Dubai: A finely bended glazed steel structure had been attracting public attention at a corner stand of the Zabeel Hall at the Big 5 Show last week. Almost everyone passing by the Centraalstaal International’s (CSI) otherwise ordinary exhibition stand, kept looking at it twice, some keeps staring at the structure – wondering why it’s so beautiful, yet so simple.
On the outset, it’s nothing of a sort to be stared at. However, at the same time, it is something – when looked at closely. It’s shape – a fine blend. That’s what dragged me closer to it. When I touched it to examine its content, a smiling face approached.
“It’s solid steel. It’s a collection of two pieced of steel joined in the middle with welding,” Allard Bokma, International Sales Manager of CSI, explains. “But you don’t feel the welding, it’s so smooth. Even the bending – it’s very smooth, fine – like a piece of art.”
When Allard Bokma, a Dutchman, finished his engineering studies back in the 1990s, he thought of doing something different with his hardcore science degree, something creative and interesting.
But his company CSI, that generates 250 million euro annual turnover with 1,000 employees, was involved in a boring business – shipbuilding – designing and developing the hull by bending steel, which was more boring for a creative person like him.
So, five years ago one fine day when his boss asked him to develop an architectural division to diversify business, it felt like music in his ear.
“It was a time when more and more architects – such as Anish Kapoor, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Hani Rashid and Asymptote began using organic free forms - instead of sharp-edged structures in architecture, something off-beat but aesthetically appealing,” Bokma says. “So, it coincided well and as I come from cladding background – it worked well for us.
“But the decision too diversify business was to help utilise the company’s resources and facilities to the maximum when the shipbuilding business was down.”
Bokma and his senior colleague Wybren Terpstra then quickly jumped into action and created the new division – architecture – that helped the duo to meet their thirst for creativity. But the problem was – the company dealt in steel, not concrete.
Then he thought – structures that are built in concrete, why could they not be built in steel? In fact, as steel comes in different sizes, it allows more shapes and curves in a structure and could thus allow more creativity than concrete. So, steel be it!
The problem was, designs – or the lack of it. It is at that precise time, that the duo were approached by Anish Kapoor – the famous Indian-born British architect and sculpture – to build a steel sculpture for him. It was named ‘Memory’, built for Guggenheim Museum in Berlin in 2008. The rest was history.
Over the last five years, their 12-member team went on to work on a number of iconic projects, including the Link Bridge connecting the Yas Hotel over Formula 1 track in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi and the Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC) – for which the team built the front façade of the Centre – in the shape of a Sidra Tree that holds the structure together and gives the QNCC a distinctive and unique look and feel that helps the structure to stand out.
“The Yas projects took us six months to build and a week to install. It stands over the race track from which people could take a better look at the racing,” Bokma says.
Designed by renowned Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, the QNCC boasts a stunning signature façade, a 250 metre long, curved steel tree structure reaching up to support the exterior canopy. The design of the building was inspired by the local Qatari icon, the Sidra tree, symbolising Qatar Foundation’s three key pillars of education, science and research, and community development.
The $720 million dollar convention centre that was opened in December last year, caters to 10,000 delegates and feature 10 conference and performance venues, including a 4,000 seat conference hall and a 2,500 seat theatre. It features three tiered auditoria and a total of 52 flexible meetings rooms to accommodate a wide range of events. It also houses 40,000 square metres of exhibition space over nine halls.
“We were involved in putting the beam that is in the shape of the Sidra tree together, which is the most difficult part and perhaps the best part of the whole project,” Bokma says. “But it was challenging, interesting and enjoying experience. Once it’s completed, you have a sense of fulfilment.”
Although science and arts are two distinct disciplines – one runs on logic the other defies it. However, it is architecture where arts merges with science to create wonders. The QNCC is such a wonder.
His team closely works with designers, architects at the beginning – sometimes at the concept stage to develop it better. However, sometimes, Bokma’s team also develops a project design and talks to the architects and project owners. “It works both ways. Sometimes we work on concept briefs given to us and sometimes, we offer creative designs – and if accepted, we work together to create the structures,” he says.
Dubai, which is the hotbed of the architectural experiments done by design consultants, hasn’t seen anything such as yet, although some of the tall towers that grace Dubai’s skyline are gradually becoming tourists’ attractions.
Among them Burj Al Arab stands out as a unique structure standing in the midst of blue seawater. Apart from Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, there are a few more that are eye-catching by any standards.
Bokma’s team of a dozen professionals runs the business, using CSI’s large shipbuilding facilities in Groningen. The team has delivered 25 projects in the last five years while it is currently carrying out a project – Mutrah Fish Market in Muscat, Oman.
Mansour Nasser, Managing Director of Oman-based Steel Buildings LLC, says, “We do not have the technology here to make what CSI does with steel to create art wonders. What they are providing is – arts in the form of science in architectures.”
Apart from Anish Kapoor, Bokma’s colleagues are working with a number of award-winning architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid among others.
However, he says Kapoor’s works have been the most challenging. In June 2010, Kapoor’s “Orbit” was announced as the winning proposal for an artwork for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Greater London Authority selected Kapoor’s sculpture from a shortlist of five artists as the permanent artwork for the Olympic Park. At 115 metres tall, Orbit will be the tallest sculpture in the UK. Bokma’s team worked with Kapoor closely in building the structure that symbolizes the 2012 Olympiad.
However, are steel structures the ideal solution for the extreme hot climate of the Middle East? Besides, how does it compare with costs and maintenance?
“Depending on the size, steel structures could cost less than the concrete buildings, however, in the extreme hot climate like that of the Gulf, the steel structure could require thicker insulation to reduce the effects of the heat within the building or structures,” Bokma says.
Bokma says, his company’s works have caught attention of the investors in Dubai. “Everyone passing by our stand stops and looks at what we have done. Our works are getting noticed and we are happy with the response,” he says.
So, what started as a division within a shipbuilding company - to ensure maximum utilization of the resources and facilities – became a cash cow for the conglomerate.
“Yes, this is helping the CSI increase its turnover. But I am in it for my passion, love for design and creativity. It’s the best job I have and I never get tired of hard work,” he quips.
So, Bokma - an engineer with the heart of an artist - eventually ended up in engineering pieces of artworks. Each of his works are fine pieces of art - but they are also science. But most importantly - they are all beautiful.