Between the bridges

Wilson Associates has ensured Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La is an elegant resort hotel retaining essence of Arabia.

The striking Sofra bld has a traditional souk feel.
The striking Sofra bld has a traditional souk feel.

The latest hospitality project by the Shangri-La hotel group, the Shangri-La, Qaryat Al Beri, held its soft opening in Abu Dhabi last month. Owned by Al Jaber Group, who has been behind some of the UAE's most ambitious construction projects and with the architecture designed by South Africa's Northpoint and interiors by Wilson Associates, the hotel is an oasis of tranquility on the outskirts of the bustling capital.

The impressive portfolios of both architect and interior design firm read like a roll call of the UAE's top commercial ventures. Northpoint was founded in 1987 by Raymond Duxbury and Ulrich Faerch as Duxbury, Faerch & Associates and has since expanded to offer imaginative design solutions for large-scale mixed-use developments. Recently the firm changed its name to Northpoint (Pty) Ltd, Architects, Urban Planners & Interior Designers and its local projects include the urban planning of the Old Town Burj Dubai; the architecture of the US$1.2billion Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah and the architecture of the Burj Dubai, Dubai Mall Tower for the client, Mirage Mille.

Wilson Associates has enjoyed a flurry of successful Dubai-based projects, including the One and Only Royal Mirage; Kempinski, Mall of the Emirates; Shangri-La, Dubai and The Park Hyatt. To date, the firm has designed and installed over 1 million guestrooms in hotels worldwide, which has led to it collecting numerous industry awards including being a twenty-time winner of the prestigious American Hotel and Motel Association's Gold Key Award for excellence in hotel design.

Clifford Rip from Wilson Associates talks CID through the design of the Shangri-La, Qaryat Al Beri, focusing on the four main F&B outlets the hotel offers. He explains: "For the main Shangri-La Hotel building the concept was a traditional Arabic feel. We originally began with a Persian feel and it was then adapted to bring in all aspects of Arabia with more of a specific focus on Abu Dhabi architecture. The patterns/elements we used in the hotel are specifically from UAE/Abu Dhabi."

The four F&B spaces are: The signature Cantonese restaurant, Shang Palace which harks back to the Shangri-La's Asian roots; Hoi An, the Vietnamese restaurant; Sofra bld, the family-friendly all day international dining restaurant, which has a traditional Arabic souk feel, and the quintessentially French restaurant, Bord Eau, which carries a fine dining European theme.

Rip describes the dining concepts: "There is a feeling of open dining, an international journey through different culinary worlds. Shang Palace, Hoi An and Sofra bld are all strategically placed next to each other. As Shang Palace and Hoi An are signature themed restaurants the design brief remains consistent for these restaurants worldwide." He continues: "It was important to work closely with Shangri-La representatives to ensure the guidelines for these areas were followed. However, it is also important for Shangri-La to have a local influence in the design of the hotel so there is a big emphasis on this too."

With Shang Palace, Wilsons wanted to create a feeling of Chinese royalty. The restaurant is smart casual but has a clear luxurious feel with a lot of reds, dark timbers and gilding incorporated into the design. "There is a great deal of Chinese authenticity in the colours and furniture selected," Rip explains. Hoi An is a more casual affair and the interior design reflects this with chairs that are more lounge-like, comfortable and relaxed. The Vietnamese influence is evident through the more muted colour scheme, with subtle accents and intricate ceiling detail.

In Bord Eau, Wilsons used traditional French elevations, mirrors and patterns to create interest. Rip explained that as time marched on the original brief changed quite a bit: "It was a work in progress that evolved in to a fantastic product," he says. "For Bord Eau, we wanted to create a sophisticated, classical and elegant environment inspired by a classic French Parisian feel, but one which is also homely, comfortable and intimate. This was achieved using a combination of materials from velvets, to marbles to sparkling crystal."

The central restaurant at the foot of the sweeping staircase is Sofra bld, the all day dining restaurant, which is a huge space and needs to make an immediate statement. This was achieved through replicating an Arabic souk. Guests can enter the 'souk', which is the buffet area, and browse from stall to stall for different foods. Each course and type of food is in a different area. "The inspiration for the dining area came from Iranian bridges/waterways with large alcoves and columns being a major feature. The exterior area by the infinity pool and terrace flows in to the interior space and creates a feeling of one space. The natural daylight coming in from the terrace outside creates a fresh and light space," Rip says. It has a natural garden feel thanks to large floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the infinity pool and an abundance of natural materials such as intricately carved wooden mashrabiya screens.

Each of the F&B outlets uses a combination of carpets and marble throughout. The marble used is sourced from Arab Marble, while the carpets were custom made from the international firm Crossley Carpets. By fusing stone and carpet Wilsons created a feeling of luxury with the use of high quality marble but the carpet serves to soften the area and make it more comfortable and homely.

Wilsons enlisted the expertise of South Africa-based lighting specialist and consultant, Paul Pamboukian and Associates to create a lighting concept to complement the interior design and create the right ambience for each restaurant. Established in Johannesburg in 1990, Paul Pamboukian is a specialist in architectural, interior, landscape and theatre design and has numerous projects ongoing in the Middle East including: The Al Harthy Complex in Muscat; The St. Regis Hotel, Doha: W-Hotel, Dubai and The Corniche, Abu Dhabi.

For the F&B furniture, Wilsons decided to custom design the majority of the pieces so that each item was unique to the hotel, although a few pieces were imported from China and Indonesia amongst other countries. "We wanted furniture that was authentic for each outlet and so therefore we sourced suppliers through researching the style we were trying to achieve and the best people to help us achieve this," Rip says.

In a market where quality hospitality projects are launching with increasing regularity, it is often a challenge to create a hotel that stands out from its neighbouring competitors. When asked how it fares among its counterparts, Rip says: "This project is quite different to anything else in Abu Dhabi currently. It is the first proper city resort complex in the city and the first mainstream Arabic designed hotel in Abu Dhabi. It is homely although it is a large project and gives a feeling of understated luxury."

He cites the principal challenge as being not one of enforcing originality, but the usual regional complaint of schedules. "The main challenge was the time constraints; the time frame was very tight. But we achieved what we wanted to achieve and now Abu Dhabi has an amazing product." The entire design and fit out process took just 20 months from concept stage/brief to completion and cost AED 1 billion.

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