Local motion

RTA's new Dubai headquarters uses smart design and sets architectural benchmarks.


Located at the corner of Marrakech Street and Al Rebat Road, adjacent to Garhoud Bridge and the Business Bay junction, the RTA headquarters building (RTA HQ)-to be finished in 2009-is both literally and figuratively positioned to oversee Dubai's myriad traffic challenges.

Inspired by the vernacular of Le Corbusier's brise-soleil (sun breaks) series, the RTA HQ was originally designed by Rob Torsing, director of architecture for Zwarts & Jansma Architects (ZJA).

Shortly after choosing the winning design from two international charrettes, however, Laith Tawfeeq, projects planning & design manager for RTA, adjusted the ZJA design to correspond more closely with the original vision.


"We had a lot of ideas and a lot of submissions but it wasn't difficult to pick the best one. This is because we had a very clear idea of what the building could be and we chose the one that most closely resembled our vision," says Tawfeeq.

Tawfeeq and his team made minor alterations to the winning design but for the most part, they kept the ZJA exterior of the building intact.

He stresses with unbending certainty that the current ZJA/RTA design is as mature as it will get.

"Anything that could be added to the design would change the look and personality of the building," he explains.

"This building has a very strong personality."

The brief & programme

The RTA HQ project began in August 2006 in the form of a request from the chairman of RTA. He asked for an iconic building that would show how RTA is unique and different from other government entities.

Torsing says that after first seeing the architectural brief and considering location and function of the building, ZJA looked to the topography of the site to inspire its form.

"The form of the building was derived from the site. We used geometrical studies of sight lines and the main axes to the bridge to inform the design concept," says Torsing.

"We wanted something that would stand out and express the scope of RTA's business."

Tawfeeq agreed with the ZJA vision and sought a structure that would match the functionality and timelessness of RTA itself.

To that end, Tawfeeq stressed the importance of material selection in the initial briefing.

Despite originally wanting a glass building, ZJA quickly realised the massive energy required to keep buildings cool in the region, and thus incorporated louvres.

"We wanted to make a glass crystal covered by these screens, which would keep out the harsh sunlight," says Torsing.

"We wanted the building to also convey that it was an RTA building through its solidity and importance. By using the right materials, this design conveys the permanence of RTA," says Tawfeeq.

When Tawfeeq and his team realised the potential number of end users for the building, they altered their programme from a G+10 building to a G+24.

And, after several design discussions with ZJA-and consideration of a unique Dubai building policy that requires a podium/tower combination-they decided to employ a sunken podium and a hollow ground floor to accommodate the bridge and raised first floor.

"We designed the public area of the building to resemble a subway station that you need to go down into," says Torsing.

"We also designed the bridge over the water plane to give drivers the feeling of flying over the public space."

The form

Once they agreed upon the design of the exterior, the obvious next step was to find a way to transfer concept on a piece of paper into something architecturally feasible.

A unique component on the RTA HQ is that-because the bridge runs through the building where a traditional ground floor would be-it incorporates subterranean levels and a raised first floor.

The ‘first floor' of the building is purely functional in that it is reserved for storage and weight distribution. "It works like a table. We use it to transfer all of the structural elements from the vertical to the fins," says Tawfeeq.

In fact, the raised first floor is dually functional because it distributes the weight of the building to the fins and it also houses pumps, tanks, electrical equipment or other functional equipment.

While the use of subterranean levels is somewhat rare in Middle Eastern architecture, they have been a functional component of this project since the design stage.

The original concept called for three subterranean basements for parking, but when the choice was made to sink the podium, two more levels were added to house the mezzanine and customer service centre and the Enterprise command centre.

"The most important element for me is the connection between the vertical and horizontal circulation of building users," says Tawfeeq.

"The mezzanine level is a double-volume space. We're looking into having a connection to the metro so people can exit the metro and use RTA services or simply exit to the street level."

The hollow ground floor in the RTA HQ acts as a double-volume space as well. Alongside aesthetic and structural uniqueness, it offers a convenient entrance/exit for special needs users and VIPs.

Rather than accessing the building through traditional methods, users can go from an exterior ‘drop-off' zone to the lifts, where they can access any floor in the building.

Above the car parks, sunken podium and hollow ground floor, the rest of the tower is comprised mostly of offices and office-related facilities.

While all the floors will be similar in terms of interior material and treatments, given the building's ‘bow tie' design, floors will become wider or narrower depending on orientation and location within the building.

Also by design, water is playing a big role in the RTA HQ.

The concept was adopted by Tawfeeq because, ideally, the fluidity with which water runs through the structure mimics the fluidity with which RTA will perform their myriad roles in overseeing transportation in Dubai.

"We have a lot of water activity in the surrounding context...water fountains, a waterfall and the reflective pond," says Tawfeeq.

"With the waterfall flowing from the street level down to the underground podium, first it leads the eye and then it leads the person down into the podium for social interaction."

The materials

The RTA HQ building is constructed of 100% reinforced concrete; the louvres are 800mm aluminium and the windows are glazed glass.

There is no steel in the building and, where possible, the materials have been sourced locally.

"The materials have been in my mind since the beginning," says Tawfeeq. "I didn't want our building to look like so many others...I wanted to use something that would convey permanence."

"Apart from steel, the best material to convey strength and permanence was concrete."

The preferred use of concrete was a sentiment echoed by ZJA in the original design as well. In fact, RTA had to scale back the proposed amount of concrete due to structural limitations.

"We preferred the concrete. We also preferred the louvres to be concrete but that proved to be a bit of an engineering challenge, so they were changed to aluminium," says Torsing.

"We wanted a very simple building-just concrete and glass. We wanted to balance just two materials but in the end we had to balance three," adds Torsing.

The signature element

The east and west elevations of the RTA HQ will be a double-skin glass façade. By containing the mouldings within the structure, the façade will appear as one large, uninterrupted screen of glass.

The screen façade is composed of electronic strips that illuminate to convey images and messages; they operate much like pixels on a PC screen.

The strips will be oriented 15 centimetres apart, thus providing an element of passive solar shading as well as a clear view of the external environment.

Tawfeeq insists that the screen façade is about function. "The idea behind the screen is more architectural than commercial."

"We wanted a building that is alive. Nothing makes things seem alive more than TV."

Though they're still debating whether the screen's core function will be functional or commercial, RTA has decided that the highest part of the screen will display RTA messages to users of the roads.

"As an architect you want to show the depth and breadth of RTA's technological capabilities...For this reason, the LED screens are dually important to the design of the building," says Torsing.

The challenges

The biggest challenge in the project for ZJA was the juxtaposition of RTA aspirations versus the reality of the site. "The site was quite a small piece of terrain and the programme was quite massive," says Torsing.

ZJA also found itself at odds with a Dubai building restriction that required it to incorporate a 10m-high podium underneath a tower.

"We didn't want that. We wanted users on the street level to experience the tower instead of the podium," says Torsing.

For RTA however, the biggest challenge it's facing is time. "RTA is in need of more space, so this is our priority at the moment but at the same time, we're not forgetting quality," says Tawfeeq.

Combining the inspiration of ZJA, the leadership of Tawfeeq and the experience of Jurong International, RTA is looking to set architectural and industrial benchmarks with the creation of its new headquarters building.

"The construction of [RTA HQ] will represent the two most important things for RTA: first, we always keep our deadlines; second, we deliver very high quality work," says Tawfeeq.

RTA headquarters (RTA HQ)

500 employees in the podium

2,500 employees in the tower

300,000 cubic metres of sand to be moved for basements

7,000 square metres of screen space on the building

Start: Breaking ground in early 2008

Finish: End of 2009

Concept architect: ZJA (Holland)/RTA (Dubai)

Project lead: Jurong International

Client: Roads & Transit Authority

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