The familiar facade of Atlantis, The Palm, is set to share its lofty position on the tip of Dubai's most famous man-made island with a project that also shares its name: The Royal Atlantis Residences & Resort. The 43-storey structure, which is being developed at the rate of one floor every two weeks, is rapidly rising to meet its end-of-2019 handover date.
The property by Kerzner International has been in the news for about five years, with reports of a building cost of US$1.4 billion (Dh5.1bn), as well as 65 outdoor pools and the first Heston Blumenthal restaurant in the UAE. Three individuals who have played a key role in shaping this new structure are architect Elie Gamburg, director at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; Parisienne interior designer Sybille de Margerie; and Maria Morris, a partner at Knight Frank. Each was bound by a design brief that they say was at once exhilarating and challenging.
The challenges of creating something iconic
“Almost five years ago, there was a competition to do this building. And the brief simply said it was to be Dubai’s most iconic building,” recalls Gamburg. “When I first read that, I thought it was nearly impossible, because the city is full of uniquely shaped buildings; it’s almost like everything has already been done. Instead, with this project, we decided to create a series of one-off experiences, which you really can’t get elsewhere. The idea for the structure itself was to take a simple form – the slab building – and pull it apart, and in doing so to create apertures, or sky courts, in the middle.”
Iconic is a word that's bandied about all too often these days. Hearing Gamburg, de Margerie and Morris talk, one can't help but wonder if, actually, Dubai already has too many "iconic" buildings, which interfere with cohesive development. Does erecting structures that are undeniably impressive, but that are so different from each other, take away from, rather than contribute to, the cityscape?
"While a city does need one-off icons, the real measure of the health of any city urbanistically is its background buildings," Gamburg admits. "But from an architectural point of view, Dubai is only about 25 years old; it's still a city of constituent parts. If you were looking at London 300 years ago, Westminster, Soho and so on, were all separate villages that had not grown together yet. Even to this day, if you walk around London, you can see where those seams are; you transition quite clearly from one neighbourhood to another, which is OK.
“Having said that, I think there are some very nice pieces of Dubai that have emerged – the DIFC area, much of the Marina and Downtown, and the Jumeirah area around Madinat. The issue is the gaps between them. So I think Dubai is on a tipping point in that regard; it’ll be interesting to see how the pieces fill in.
“The Royal Atlantis, however, is a different animal. I don’t think the Palm has any aspirations to be a form of continuous urbanity. It is very much a proximate resort district, which lends itself well to a mixed-use development.”
Keeping up with an urban resort lifestyle
Mixed-use projects do seem to be the order of the day: gated communities where you can live, shop, eat, entertain, perhaps even work. And having a resort at your doorstep opens up a whole world of 24-hour concierge, security and other domestic services, access to social and green spaces, and other five-star amenities, such as multiple pools, fitness centres and spas, which up the quality of life.
“We are living in an interesting time, in that people want their hotels to feel a bit more like homes, which is why concepts such as Airbnb do well, but also want their homes to feel more like hotels, and come with a level of service that, at one time, you would only get in a hotel,” says Gamburg. “Fundamentally, the attraction of cities, too, is the fact that they are mixed-use. You may want to live in places that are exclusively residential, quiet and private; but the measure of attraction of a neighbourhood is the number and quality of amenities it has, its proximity to restaurants, shops and so on.”
The right wing of the Royal Atlantis will house 231 residences, while the left will be made up of 795 guest suites. The two are linked with a 90-metre-high infinity swimming pool.
The apartments are available in three formats: terraced skycourts, duplex garden town houses and pool-equipped penthouses. They range in size from 1,434 square feet to 17,088 square feet; and in price from Dh7 million to Dh37m. The building's distinctive apertures, meanwhile, are each about six floors tall and divided into four, which means that residents can step out from their living room on to a rather sizeable, shaded terrace. These terraces, in turn, are ventilated thanks to the winds blowing up off the Gulf on to the lagoon and then towards land, so you've got a space that's almost always cool.
“The end game,” explains Gamburg, “was to make being outdoors a possibility from six months of the year to nine, even 10 months. This is in keeping with the unique reputation Dubai enjoys of [having] an urban resort lifestyle.”
The double curvatures
From an architectural point of view, Morris says the curvature is her favourite element of the structure, especially because, despite the building’s shape, the apartments flow organically. “Let’s be honest, we’ve all seen an apartment or two in Dubai, probably lived in an apartment or two here, where you have an amazing-looking space and then you walk straight into a structural column,” she says with a laugh. “Trying to create a uniquely shaped structure is a challenge, but that’s why we’ve been in design for over four years. The brief was very much to make this a liveable home, while having an architecturally led project.”
Gamburg adds: "One of the best debates to be had on the Palm is, which is the better view: towards the Gulf or facing the city? So we decided to keep the double curvatures because that way you get both. This also ensures privacy: no two houses or rooms face each other; they all look out towards the water and the city."
Privacy is one obvious concern with mixed-use projects; the other is size. “A mixed-use project is more challenging to build than a single-use facade, where everything from the elevator to the stairs to how you get to your apartment is just simpler,” explains Gamburg. “This is why the Royal Atlantis has been designed in a way that you can think of it as one building or as six towers next to each other. It’s mixed-use, in that all the towers are linked, but the feel is very much that of a stand-alone complex.
“We’ve all been to monstrously large hotels where there are literally hundreds of doors stretching out in front of you; it’s very impersonal. But by breaking the building down into smaller three-, four-, five-floor blocks, and also breaking it up laterally into individual pieces, you only see handful of apartments on each floor; or 12 to 16 hotel rooms. So, on the one hand, you have all the benefits of a large complex and resort, but all the feelings of intimacy of stepping out of a private elevator in a small residential building.
"Likewise, the town houses have their own shaded gardens, which makes it very difficult for people to look straight down into them. It's like having a private villa that's part of a larger property. So all these elements have been carefully considered, given that this is a very large project: 330,000 square metres in total."
The artists behind the interiors
Interiors-wise, de Margerie has created a total of 82 design layouts to choose from: a blend of colours, fabrics and finishes that are meant to capture the various moods of the city at various points of the day. “I felt that the colours in Dubai from morning to evening were inspiration enough; it’s like a jewel box,” she says. “We focused on this to create a palette of shades and finishes, from the blues and light greys of morning time, to the strong golden light of noon, and the copper and rose gold tones of the evening – something you see over the course of a typical Dubai day, so it’s about working from the inside to the outside.”
The designer, whose clients include the LVMH and Mandarin Oriental groups, enlisted five artists to create bespoke artworks that will only be seen in the interiors of the Royal Atlantis residences. These include: embroidery expert Annie Trussart, who created metalworks by blending glass pearls and metal mesh; fabric connoisseur Celine Alexandre, who created gilded walls with wave silhouettes in gold; Helen Amy Murray, who worked on hand-sculpted leather finishes for the walls; and porcelain artist Isabelle Poupinel, who created a lighted ceramic installation for the master bedrooms. "You can combine the artworks with different colour harmonies, so you have the chance to have a completely bespoke apartment. It's very refined work," de Margerie adds.
Some may argue that a luxury development of such monolithic proportions seems overly ambitious in the current market. And certainly, the plans for the Royal Atlantis were conceived a few years ago. The project was meant to mark the comeback of the bold sentiment tht underscored Dubai's real estate market in its earlier days.
It’s been opined that luxury developments are above the ebbs and flows of the regular real estate market, but this is not so, according Gamburg. “Nothing is immune,” he says. “However, smart developers, investors, buyers and designers think across cycles. This is not the kind of property that someone will look to buy and quick-flip, which I don’t think is ever a wise course of action anyway.
“I do think that things that have intrinsic value will, over time, continue to appreciate. There is a reason why, even after very deep financial crises, cities such as New York, London and, yes, Dubai made a comeback, because there is that intrinsic urban, cultural and socio-economic value to what these cities offer, and that will always be realised. Projects such as the Royal Atlantis endure longer than your typical four-year cycle,” Gamburg concludes.