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Burj al Arab
 

In an era when the medium is so often the message, it was only a matter of time before the hotel became the destination. Many already have, notably in Las Vegas, where visitors can take a break from the casinos to watch the sun set over Venice or lava rise from a volcano. But the Burj al Arab (Tower of the Arabs) in the Persian-Gulf emirate of Dubai distills the idea: It has no roulette wheels, magic shows or nightclubs to distract a visitor. The primary entertainment is the brute spectacle of the structure itself.

And spectacular it is, even from miles away. Not only is it the world’s tallest hotel, at 1,053 feet, it stands amid the bungalows of Dubai’s suburban beachfront—as if the Empire State Building had been plunked down in the middle of the Hamptons. Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and commissioner of the hotel, wanted a landmark as arresting as the Eiffel Tower or Sydney Opera House to serve as a symbol of his city. The result, promotional pamphlets insist, recalls "the type of sail that would be found on a yacht in Saint Tropez"—just twenty-five times taller. For those who have neglected yacht-spotting on the Riviera, the image of a gargantuan Windsurfer leaps to mind. The triangular building’s two wings spread in a V from a vast "mast", while the space between them is enclosed in a massive atrium by a curving "sail" of teflon-coated fiberglass. All this maritime imagery aims, according to architect Tom Wright, a design principal at the U.K.-based firm W.S. Atkins, to evoke "a sense of luxury, excitement, sophistication and adventure."

Half of the adventure lies in just getting inside. The management has tried to heighten the hotel’s allure by preventing people from visit-ing it. Security guards defend the building’s sole entrance, and turn away anyone without a reservation for a room or a meal. Rolls Royce Silver Seraphs whizz most guests straight from the airport to the hotel. Such princely treatment costs them at least $890 a night; the royal suite will set guests back $6,849. Indeed, the astonishing expense is cast as one of the attractions of the hotel, as if some customers might stay simply for the sake of showing that they can afford it.

Even the structure itself is the height of extravagance. It is built on an artificial island 1,300 feet from the shore, partly to avoid casting a shadow on the beach, but mainly (as if that were not flippant enough) for the sheer exclusiveness of it. The Burj also flaunts its impressive engineering: A massive steel exoskeleton steadies the tower against seismic loads and the wind. This V-shaped frame wraps around a second V, the reinforced concrete tower containing the hotel rooms and lobbies. The two structures connect along a shored, reinforced concrete spine at the base of the V, and at two points along the curving atrium wall. The seismic superstructure rises 850 feet from the ground, and is further garnished with a mast that extends another 200 feet. Instead of putting a helipad on the ground, the architects constructed a special platform near the building’s pinnacle, held aloft like a votive offering to those rich enough to fly. The central atrium is more than 600 feet high, and takes up a good third of the interior space. Each of the 28 guest floors is double height, and every room a duplex, simply to give a more luxurious feel. The humblest accommodation, at 1,800 square feet, outdoes the grandest yacht cabin, while the 8,400 square feet covered by a three-bedroom suite would make a good-sized sailing lake.

The interior design, too, reeks of reckless expenditure. "Anything that looks like gold is gold," says a member of the public relations team, waving vaguely at some of the hotel’s 21,000 square feet of 22-carat leaf. In the lobby, a parade of leather-backed sofas with checked velvet cushions and striped silk bolsters marches across the multicolored curlicues of the carpet towards fish tanks bigger than the guest rooms of a lesser hotel. Gilt vases hold impenetrable forests of fleshy tropical flowers above which hover whole flocks of birds of paradise. Even the cocktails come with succulent slices of fruit cantilevered out over the rim of the glass on an elaborate gantry of straws and toothpicks.
 



The Burj al Arab’s lobby leads into the 600-foot-tall atrium where a centerpiece can shoot water 100 feet into the air.



The Burj al Arab’s most dramatic feature may well be the atrium which is bordered by hallways leading into the duplex suites.


West elevation
 

Longitudinal section
 
Hallways, (above left), lead into the duplex suites (above right). The translucent wall is two layers of Teflon-coated, fiberglass fabric, which is supported on a series of pre-tensioned, trussed arches that tie in to girders at the 18th and 26th floors. While the 200-foot mast in both drawings (above) isn’t a part of the structural exoskeleton, it is stilled by a pair of tuned mass dampers in its upper section.
 
Furthermore, the building does not just sit there—it also performs. In the main atrium, the impossibly disciplined jets of the central fountain weave and whirl in a watery game of cat’s cradle. Every half hour, a 100-foot geyser shoots up into the yawning space above. By day, the translucent fiberglass wall filters the intense desert light into an otherworldly glow. After dark, it serves as a projection screen for a nightly light show. With red and blue lights pulsating across the undulating surface, water gurgling in the background, and the bulbous, modular façades of the guest rooms receding upward for 600 feet, the space takes on the look of some half-remembered organ from grade school biology.

One floor below, the "undersea" restaurant boasts a simulated submarine ride. The bed in the royal suite rotates shudderingly at the touch of a button. Even the workaday logistics of staying at a hotel have been turned on their head in an effort to accentuate the Burj al Arab’s distinctiveness. There are no check-in desks or cashiers—the staff comes to you. All the suites contain butler’s rooms with separate entrances, so that food can be warmed up, champagne chilled and shirts pressed without the guest even knowing. Money, although plastered all over the walls and spent in enormous quantities between them, must never be seen, for fear that grubby bank notes might remind guests of the drab realities of everyday life.

The irony of all this is that Dubai—the Burj al Arab aside—is a very drab place. The endless vista from the panoramic bar consists of flat desert scrub punctuated by unfinished highways. The climate is so inhospitable that a special new protective coating had to be found to stop the desert grit from literally eating the windows away. Although the city is billed as a beach resort, summer temperatures rise as high as 130 degrees—enough to send even the most devoted sun-worshipers scurrying indoors. It is not even a good place to build: The Burj al Arab rests, poetically enough, on sand. The hundreds of cement piles that reach 130 feet under the seabed to anchor the foundations are held in place not by bedrock, but by friction. In other words, the load is not focused at the base of each piling, says structural engineer Martin Halford, but absorbed along its length by the loosely cemented sand and silt around it.

Perhaps this ritzy haven from Arabia’s sandstorms does serve as a civic symbol of sorts, although not in the sense Sheikh Rashid imagined. Both the hotel and the city, after all, are monuments to the triumph of money over practicality. Both elevate style over substance. Above all, both were designed from the top down, working backwards from a desired image to its physical incarnation.

Dubai is a city composed of symbols of itself. Just a few miles up the road from the Burj al Arab, Sheikh Rashid has built a pair of towers (including the world’s tenth-tallest building) as "a highly visible statement of the region’s corporate success." In the same development as the Burj stands another hotel, shaped like a breaking wave "to represent Dubai’s seafaring heritage," a conference center, decked out like one of the city’s traditional dhow boats, and a water park, based on the theme of Sindbad the Sailor, the Gulf’s most famous fictional son. The overall effect is more of a film set than a city. There is an impressive enough row of tall buildings, and plenty of extras enacting scenes of ordinary life within them, but just outside the frame lies trackless desert in place of normal urban fabric. Dubai has built itself the body of a city without the soul. The yachts which inspired the Burj al Arab remain in Saint Tropez—and it will take more than a few grandiose construction projects to lure them away.

Source: www.architecturemag.com

 

Passageways leading to two of the Burj al Arab’s three restaurants are as elaborate as the rest of the hotel: At the Al Muntaha, perched 27 floors up, an abstract pattern suggests both Moorish tilework and computer circuitry—the latter perhaps an area of business Dubai would like to attract—while the Al Mahara’s (above) gold is just a prelude to the extravagance of the 35,000-cubic- foot aquarium within.

 

 
 

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