Burj 2020: Architectural duo set their sights on Dubai

The men who are building the world's tallest building in Jeddah are in town - and they have plans for Dubai.

Adrian Smith, left, and Gordon Gill designed the Burj Khalifa, which is, for now, the world’s tallest building. Pawan Singh / The National
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Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill designed the world's tallest building for Jeddah, and plan another in their international city, Dubai.

Seated in a boardroom on the 50th floor of Dubai’s Almas Tower, Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill are barely just off the ground by their – literally – high standards.

Through the plate glass windows are the spires of Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Lakes; mere minnows compared with some of the other projects associated with the architectural duo.

The pair are in town for Cityscape, where on Tuesday they will reveal more about Burj 2020, one of the world’s tallest commercial towers and the centrepiece of a new district being created by Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC).

Meanwhile, 1,600 kilometres to the west, work is progressing on their design for the Kingdom Tower, a thousand-metre “super tall” in Jeddah that will become the world’s tallest building when it is completed some time in 2019 or early 2020.

As part of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Smith also designed the current record holder, Dubai’s own Burj Khalifa, at 828 metres. Of the 11 tallest buildings on the planet, Smith has been involved in four of them, working with Gill, his partner at the Chicago-based practice they founded in 2006.

So both men are well equipped to explain the fascination we have with such colossal structures. “Looking back into history everybody has aspired at one time or another to be on top of the mountain or to be the highest monument or the tallest observation location and I think that it’s ingrained in our DNA,” Smith says. “People are drawn to height.”

He recalls arriving in Chicago as a young student in the 1960s, when the city was generally regarded as the world capital of architecture. “All of a sudden this mountain appears, it’s all buildings and it’s amazing. A man-made mountain.”

For Gill: “There’s a specialness about them [tall buildings], because they give you an experience you don’t normally get. One of the reasons people want to be on top of the mountain is that the perspective is so different. There aren’t a lot of people who have access to super talls, so it is something unique.”

Their presence in Dubai will be one of the highlights of Cityscape. Just hours off a red-eye from Chicago, the two men seem full of energy and enthusiasm for their work. Smith, the older of the two, seems younger than his 71 years. Both are dressed in black, by some measure the most fashionable colour for designers, but a coincidence they insist.

“Tomorrow, we’re both wearing blue,” Smith jokes.

When it was opened in January 2010, the Burj Khalifa was comfortably the tallest building in the world, more than twice the height of the Empire State Building and more than 300 metres higher than Tapei 101, the previous record holder.

Their Kingdom Tower will hand the crown to Saudi Arabia. When it was conceived – before Smith and Gill’s design was awarded – there were reports that this would be the first mile-high skyscraper, or 1,600 metres, although the geology of Jeddah was said to have made this unfeasible.

Still, the dream of a mile-high building is not so much dead as awaiting a client. “We have an ongoing investigation for doing a tower that is a mile high,” Smith says. “So we have designed a mile-high tower and we have designed the systems that are needed for it to function well.”

Such a building requires a complete rethink.

“It is different to going to one kilometre,” Smith says. “It is most likely that the first mile-high building will be a cluster of components, where there is space between the clusters so that you can diffuse the wind forces.”

Everything about such a structure is problematic. As Gill points out, there is an accepted rationale that the base of super-tall skyscrapers should have a ratio of one to 10 in relation to its height. For a 1,000-metre building, this is 100 metres; for a mile-tall structure it is 500 feet, or the size of a city block.

Such a footprint, says Gill, is “untenable” for the amount of space it produces. “It is not quite sure what you would do with all that land. It is almost unusable from a practical point.”

Smith and Gill’s design would produce a much smaller base, if it is ever built. But the theory of modern tall buildings has changed greatly since they were first conceived in America in the early 20th century.

No longer are they a mechanism for housing a lot of people on a small square of land. Instead they generate income in other ways. It is claimed that the Empire State Building now makes more money from visitors to its observation deck than it does from annual rents.

“The tallest building will always attract a great deal of attention to the observation deck at the top of the building,” Smith says. “They have been to the world’s tallest building, they have been to the world’s highest spot and they will pay considerably to do that.”

The Burj 2020 – the year of the Dubai world expo – District will include seven towers and about a million square feet of space for offices and homes, but also restaurants, shops and open spaces along Dubai’s southern gateway.

The main tower, Smith says, will be very different to the Burj Khalifa: “But it will be landmark. It will be a very logical extension of the DMCC environment, a natural expansion. It will be special because of its size and the quality of its materials and quality of the way it fits together and yet it is still going to be very efficient.”

The project follows the economic model that now accompanies the most high-profile tall buildings: that they push up the value of land and property around them.

“Buildings around the Burj Dubai have a premium because they overlook the Burj,” Gill says. “That strategy is not just about the building attracting its own tenants, its own users, but where the land around … becomes the strategy. That’s a huge benefit.”

Buildings with that kind of star power are rare. “Landmark buildings have to have a special quality to them, not necessarily that they are all tall,” Smith says.

“The Burj Al Arab isn’t tall today, but it has a special quality and a uniqueness to it that makes it a landmark and a presence in Dubai.”

For both men, what they call the “landmark quality” in their work is central to their philosophy. After all, Smith says: “When you do a world’s tallest building you can’t be too cocky about it because you know in a couple of years someone is going to do something taller.

“You learn a lot by doing these types of buildings. It is important for us to accept the fact that they are not like any other kind of building, they are unique. They have special characteristics, they are quite demanding, they are hard to do well.”

Reflecting on the Burj Khalifa, he says: “For good or bad, any piece of architecture an architect does becomes a piece of who he is. We are always striving to find ourselves in the building as well as a piece of the city and piece of that city’s culture.”

For Gill: “It’s the perfect balance of science and art, it has to have a utility to it but at the same time it has a beauty to it. If you can strike that balance in a landmark then you’ve got it.”

They both appreciate the opportunity Dubai has given. Smith calls it a “city of the future, it is emerging as one of the great cities. I always think of Dubai as an amazing place, where basically out of the desert rises one of the great cities of the world.

“It sort of defines the statement ‘if anything is possible’. Creative, new things are coming up every day.”

Gill reflects on a visit he made to the area around the Burj Khalifa after it opened. “You look around, look at the size of the mall, look at the people around it. And the fountains were up and it was packed, five, six, seven deep. I saw couples, saw husbands and wives, saw a mix of cultures and I thought this is truly an international city – and I knew at that moment that this had moved from being a real estate development to a place, and that people were living there and staying there.”