Site visit: Al Manara, Dubai

CW visits Al Manara in Dubai, the UAE's first copper clad installation

ANALYSIS, Site Visits, Materials, Al Manara, Copper-clad, Dubai, Uae

Oliver Ephgrave visits Al Manara in Dubai, the first copper-clad installation in the UAE

Even if you pass the building every day, you might not have noticed it. Located opposite Times Square mall on Sheikh Zayed Road, TNQ’s Al Manara complex is not your typical Dubai commercial development. Modest in scale, with only two main floors, the building is set back from the highway and devoid of showy pyrotechnics to deliberately grab the eye.

However, its charms are revealed up close. While the overall shape is simple, blocky and functional, the façade is decidedly artistic. Horizontal strips of copper mesh hover in front of green-tinted glass, with diagonal beams adding an offbeat rhythm.

Standing outside his creation, architect Tarek N. Qaddumi, principal at TNQ, reveals it is the first copper-cladding installation in the UAE.

“The outer skin started as louvres — shade that you can see through. We wanted to do something different, but back it up to convince the client. When we were researching materials, we looked at engineered wood, but Dubai has this unusual combination of salinity and humidity.

“Then copper came up. It is such a beautiful material. It is metallic, but in 20 years it will turn green. We did not treat it to stop the copper from colouring — we wanted it to change with time. This will give it a lovely vintage feel,” remarked Qaddumi.

The ground level is occupied by boutique deli-restaurant, Jones the Grocer, while the first floor is the regional headquarters for construction company Brookfield Multiplex.

Qaddumi explains the background to the project: “Brookfield Multiplex approached land-owner Emivest in the light of the recession. There were no plans for the site, so Brookfield Multiplex offered to find a tenant for the ground floor and occupy the first floor, as well as construct the building. It was a no brainer, so both signed up. We were recommended to Brookfield Multiplex by another client.”

Qaddumi continues: “The building is ‘no frills’, but it is the right context in a time of recession. It is not about acrobatics. You could say it is a box, but it is nice and transparent, with high-performance glass. The copper shading is only on the south and east sides.

We did not wrap the whole building, because the north side does not get direct sunlight. It is site-specific. We were able to push the first floor towards the street. This allows the architecture to have depth, so it is not a flat building. Thanks to the shading and high-performance glass, electrical consumption is low, and the building is very efficient.”

Qaddumi notes the proximity to the busy Sheikh Zayed Road was initially perceived as a hindrance, but later embraced.

“We paid particular attention to the proportions of the space and the connection with the surroundings. Initially we were worried that it was close to the highway, but that is part of Dubai. It is as close to a Paris feel as you can get — you can see the cars and the buses, and you have close contact with the street.”

Qaddumi describes the ground-floor design, which is notable for the central food preparation area framed by four columns. “The central food area draws you in. It is what you look at when you arrive and when you leave. The four columns help to organise the structure.” He highlights that the ‘back of house’ areas were, literally, moved to the back of the building.

“Similar to Richard Meier’s buildings, we made a clear distinction between the back of house. All the service areas — electrical rooms, kitchens, garbage — were organised at the back. This was done in negotiation with the client. We arranged them on this particular side because the offices and shop were not allowed to overlook the residential area.”

Qaddumi points to a wall and concedes that design compromises were made. “This should have been glass. We also wanted to make the external cantilever a bit bigger. Yes, we had to compromise a bit, but when you look at the numbers … It was more about making it happen on time and on budget.”

He elaborates on the impressively swift construction. “We did the design in six months, and it took an additional 12 months to build; it was a very condensed timeframe. This really was followed strictly, because Brookfield Multiplex had already agreed on a price with the owner.”

The short timeframe meant the ‘feel’ took priority over fine details. “Getting the feel is most important, rather than being pernickety. We had six months for design — this is often talked about, but rarely happens. We had a team of six, with myself as principal in charge, and Steven Langman as project architect.W e also did the structural engineering.

Woods Bagot was responsible for the interior architecture of the Brookfield Multiplex office on the first floor.” Moving upstairs, via the ‘hi-tech-low-tech’ staircase, the outer copper skin becomes visible from the office of Brookfield Multiplex. Qaddumi then explains how the heights of the horizontals were carefully calculated.

“The placement of the horizontals was really measured — they were calculated from the height of people standing and sitting down, so they could still see out. The diagonals were more intuitive. They hold the façade together visually, otherwise it would be disjointed.”

As well as providing visual interest from the inside and out, the copper screens perform the vital function of blocking excess sunlight. “It is a screen that offers shade and pattern. It frames the horizon when you are sitting in the boardroom. If we were to be strict, we could say it is a mashrabiya. It is essentially a shading device, although it does not have traditional forms,” explains Qaddumi.

Management offices are located by the windows. The generous boardrooms afford views over the surroundings, while being shaded by the carefully-positioned mesh skin. The top of the building features one of Dubai’s first ‘green’ roofs, with views of the Marina and Downtown Dubai skylines.

MEP equipment is concealed by strategic planting, while the up-stand is set back from the edge for aesthetic reasons. Qaddumi concedes that the ‘green’ roof remains under-utilised, aside from providing a scenic spot for cigarette smokers.

Although completed in early 2011, there are pending additions that could help raise the profile of the building. Firstly, Jones the Grocer will soon be equipped with an alfresco dining area. Qaddumi adds: “This will be the cherry on top for Jones. They are just waiting for the furniture. It will have a green wall, which will be organic but still allow views through.”

The second measure, if undertaken, will certainly draw a lot of attention to the scheme, with Qaddumi revealing that the diagonal beams will be fitted with lights. “The whole thing will have a billboard effect. When you see it from Sheikh Zayed Road, you will recognise the building.”

It is clear Qaddumi is hoping to gain more recognition for a scheme that he is justifiably proud of.

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