The brains behind Burj Khalifa on how buildings and nature can live together

Architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill explain the meaning of their mantra: 'Global environmental contextualism'

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Sep 7 , 2015 : Left to Right - Gordon Gill and Adrian Smith , designed the Burj Khalifa at DMCC Almas Tower in Jumeirah Lake Towers in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Focus. Story by James Langton
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From the centrepiece for Expo 2020 Dubai and the world’s tallest building just down the road, to the first tower, in Guangzhou, that produces most of the energy it consumes, architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill have consistently shown how design, function and the surrounding environment can combine to make world-famous landmarks.

At their eponymous firm, Smith and Gill continue this legacy and their philosophy is evolving to the point where they provide a window into how their craft is transferred to the global stage via multicultural design centres such as the UAE.

Together, they work on the principle of "global environmental contextualism", which is really "founded on the notion that whatever you do, wherever you are in the world, you have a contextual relationship to the planet”, says Gill, who radiates positive energy.

“That stems from a long-time position on the relationship between nature and the built environment. And as we look at that, and we understand it, we understand that these two seemingly opposing positions are actually not in opposition, they're completely related. And not only are they related, they're completely connected, in terms of an organic theory. They are globally connected. And so your context is not necessarily physical, your context is the atmosphere, the environment,” he says.

Sitting next to him, Smith adds: “When we did buildings such as Burj Khalifa, that building is formed not only by its height but also relating to the context of the Middle East.

“Certain aspects of the Middle East are very much woven into the fabric of that building,” says Smith, who comes across as the more laid back of the two, but there is also a sense of great weight behind his words.

“When we talked about projects like Masdar headquarters in Abu Dhabi and Al Wasl [Plaza at Expo City Dubai] ... really speaks to the nature of the character, that environment as it was in the Bedouin times,” Smith says.

“When we're talking about a contextual scenario, we're talking about the culture, the site, the geotechnical aspects that surround that site or impact that site. Simple things like the weather, the history of the site, the history of its people. And so it's not just sustainability of energy, but it's also sustainability of culture, and the best things about that location,” Smith says.

Gill says that “we also talk about the language of performance”.

“There are a host of things that go into that structural performance ― comfort, safety ― but there are other things [such as] the cultural side of the aspect of the building.

“Now when we talk about high-performance buildings, we're looking at energy, and carbon. And when we design these buildings, we are forming them because they perform better,” Gill says.

6. Pearl River Tower. Copyright / Si-ye Zhang_SOM / Courtesy Emporis *** Local Caption ***  bz20se-emporis-06.jpg

Smith and Gill are also behind the design of the planned Forbes International Tower, billed by its developer Magnom Properties — a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s Rawabi Holding — as a zero-carbon building in the New Administrative Capital in Cairo.

“The Magnom tower looks the way it is, it's situated the way it is on a site and everything about it is because it helps it perform better. And so we have to find some kind of balanced equation around that. And that's been a longer lifetime journey, certainly for my career,” Gill says.

It is the first time Forbes has branded a commercial tower and the project was announced during the World Economic Forum annual meeting at a glamorous and fashionable event in a huge dome on the main promenade of the Swiss mountain resort town of Davos.

The Magnom tower launch was a throwback to the Middle East property industry’s golden era before the financial crisis, a time when Burj Khalifa was being built in Dubai.

Smith, who designed the world’s tallest tower with his previous firm, has been at work in the region since the 1980s.

“One of my first projects was the United Gulf Bank in Manama, Bahrain … we weren't focusing on carbon, we weren't focused on energy, but we were focusing on comfort.

“When you focus on comfort, you are focusing on performance. I didn't call it performance in this time, that's really a Gordon [Gill] thing. But it means the same thing in terms of form follows function, form follows performance.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, SEPTEMBER 9, 2015. Gordon Gill, left, and Adrian Smith of AS+GG, at roundtable talk with journalist at Cityscape Global 2015.

The two architects have designed Dubai Multi Commodities Centre's Burj2020, which is billed as the world’s tallest commercial tower, and is the centrepiece of Burj2020 district. Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National *** Local Caption ***  RM_20150900_CITYSCAPE_001.JPG

“The United Gulf Bank in Bahrain was one where we focused on how do we use the intense light that’s in that part of the world, inside a building and make it comfortable. And that building is all about how you bounce light into the building and how you protect the occupants in the building from the heat and give them a comfort level and a light level that's appropriate without having to ... do anything extra with, you know, drapes, or blinds or anything like that,” Smith says.

Gill says these things are now more conscious in the analysis before a building is designed.

“The work [we've done] since the new firm in 2006 is intentional. I think we always designed buildings to do well. But now we understand that there's a whole strategy around analysis before you design the building. How does it do well, how well can you actually do, and what does it even mean to do well, what does that actually mean?” Gill says.

Their thinking has also evolved to move beyond just designing a building.

“It's about the entire process of making a building. So when you talk about life-cycle carbon, you're talking about the entire construction process, you're talking about the entire material sourcing process, you're talking about all the operations of the building,” Gill says.

With technology changes, including solar power and the electrification of cars, Smith and Gill must consider “a life cycle plan”.

Buildings are now “active contributors because they have power. And that changes the equation around economics, the way you manage it, the way it lives, the way it operates, everything changes. And I think that it's expanded with an understanding of how to really look at [how] life cycle solutions has expanded, and that needs to be applied to almost everything.”

For example, the 71-storey Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, designed by Smith and Gill more than a decade ago, has its own wind turbines.

In the UAE, there has been discussion about going beyond the buzzword of sustainability and marrying traditional approaches to sustainable design with modern technology. Sharjah Architecture Triennial, for example, aims to investigate how traditional approaches to scarcity (through reuse, reappropriation, innovation, collaboration and adaptation of materials) in developing economies can be used to create more equitable and sustainable solutions in the future. Similarly, the National Pavilion at Venice Architecture Biennale will explore the relationship between architecture and arid landscapes in the UAE, reimagining these dry regions as spaces of abundance and productivity.

In that context, the limitations to the success of Smith and Gill’s contextual design philosophy include the limits of knowledge, going beyond catchphrases, buzzwords or lip service about sustainability, Smith says.

“Not a lot of people know how to do it yet, even though a lot of people were talking about it, they're not doing it. And they don't know how to do it beyond slightly exaggerated lip service. And the other limit is basically our client; a client is the one who pays for that building. And they have to understand what you're trying to achieve,” he says.

“In the project that we're doing now, the Forbes Tower, I think our client really does understand that and they've made a commitment to it. So, that clears one of the big hurdles that we have,” Smith says.

Gill says they speak to their clients about “the myths of sustainability”.

“There's a lot of work out there that is not understanding the broader, deeper sense of the life cycle. And so they make claims about things. And I think he can put you at ease, that this is a wonderful project. But in fact, it's limited,” Gill says.

“Or the definition of how you define something like life-cycle carbon, or net-zero energy, that's really matured over the last couple of decades. And so there's a practice side of it that has to be earnest about the work," he says. "I think the limitation on that is when that is not genuine, it can undermine the entire concept as a practice; that I think is a dangerous thing.”

Updated: January 27, 2023, 6:02 PM