A race in the sun
In form and function, Atkins' Al Wathba Racetrack near Abu Dhabi embodies dynamic motion.
In form and function, Atkins' Al Wathba Racetrack embodies dynamic motion.
Located approximately one hour southwest of Abu Dhabi's city centre and 15 minutes from the nearest recognisable landmark-the municipal water treatment facility-Atkins' Al Wathba Camel Racetrack is tucked neatly into the dunes of the gently sloping desert landscape.
The nearest paved road is affectionately named 'Truck Road', in reference to the massive pieces of machinery that traverse it from dusk until dawn. It is the elder sibling of the 'Old' Al Wathba Racetrack, located just 10 minutes drive from it, but there are neither signposts nor clear directions on how to access 'New' Al Wathba.
The largest racetrack of its kind in Abu Dhabi, Al Wathba is the newest iteration of an ancient sport that dates back hundreds of years and symbolises, as much as anything, the Arabian sporting experience.
While the facility boasts a paved carpark and indoor/outdoor seating, both the difficulty with which access to the site is granted and the high-tech VIP facilities within, suggest that this is not a venue for those with a passing interest in the sport.
Devoid of the throngs of tourists and merchants that usually clamor to similar camel racing events, Al Wathba speaks to a different brand of spectator. It's a place where purists can celebrate and preserve the Arabian experience of their forefathers.
In the first concept design meeting with its client, Atkins was asked to, "create something modern and unique, with all the requirements of a racetrack." That was it. That was the extent of the instructions provided from a client that had a clearly defined function for the building, but little in the way of design requirements.
Atkins was asked to stretch the limits of its collective imagination and creativity to create a structure that would provide a bold image yet mimic the dynamic motion of the blowing wind, and blend with the ever-changing undulations of the surrounding desert landscape.
Owing to its collective ability for cutting-edge design, Atkins drew upon the elegance of the written form of Arabic and the dynamism of the racing experience to further inspire its design.
The completed Al Wathba would need to simultaneously celebrate the cultural and historical richness of the sport while providing a harbinger for its future development. It would need to be distinctive, yet distinctively similar.
Al Wathba would need to evoke images of racetracks of old, but be modern enough to announce its presence as the foremost camel racing facility in the country.
In the end it was decided that using reflective glass combined with a faÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â§ade of high-performance aluminium, steel and gunmetal-coloured polyurethane offered the best solution to achieve a contrast of vibrant design and time-honoured tradition.
Atkins' expanded role
"The concept stage took us approximately one month and the detailing stage another eight months," says a lead architect. "We needed to be sure that the architectural concept would not be affected due to the detailing stage."
As the largest camel racetrack in the Emirate, Al Wathba provided Atkins with an opportunity for a truly turnkey project. Atkins was commissioned to provide the building's structural engineering, as well as the design and construction of its exterior architecture.
It was asked to manage and consult on mechanical and electrical engineering, plumbing works, quantity surveying processes and infrastructure decisions.
As the project involved building new indoor/outdoor grandstands, three racetracks (4, 5 & 6km respectively) and a complete rehabilitation and realignment of the existing track, Atkins was tasked with supervising the entire site and overall project management.
In an effort to ensure consistency in style and form, Atkins was also asked to choose the interior materials and complete the interior design fit-out, complete with high-tech hubs with personal TV screens for the occasional VIP visitor.
"In order for us to achieve our aim, we knew that we will be facing many challenges. As we progressed through the project, our predictions became truth," says a lead architect on the project.
One of the most important challenges faced by the Atkins team was ensuring that the design of the building was consistent with the function it needed to perform. Built with outdoor seating as well as indoor VIP seating, the building needed to provide an authentic racing experience for both groups.
The structure needed to offer a place for social interaction to which both old and young could relate. By focusing its design on the contrast between preserving tradition and celebrating modernity, Atkins achieved the desired affect.
A second challenge was encountered in the structural phase. The Atkins team admittedly struggled with the question of how to get the structure to fit the design. While the site itself is massive, the Al Wathba building needed to entice visitors but ultimately provide a gateway to the races themselves.
Atkins needed to find a way to make the structure bold enough to be distinctive, yet transparent enough so that it wouldn't overshadow its ultimate function. Several meetings between the structural engineering and design teams during the initial design phase produced a size and scope with which both teams were satisfied.
A third challenge involved glass. The Atkins team needed to find a way to ensure the building would be sleek and modern, yet provide protection from the sun and unobstructed views. In essence, the building needed to draw people in, then disappear to provide the best view of the event.
The Atkins team knew that using curved glass would create glare during times of the day when clarity would be crucial, i.e. race times. Glare would interfere with visibility and detract from the experience. Yet, they wanted to maintain a sleek image and clear lines of sight.
After contacting several suppliers and testing various products, the structural and design teams agreed on using segmented glass that would maximise visibility and minimise obstruction. This solution also allowed the team to maintain a high level of modernity in design.
As it turned out, the building was the least challenging part of the Al Watha Racetrack project. Collaborating with their team of in-house structural engineers-all of which had experience designing and building Formula One racetracks-the architects and engineers found themselves in unfamiliar territory.
Ultimately the engineers needed to divorce themselves from what they knew about the physics of automobile racetracks and focus on the dynamics of a racetrack on which camels would run.
While the fastest sections of some F1 racetracks are the corners due to the pockets of speed created by cambering, the corners, conversely, are the slowest sections of a flat sandy camel racetrack.
Moreover, tight corners on a F1 track adds levels of difficulty and tests the dexterity of the driver, but similar corners on a camel track results in accidents and injuries due to bottlenecks, accidents and the physical limitations of a camel's limbs and joints.
The last word
Al Wathba Racetrack is architecturally significant for the function it performs and the demands placed upon it.
It had to be symbolically big, yet structurally small. It had to project a bold image to attract visitors, yet be a gateway for the racetrack behind it. It had to stand alone, isolated amidst the dunes, yet be strong enough to connect hundreds of years of culture and sporting tradition.
Al Wathba Racetrack will never grace the cover of postcards or be featured in documentaries, but for the reasons mentioned above, it is an icon nonetheless.