Flying high

Designing towers that reflect culture and society is how Adrian Smith,the designer behind the tallest building in the world, makes a living. Now that the Burj Dubai is approaching completion, Conrad Egbert finds out what it's like to be an expert in tall buildings.


Designing towers that reflect culture and society is how Adrian Smith,the designer behind the tallest building in the world, makes a living. Now that the Burj Dubai is approaching completion, Conrad Egbert finds out what it�s like to be an expert in tall buildings.

It was at the age of sixteen that Adrian Smith - the man behind the design of the Burj Dubai - decided he wanted to be an architect.

And once that decision was made, there was no stopping him.

"I went straight for it," he says.

"I've always had a fascination for architecture and what can be done with spaces."

Smith went on to design buildings that have become major landmarks for world cities. Among them are the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, London's Canary Wharf and Tower Palace III in Seoul.

Within the Middle East, Smith is the lead designer on the masterplan for the King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia and his firm - Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill - recently won the design competition for Abu Dhabi's Masdar City.

Yet despite his interest in structures that have made it into history books, Smith has no favourites.

"What intrigues me is the way structures relate to each other and the environment they're in," he says.

"It's the way they sometimes speak about the culture they're in; architecture is a language in itself. It talks about the people that live in them and the people that build them, and society. It's not just a place to live and work in. So those buildings that exemplify all these things are those that I respond to.

"In a place like Bahrain, for example, it could be a little mosque somewhere with a unique character that might take my fancy or the passageway between two meandering streets.

"Whether it's in China, India or Dubai, I think there are obvious landmarks that everybody identifies with - unique structures that speak of their culture."

And having the opportunity to create a structure like the Burj Dubai - one that will inevitably go down in history - is the envy of most architects around the world.

"When Emaar was looking for architects for the Burj Dubai, the company's first criteria was experience," adds Smith.

"They looked for someone who had designed tall buildings. They took a world tour and looked at a number of buildings that were in the same height range of what the Burj Dubai will eventually be, such as the Petronas Towers and the Jin Mao Tower.

"Emaar identified four or five architects who they thought had the experience or the ability to pull off a tall tower and we were one of them."

Smith was an architect at Skidmore Owings and Merrill at the time the Burj Dubai was designed, and joined architect firms Cesar Pelli & Associates, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and Carlos A Ott Architects in the three-week race to come up with a design for the tower.

Smith's drawings won the competition, and was heavily based on the fact that he had designed some of the tallest towers in the world, including Korea's tallest building - Tower Palace III.

But Smith says that winning the competition didn't overwhelm him at all even though this was tipped to be the tallest building ever to be constructed.

"I wasn't overwhelmed because I have designed a number of other super-tall towers that haven't been built. It's quite common for someone to design a tower that won't get built, for one reason or another," he adds.

"You only start getting excited when they start building it. When they start doing the foundation work, then it has a strong sense of reality. I'm kind of sceptical when people announce these 150-storey towers, because often they don't happen."

But designing towers on a drawing board and actually stepping into one that you've created must come with completely different emotions. Smith laughs it off, saying it's something he's now used to.

"I always go back and visit my towers - they're like children to me and I like to make sure they're functioning properly. I try to stay in touch with the clients so that if they want to make modifications or if there are issues that need to be addressed then I'm there for it."

"Buildings change over time, and you'd want to be in a position where you can help guide those changes - that's the way to extend the longevity of your vision. If you're not there it becomes somebody else's vision."

Smith reveals that he was currently working on other tall towers in the region that go beyond 100m, but none higher than the Burj Dubai.

With regards to Dubai's booming construction sector, Smith is impressed with how Dubai has managed to reinvent itself so quickly.

"I think it's amazing to see what's happening in construction here and how the world's attention is focused on Dubai, not only in the construction industry but people all over the world want to come and see what's happening.

"One reason for creating such extraordinary architecture in Dubai is to create a tourist centre and as these buildings are completed, it will create things of wonder for people to see.

"People have always been attracted to that, whether it's the pyramids or the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building. People have been drawn to that and it's a very good strategy for Dubai to be shifting it's emphasis from an energy-based economy to a tourism-based one, which will in turn lead to a business-based economy. You have to keep creating things that are new and exciting and those elements will keep bringing people back. It's not just a matter of a one-visit city anymore."

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