On a recent trip to Abu Dhabi, taking a break from the air-conditioned malls and oven-like stamp-sized beaches, I visited the uninspiring monolithic mountain of marble that is the state-owned Emirates Palace Hotel.
A weirdly unspectacular place, clad in the requisite Gulf garb of gold leaf and crystal, the Palace is not too far in design from its neighbours, which happen to be real palaces. Domed and resplendent, the Palace looks bloated and heavy compared to more modern designs further down the (beautifully re-straightened…and re-re-straightened…) corniche.
The best part of the EPH is, however, done very well. It’s a temporary museum showcasing the development plans for the now world-famous construction site that will one day soon be Saadiyat Island. Billed as a ‘cultural capital’ of the Gulf, Saadiyat combines vast amounts of housing, office space and retail and leisure spaces with the eponymous jewels of the crown – a handful of theatres, museums, galleries and concert halls that rival the very best in the world.
A small corner of the hotel (about the size of St Pancras, then), is devoted to the Island and the architectural vision, ideas, boundaries and horizons that have been flipped, molded and entangled by the commissioned team of uber-architects. Reading like a who’s who of the uppermost echelons of architecture, the practices that are shaping this desert land are the world’s biggest, best, most daring and most sought-after. Not to mention most expensive. Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando – all masters of form and design. It is spectacular seeing how the desert seascape has been shaped and nurtured by each of these finial-dancing artists (who happen to be architects). Standing side-by-side, the Louvre, Guggenheim, Performing Arts Centre, Maritime Museum and Sheikh Zayed National Museum will form a seafront unlike any in the world.
White elephants or well-timed answers to a cultural vacuum, we shall see, but in the meantime they are guranteed to generate interest, not least because of the team behind the plans.
What really struck me, though, was the use of ecological imagery and natural design in the plans. Lush, verdant strands of imagination are mixed with images lifted from the comfortingly familiar pages of a well-thumbed GCSE biology textbook. Essentially informed by the building blocks of nature, the staggering complexity of the natural form is translated into futuristic visions of dwelling and social space, so that succulence is transplanted into an arid region.
Helices of plant structure blend with a filigree of cellular-looking latticed roofing and the ultra-modern liquid-mercury-in-a-wind-tunnell giant structure of Hadid’s PAC is reminiscent of both the Terminator and the brittle sponge of a bone – at once urban and organic. I know it’s a cliche, but the juxtaposition of the two seem to work strikingly well and is set off by the bland monotony of the backdrop – scrubby sun-scorched coastal desert.
This is yet another commercial project in a region where liquid gold has made a thousand Midases of a few Bedu. But putting my overpowering questions of sustainability aside, this is possibly the most exciting project the region has ever seen. The proof will be in the pudding, but it is safe to say the plans are more spectacular, more expressive and more imaginative than the building in which they are housed could ever be – many times over.