s project involved research into the evolving relation of high-rise to low-rise construction, to the proportion of green space in cities, and to the networks of streets and alleys in which everyday life is lived. “In any city in the world, you can see this hierarchy – from the high-rises, to the mid-rises, to the low-rises. To be honest, it’s not showing anything new,” says Alawadi of the pavilion. “But it’s showing this kind of juxtaposition or contrasting image between bigness and the human scale which are very very close to each other.”

Read more:

Visitors flock to Cityscape Global in Dubai - in pictures

Cityscape Dubai to showcase developers' schemes as market confidence grows

Cityscape Abu Dhabi to showcase projects from different emirates


Alawadi went out with his team and interviewed residents in the community in order to obtain a better understanding of the affinity that people have for these places and also how residents are shaping their own environments. From a Filipino man living in Satwa who had created green spaces between two buildings in the area where he lived, to examples of street art, Alawadi found countless instances of people taking ownership of spaces in the public realm.

Ashmore concludes: “You have to be realistic as architects, you cannot solve every problem on the drawing board and, as cultures shift, you can’t write the book for everything.”

Consulting with the community and respecting existing structures will ensure cohesion as new layers are added to the UAE’s infrastructure. At the same time, people are a fundamental part of the life of a city and should be allowed to play a part in mapping its future.