The Sustainability District
The Sustainability District at the Expo 2020 site illuminated at night Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai’s remarkable built environment, infrastructure and iconic buildings have shaped the city’s skyline and made it attractive for global visitors, professionals and the city’s residents alike. The city’s forward-thinking and ambitious plans have encouraged architects to push the boundaries of creativity and innovation in making this place a world-class city to live and work.

Firas Hnoosh, principal and design director of architecture at Perkins+Will Dubai Studio, believes the city’s ambition and economic success have been the driving force behind its unique developments. “Dubai offers architects a great deal of freedom to realise new forms of architectural expression, allowing them to test ideas that have never been done before,” says Hnoosh.

District 2020

At the World Expo 2020 site, the three thematic districts that form the largest built-up area will be a showcase of architectural creativity, ingenuity and innovation. The districts form a key part of the Expo’s legacy plans, where more than 80 per cent of the site’s structures will be repurposed into a mixed-use commercial and residential development called District 2020.

“The success of any iconic architecture is largely a result of its placement within its surrounding context, where it sits in the fabric of the city. How it dominates the city’s skyline or how it acts as a visual marker at the junction of several alignments are very important to its success and recognition,” says Hnoosh.

Each petal-shaped district represents an Expo 2020 subtheme — Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. The thematic districts evoke old Dubai, with façades featuring traditional Emirati wind towers and walkways lined with flora indigenous to the UAE.

“Iconic structures serve as symbols for the city and even the country. They reflect the cultural and social identity of a place through direct and indirect symbolism and are a reflection of economic success,” says Hnoosh, citing popular landmarks such as London’s Big Ben or London Eye.

“Dubai’s iconic landmarks like Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab give Dubai its skylines, and visual markers recognised both locally and abroad. These buildings also serve as economic catalysts as they increase the value of real estate around them,” he points out. “For example, the Burj Khalifa brought immense real estate and touristic value to the Downtown area. It is undoubtedly one of the most Instagrammed icons in this country and perhaps the world.”

Defining iconic structures

When creating iconic buildings, it’s not just about size. However, they must be strategically located within the city and the urban fabric. “Consider the London Eye — its round shape against a background of mostly rectangular buildings makes it different and therefore iconic,” explains Hnoosh. “The Burj Khalifa is very tall, and while its height dominates its surroundings, its needle-like profile makes it instantly recognisable and unique. Similarly, the Burj Al Arab’s unique shape, inspired by the sails of a dhow, combined with its offshore location, establishes its iconic status.”

Building designs must have cultural and historical values to become urban icons, says Frank McGoldrick, global design principal at Aedas. “One of the key icons of Dubai is not a tower, but the city’s instantly recognisable Metro system,” says McGoldrick. “The unique golden shell structures take their inspiration from Dubai’s history as a centre for pearl diving with the enclosures replicating shell forms.”

He says the future of Dubai lies in projects that seek to develop districts on a human scale, with a vibrant mix of uses.

Reinventing past icons

Countries such as the UK, have numerous iconic buildings. Jonathan Ashmore, founder and director at Anarchitect, says what makes them special is how they are brought back to life often with a new function. “In London, for example, listed buildings such as the Battersea Power Station and Tate Modern, both former power stations, have grown beyond their original purpose and have become much-loved features of the urban landscape. Both are good examples of creating a new kind of iconography, by reinventing icons of the past.”