Modern stadium design that uses traditional Arabic forms

Designing a structure as large as a sports stadium is a great challenge in itself. Designing four international standard stadia, along with a shopping mall and two office towers as part of one massive development presents even more challenges. Construction Week speaks to Hubert Nienhoff, partner, Architekten von Gerkan, Marg und Partner about the design process and how many of the modern elements maintain a clear Middle Eastern flavour.

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By  Colin Foreman Published  October 23, 2004

Modern stadium design that uses traditional Arabic forms |~|44 Vis A Vis Body.jpg|~||~|When it comes to a major project like designing a number of stadia, where do you start?
When you begin the design you always have look at the location first. This is not just the site itself, but the surroundings. In the case of Dubai Sports City there was nothing nearby, there was no neighbourhood as such, it was just desert. We therefore had to find a theme. As you may be aware, GMP has designed several stadia in Germany, Spain and China and we have a lot stadium designs, so we could have just taken these designs used them for Dubai Sports City, but that was not our vision, our vision was to design a complete atmosphere and appearance that is unique by creating a family of stadia. By that I mean design four stadia that look the similar, but are actually different.

What theme has been used for the Dubai Sports City Stadia?
We drew inspiration from Arabian architecture and history for the theme. There are some very famous architectural elements, like the bows of mosque entrance areas. We did not want to copy these elements but we tried to use the geometrical structure of the elements and give them a more modern style. By combining these elements we were able to create a unique architectural character for the structures.

As a European architect were you familair with Arabic Architecture?
The roots of architecture were laid in the Middle East, and from here it moved to Greece, and then to Italy. From there it moved to Central Europe and onto North America. There is therefore a clear link between the architecture of Arabia and Europe. There is also a link between Arabia and Asia, if you look between the lines you will find Arabic architecture all over the world.
If you look closely at the architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries in Central Europe you will find many Arabic-style elements. This is because in those days people looked to Arabia because it was very exotic.

How will the stadia be built?
The construction resembles a steel frame skeleton and around that there is a glass fibre membrane, which gives the superstructure its shape. In this part of the world you need to make sure that there is some shading from the sun and the membrane does this, while at the same time allowing some light to come through.
For the interior of the stadium an open skeleton appearance could have been used. This approach is popular in Europe, but in the Middle East people prefer buildings that look rounded and finished rather than something that is plain and open. For this reason we used an inner membrane for the interior. It also allows us to put lighting into the void between the inner and outer membranes, which will create some very special lighting effects.

Will the stadia be easily recognisable from the a far?
For the view from far away we create two major elements. The first is the twin towers that form a gateway into the stadia. These buildings will be approximately 130 m tall and will have a hotel and office space. The second element is the media tower. This tower will be used for advertising so that any special events at Dubai Sports City can be announced to all those passing along Emirates Road.

How did you get the mall to fit into the family feel?
The Arabian-style architectural bow is used throughout the development including the entrance to the stadia and inside the retail mall. Although it is just one element, it can be used in many different ways to give a different effect. The axis of the columns can be changed and the distance between them can give either a stronger or a softer bow. The columns we have used are palm tree shaped and open up to meet each other across the ceiling creating a bow.

Why did you decide to use palm tree-shaped columns?
If you follow the history of the column you will find that you travel from Italy to Greece and then back to the Middle East, where the first columns were basically just a replication of nature. In the past, palm trees were used to construct buildings and eventually people wanted to construct buildings that lasted longer so they used stone instead, but the form remained the same.
The columns left an almost diamond-shaped space on the ceiling that will be glazed. Glass canopies like those used in Europe would be nonsensical here because there would be tremendous problems with heat gain. But at the same time it is good for the atmosphere within the mall to allow in some daylight through so we only opened up small parts of the roof.

As an architect what is your impression of Dubai and the projects that are currently being undertaken?
Dubai offers so many opportunities. I fully believe in Sheikh Mohammed’s vision and I think it is definitely the right way because Dubai is truly a global place now. It is a hub for Europe, Asia and Africa I think that is fantastic for society.
For the architect there are opportunities here that you simply do not get anywhere else in the world. GMP is also engaged in China, which is also a growing rapidly, but I honestly think that it will not last too long and the doors may close because they have enough of their own people, but in Dubai it is different, it really is a melting pot. People come here from all over the world so it is a great chance to do some good architecture.

Do you think architects should be given a free reign to design as they wish or should they adopt a sense of civic responsibility?
With the opportunities on offer comes great responsibility. Architecture should be responsible and create buildings that are sustainable. Architects should create public spaces that people want to live in and walk through. The buildings we create today should improve with age, and that only happens if they are built with good materials. For example, people love to visit Southern Europe because these countries have old buildings that have stood the test of time and have real character. Dubai has a great opportunity to do the same, it just needs to realise that it needs to build things correctly in the first place.

What do you think of the architecture on display in Dubai?
There are some buildings that I like very much, such as Emirates Towers. There are other newer generation buildings that have been built over the last five years that are not so spectacular but have good shapes and are well constructed, like the Grand Hyatt, which is modern with a very strong design.
I can’t understand the design of the Madinat because it is not the way I design architecture, but I can understand that as a location for a hotel or a shopping mall people like it and it seems to work well. However, I must say if you accept this type of architecture I think it is very well done and to a high quality.

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