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Building the tallest tower on earth

3 March 2019

Can a record-breaking skyscraper be discreet? Santiago Calatrava’s idea for a new structure, and resultant city-form in Dubai, pays credence to the theory

“The first question that came into my mind was, did it make sense to do such a tall building in this place?”

Calatrava leaves a pregnant pause after this question. The concept did seem, to some, counter intuitive. Here were plans for another monolith that was at once too close to a preexisting tall tower – the Burj Khalifa sits directly opposite on the other side of the Creek – and at the same time, too far away from the city centre of Dubai: its site a nondescript zone next to a flamingo sanctuary and accompanying marshland.

“I thought yes,” he decisively concludes, “and I’ll tell you why”.

His resulting reasoning shows why he was perhaps the only architect for the job of designing Dubai Creek Tower – estimated to be the tallest tower in the world on its scheduled completion in 2020. Born in Valencia in 1951, Calatrava is known for his steadfast non-adherence to a single movement or school of architecture, as well as his stuctural background – as well as a doctorate in architecture he has a degree in civil engineering, which some accredit to the resultant structural complexity of his works. Different people know him for different landmarks: to the Swedes, he is the designer of the revolutionary Turning Torso in Malmö, the first twisting skyscraper in the world. To the Americans, the somewhat controversial figure behind the US$4 billion World Trade Centre transportation hub (the New York Times complained it wasn’t gritty enough). To the Spanish, he is city-maker – creating seven distinctive structures within his overarching Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències. His choice of structure, too, is diverse. To some, he is best known for a dedication to public transport – see the aforementioned New York station, or Portugal’s answer to Grand Central, Gare de Oriente. To others he is whimsical; creating forms that include two sundials (in Barcelona and California), or a Minecraft-esque winery in the Cantabrian foothills.

His structures do have visual similarities. Oft-described as neo-futuristic, they are known for their bright white palette, sinusoidal curves and unique structural idiosyncracies, be that leaning pylons or rotating towers. Big but never ominous, futuristic but never alienating – his latest challenge is creating a new skyline. In Dubai his perception is relatively unformed, but he is keen to assign a clear identity to the city. This structure, after all, will be the defining point of his work in the Middle East. “Many of our historical cities work as a whole, but there are also very different and particular neighbourhoods,” he says. “I can live in New York, but also in Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, the Bronx, Jersey City. Creating neighbourhoods with a clear identity is fundamental.”

Developed by Emaar Properties, also responsible for the Burj Khalifa, the RFP for the tower was sent out to firms worldwide, with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, selecting Calatrava’s design in 2016.

It will be the focal point for Dubai Creek Harbour, a 6km-squared new district proposed in Dubai and will produce, says Calatrava, an “answer” to the other side of the Creek.

“It will almost mirror [the Burj Khalifa]. Formally they are very different, but it creates a relation between one side and the other. Dubai is a flat city. Venice is a flat city. I use this comparison because the Venetians built the bell tower of San Marco, an important landmark of Venice, and then on the opposite side of Il canale della Giudecca they built San Giorgio Maggiore, another very tall tower.”

As the façade of San Giorgio and all the houses is mirrored by the canal, the flat city becomes a cityscape – just like Dubai, he explains.

“Think – almost all of the beautiful cities in the world are of this type. Rome, with its many mirroring hills – if you are in Montechiorio, then you see the Vatican hills... It is these relations that make the city so beautiful. It becomes, to my mind, a kind of internal landscape.”

A partner with local knowledge has been useful for the project, which this time has come in the form of his son, Micael. The younger Calatrava, who acts as the operational force behind the project, has an office in design district d3 – just a short drive from the site. He believes that Dubai’s skyline – and its criticism – are part of a natural evolution that has to happen with any city. “Cities evolve and grow and try to outgrow their neighbours and develop their own sense of identity – this has happened throughout history,” he says. “They now have landmarks that we consider not only being part of their body, but really being their DNA. At the time, these were criticized by some, but now they are loved by many. So one needs to look forward. Our clients understand the fabric of the country and of the time and place where they are in life and in the world and where they wish to go and push their country forward.”

Of its content, both Micael and Santiago compare the skyscraper to the Eiffel Tower – it will be a day-use building used mainly for observation.

“There will be different levels for entertainment, open-air levels, but we have no prospects for any residential,” says Micael. “It is really a symbol for the area.”

One of the central challenges of the project was making sure it did not disturb the neighbouring Ras Al Khor sanctuary – natural marshland home to wildlife including flamingos, marsh harriers and grey herons. In the proposed harbour district, lower-rise buildings will be built closer to the mangroves, so as not to alter migratory flight paths. Calatrava’s team also created vibration barriers when laying piles, so as not to disturb wildlife. The building, too, hopes to be an environmental touchpoint in a similar fashion to another of Calatrava’s structures, Rio’s ‘Museum of Tomorrow’. One of the museum’s defining features is its air conditioning system that uses water funnelled from Guanabara Bay, known for its dirtiness – which is then filtered, cleaned and returned to the bay by way of a small waterfall.

“In Dubai Creek Tower, every 100 metres sees the temperature go down by one degree,” says Calatrava. “That light and temperature is almost sub-tropical, so we can grow things like orchids.”

Adds Micael: “Even though it’s not a natural environment, you can still educate. Kids will know, when there are subtle temperature changes, what can that now allow us to grow?”

Creating a landmark is no mean feat. Dubai Creek Tower has certainly all the hallmarks of a column-inch generating, grandiose monument: it is record breaking, futuristic, and estimated to cost US$1 billion. But behind the headlines is a softer, more discreet kind of undertaking. Perhaps there could be no one but Calatrava to design this landmark: the kind where orchids grow in the dim light of a fiftieth floor in the sky, and flamingos flock nearby on shimmering marshland. The kind of place, as Calatrava would say, where dreams are made.

Words: Georgina Lavers

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