Reshaping the land

COD talks with Paul Cracknell, managing director of one of the region's longest established landscape firms, about the changing shape of the Middle East.

ANALYSIS, Design

Established in Dubai in 1993, Cracknell claims to be the largest landscape and urban design practice in the Middle East region.

The firm offers consultancy services in masterplanning, landscape architecture, concept architecture, urban design, irrigation engineering, horticultural design and project management. It manages projects throughout the design process from initial site masterplanning and concept design, to construction documentation and contract administration.

 

Clients generally have a greater understanding of what they are seeking from their projects now than before.

Commercial Outdoor Design talks with Paul Cracknell, founder and managing director of the company.

You established Cracknell in this region in the early 90s. How has the company evolved since then?

The Dubai office was little more than a one-man band when we started in 1993 as the benefits of having landscape architects engaged in the design process were not fully appreciated in the Middle East region at that time. We have since grown into the largest Middle East based landscape practice and currently have over 160 employees in the region. We opened our Abu Dhabi office in 2004, and are in the process of opening another branch office in Muscat, Oman.

You have been working in the region for a long time. What changes have you seen during this time?

When we started in Dubai, most landscape design was being undertaken by architects and contractors, and consisted of little more than simple pavings, planting, amenity lighting, and the occasional water feature.

With the commencement of the development boom in the mid-90s, our first large commissions were hotel and resort developments including the Jebel Ali Hotel extension, the Jumeirah Beach resort development, the Meridien Mina Seyahi, and the Sheraton Abu Dhabi. The use of landscape consultants on resort developments was initiated by the clients and international operators who were aware from experience of the positive impact of a professionally designed landscape and its importance to the ultimate success of the resort.

It was largely as a result of these projects that other clients and developers became aware of the merits of including landscape architects in the design process at an early stage. Now the landscape consultant is considered an integral member of most design teams and for many development projects where landscape is a key component we are appointed as lead consultants.

What changes have you noticed in client requirements over the years in the region?

Over the last ten to 15 years, the type of projects and clients that Cracknell has been involved with has changed dramatically. As the practice has increased in size, we have tended to work on larger and more ambitious projects both within the UAE and internationally. Many of the larger Dubai-based developers have recently embarked on projects in other countries and we have been fortunate to be appointed on a number of these. Similarly international developers are coming to us based on our reputation with UAE projects in order to work on the developments they have overseas.

These days we rarely get involved in small projects such as villa garden design as it is not economical for a practice of our size. Our project portfolio currently consists mostly of the larger landscape masterplans for the extensive development and ‘cities' currently being planned or constructed in the Emirates.
 

Clients generally have a greater understanding of what they are seeking from their projects now than before. This is reflected in the quality of the project briefing material, which has improved significantly.

The use of experienced third party project managers has become the norm for the larger projects, which tends to add a layer of discipline (as well as an inevitable layer of bureaucracy!). Issues of environmental sustainability, which in the past have been paid little more than lip service by most clients, are steadily gaining in importance.

You have completed a huge number of projects in the region. Which of these stand out as particular achievements and why?

Our first major project was the Jumeirah Beach Resort Development. This project consisted of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the Wild Wadi water park and the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel.

This was the first of our projects to gain international recognition and helped to consolidate our reputation as a leading regional landscape practice. Since then, we have worked on many flagship projects in the region such as Palm Jumeirah, the Burj Dubai development, and the Central Market in Abu Dhabi.

We have also been commissioned to design several public parks in the UAE, including Zabeel Park, as well as many of Dubai's self-contained ‘cities' including Dubai Internet and Media Cities, Sports City, International City, Healthcare City, Lost City and the Dubai Financial Centre.

Which projects is Cracknell working on at the moment?

We are currently working on a wide range of projects in the UAE, the Gulf region as well as internationally. As well as the iconic Burj Dubai and the Palm Island developments these include Dubai

Sports City, Dubai Festival City, Dubai Ampitheatre, Al Furjan, Jumeirah Golf Estates, Lebanon Island in the World project, and Yas Island development in Abu Dhabi.

Outside of the UAE our current projects include the Salam Resort & Spa in Muscat and the Alila villas in Musandam, Las Colinas Resort development in Spain, the New Ritz Carlton Hotel in Bahrain, and Dubai Towers in Doha.

What are the main challenges for designers realising landscape projects in this region?

The landscape profession is still relatively young in the Middle East and one of the biggest challenges is to continually push the boundaries in terms of landscape construction techniques and material selection to ensure innovative and successful design for an ever-increasing diversity and complexity of project. There is little published about landscape implementation in the Middle East and most of this was written some 20 years ago and is largely irrelevant or incorrect. We have gained an enormous amount of knowledge from our 15 years of practice in this region. This is reinforced by many additional years of experience of senior staff members who have worked extensively throughout the Gulf prior to joining Cracknell. This experience is invaluable in the support of relatively new recruits from different parts of the world in ensuring that their skills are properly interpreted into achievable, appropriate and durable design solutions for this environment.
 

In particular, what are the key climatic considerations?

Temperatures in this region can be continuously over 45 degrees in the summer with little if any rainfall and to be able to use plants other than the most hardy it is essential to create an appropriate microclimate. In the design process, this can be done by the careful use of level changes, the orientation of the design in relation to adjacent structures and sun aspect, as well as through the use of hard and soft shade elements.

We can introduce level changes by ground contouring or vertical structures, sun shadow can be provided by careful orientation of the different features within the landscape, and further shade can be provided by built screens and the planting of hardy ‘nurse' species.

What trends are you seeing in landscape design in the Middle East at the moment?

Trends in landscape design largely reflect those in architectural design. For many years there was a preference from clients for Moroccan or Mediterranean architecture and associated landscape design. More recently there has been an increase in contemporary and minimalist architecture which has offered a whole new opportunity for the creation of cutting edge landscapes incorporating a different range of contemporary materials such as acrylics, fabrics, concrete products and reconstituted stones. Lighting has become an increasingly important part of the design, particularly with contemporary landscapes, and we have recently appointed our own lighting designer to help achieve the required landscape lighting effects using the latest products.

How is the growing focus on sustainability affecting landscape design and what is Cracknell's agenda on this?

The UAE is rapidly becoming aware of its own environmental impact and sustainability issues. We regard ourselves as instrumental in influencing and supporting the government and construction industry to build a greener and healthier environment, in particular with regards to landscape related issues.

Our priorities include reducing the ecological footprint of the country, in particular with a national strategy for afforestation and planting; encouraging the use of locally sourced and manufactured materials; and reducing the consumption of irrigation water by auditing techniques, grey water recycling and design solutions/plant selection.

What future plans do you have for the development of Cracknell?

We are rapidly expanding in the Middle East region. As well as opening an office in Muscat early next year we are also looking at opening offices in other Gulf locations in the near future. In Dubai we are currently developing our own office building at the Dubai Investment Park, which will be completed in about 18 months.

We are also being commissioned on a wide range of projects outside of the Middle East, particularly in Asia, and will be the only landscape firm exhibiting at Cityscape India later this month.

In addition, we are expanding our London office which is increasingly busy with both domestic and overseas work.

We are proud to have been associated with many of the most prestigious development projects as the region, and in particular the UAE, has grown over recent years. We look forward to exciting times to come and to continuing our involvement at the forefront of the regional landscape design profession.

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