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As the Burj Al Arab celebrates 20 years since its official opening, Arabian Business speaks to some of the original team behind the creation of this iconic building, tracing how the project went from a simple sketch on a napkin to becoming one of the most famous hotels in the world

Burj Al Arab at 20: Cable cars, underwater tunnels and Star Trek influences - anecdotes from the original design team
Picture taken on June 1 2009 shows the luxury hotel Burj al Arab in Dubai It is 321 m 1050 ft high and stands on an artificial island 280 m 920 ft out from Jumeirah beach and was built by British architect Tom Wright AFP PHOTO OLIVER LANG Photo credit should read OLIVER LANGAFPGetty Images

"Would I change anything?” Tom Wright, the designer behind one of the most famous hotels in the world, says out loud to himself as we chat on the phone from his office in England. There’s a pause.

“No, I don’t think I would because it’s a statement in time, it’s done its job,” he answers confidently. So what was the exact ‘job’ him and his team were set back in 1993? The brief the design team was given was to create an iconic building which would become synonymous with Dubai and launch it onto the world’s stage.

“The strategy was always to create a symbol for the UAE that was globally recognisable,” says Simon Crispe, the director of the original design team at consultancy firm Atkins.

“Our brief was to look at global icons such as the Sydney Opera House or the Tour Eiffel and, by researching, understanding and getting to know Emirati culture, create a symbol that reflected the UAE, with a focus on the traditional warm Arabian welcome of visitors and providing superb Emirati hospitality.”

British architect Tom Wright famously created the initial design of the Burj Al Arab on a napkin

Wright famously created the initial design on a napkin (the original of which is now in the Jumeirah Group archives and appears on our cover this week). While this sketch was his personal favourite, initially there were many options on the table.

The Burj Al Arab project was overseen by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who, at the time, was the Minister of Defence, later becoming Crown Prince of Dubai in January 1995 and Ruler of Dubai and Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE in 2006.

“In 1993 we got the opportunity to sort of have a crack at this tower… We came up with, in the end, it was 11 [designs], and one of which was the sail building, which I preferred,” Wright remembers. 

“I did a bigger drawing of that one and a little mobile. I hadn’t actually met Sheikh Mohammed at all. We’d just spoken to his staff and two weeks later he comes in, he looks through all the drawings we presented, comes up to the little model and said ‘I like this one, let’s build it’ and walked out.”

The Burj Al Arab sketch on Napkin

Starship Enterprise

With a royal seal of approval, Wright was confident they had chosen the right option. “If we did build one of the other schemes, it could easily not have worked, it would have been just another big building,” he believes. A model of the hotel was tested in wind tunnels and the design didn’t change radically from Wright’s early sketches, with only minor alterations.

“If you look at that first original drawing, it had a cable car going to the top and a glass tunnel came from the land to the basement. This was when we were looking out at the sea and we didn’t know it was very shallow sea. It just got lost in the process as it went through the design,” he adds.

The hotel’s design also took some of its inspiration from some unlikely places, as architect Rebecca Gernon told ITP Media Group title Construction Week in 2011.

“My claim to fame is that I designed the helipad at the Burj Al Arab… I tried lots of designs, but nothing was coming to me. I sat there for three days. I remember the night before I was supposed to present my idea, it was getting later and later, and I had nothing. Eventually I sketched the Starship Enterprise, out of Star Trek, as a joke. I left it on my desk and went home, wondering whether there was any point going into the office the following day.

“When Tom [Wright] came in the next day, he had to walk past my desk to get to his office. And he saw this sketch on my desk. When he called the meeting, he brought the sketch with him and said: ‘Look guys, this is the helipad, isn’t it amazing!’”

Millennium focus

With a design in place, a team was gathered together, with a very strict deadline to meet. “The project absolutely had to be ready for the millennium celebrations on 1st January 2000,” says Crispe.

“In order to give the hotel operations team enough time to both understand the hugely complex machine that is Burj Al Arab, along with delivering the premium world class standards of hospitality that Burj Al Arab represents, we had to complete construction by the end of September 1999. This was a huge challenge to meet, given the extreme level of prototype design and construction the project involved. This was not a cut and paste project. No one in the world had created anything remotely similar architecturally or structurally, let alone in a similar environment or geography built on a man-made island.”

Team bonding

While Dubai is now one of the major construction hubs in the region and the world, Rick Gregory, the project manager on the hotel, says one of the early challenges was manpower. “I mean, at the time Dubai was a small town so we knew we were going to need a couple of thousand men… in what was a fairly sleepy town,” he recalls.

Working on the project for nearly seven years, Crispe remembers the team all became very close and there was a strong comradery among those working long hours to complete the hotel in time for the 2000 celebrations.

It took two years of reclamation work to create the man-made island off the coast of Dubai

“The project was defining and formative for most of us and I still remember the incredible teamwork between designers, builders, planners, cost and project managers. As leader of a very young design team in 1993, there was barely a grey hair between us when the first group of seven core team designers headed out to live in Dubai on 4 January 1994,” he recalls.

“We also made mistakes and learned from them. Everyone was invested in and ‘owned’ the project from the outset. As I look back 25 years to when we moved our young families out to Dubai, I think it was the enormity of the project and the excitement of that huge challenge that motivated our young and inexperienced team to focus so completely on achieving a very singular goal.”

Did the Eiffel Tower show a profit?

Another often told anecdote is that the hotel was never expected to break even or turn a profit.

Sheikh Mohammed “was asked ‘did the project, at the end of the day, would it have to show a profit?’” Gregory recalls. “His answer was ‘did the Eiffel Tower show a profit?’ and so it was a very good analogy because, obviously the Eiffel Tower did very well for Paris and probably brought in a lot of people into the city for both the World’s Fair, when it was built, and subsequently, so it was an interesting analogy.”

The loss-making claim has also been dismissed by Jose Silva, CEO of Jumeirah Group since March 2018, who told Arabian Business it is, in fact, a big revenue generator. “It’s very profitable. It’s true that some icons never become truly profitable but this is one of the most profitable hotels I know,” he says.

This was something which became apparent very early on. “If you think about it, you are about to build some building which costs a huge amount of money. And the idea was that it would be there as a symbol and wouldn’t make money, would be a loss and bring tourism in and everything else,” says Wright.

“I was speaking to someone about four or five years ago and I asked them and they said ‘it’s been the most amazingly successful venture. Nobody knew that at the time people would pay ridiculous sums of money to stay in it’,” says Wright, adding that “the other thing that we didn’t consider in the design was that it would become a tourist attraction… and it really is.”

Second time lucky

Once the hotel’s construction was nearing completion, the focus turned to the interiors and the daunting task was given to Chinese interior designer Khuan Chew, who was, at first, overwhelmed by the task of picking the furnishings and interiors for the world’s newest and most luxurious hotel.

“Nothing is given to you on a plate,” she told Commercial Interior Design magazine in 2014. “His Highness is very, very fair. So the first project I won was the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and we have a very fond memory of that… And, of course, another big competition came from that for the Burj Al Arab, which I had turned down at first.

“I thought he isn’t going to pick me again, he just gave me the wave, so he’s not going to give me a second one.” Chew explained how she was urged by Sheikh Mohammed’s office to reconsider. She decided to once again submit a proposal and ultimately beat out seven other competitors.

“I’ve never done anything like it before the project, and I haven’t done anything like it since, but a lot of people think that’s all I do. It’s quite a myth actually, but this was a one-off project from the level of quality, the family of colour and the budget that was put into that project.”

Mirror image

Gregory recalls how when Chew and her team moved on to the project some elements of the design had to be amended to accommodate the lavish ambitions of the interiors.

“I remember her phoning me once saying ‘Rick I don’t have a set of sprinkler plans’ and I said ‘what do you need sprinkler plans for?’ She goes ‘I just want to see in the bedroom is there a sprinkler directly above the bed. I said ‘there was one, I’ve just moved it. You’re planning to put mirrors I bet’. She laughed because that was her plan.”

Gerald Lawless joined Jumeirah Group as operations director in June 1997 and later became CEO

As the opening approached, it became time to start planning the service, management and branding of the hotel. This job was tasked to Irishman Gerald Lawless, who had joined the Jumeirah Group as operations director in June 1997 and was then promoted to CEO when the hotel group was formally established later that year.

“Every new major hotel opening will have certain challenges. Burj Al Arab was truly one of a kind so the overall organisation, from recruitment to food and beverage and overall operations, kept us all very active,” Lawless recalls.

Seven-star status

“It was interesting that the seven-star designation was coined by the international media who visited the hotel in the weeks leading up to the opening. It was recognised immediately as a game changer in the global luxury hotel keeping space… I also believe that the coverage we received following Tiger Woods teeing off of the helicopter pad, followed a year later by Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis on the same pad contributed greatly. Thank you Emirates Golf Club and Dubai Duty Free for that,” he adds.

Roger Federer (left) and Andre Agassi faced-off on a makeshift tennis court at the hotel’s helipad in 2005

Like any project, there were some teething problems in the early days, but nothing the team couldn’t handle. “The first event that was used as a soft opening for the Burj Al Arab was the 1999 Dubai Airshow in November that year,” Crispe says.

“I do recall one incident during the Airshow, when a VVIP was inspecting the Al Muntaha Restaurant which was approached via a virtual submarine ride. I was attending a Lionel Richie concert in Downtown Dubai at the time and remember receiving a call from a very upset member of the Hotel Operator team informing me that the internal door handle for the airlock of the submarine had broken and the VVIP and their whole party were stuck inside the submarine. Fortunately the problem was easily resolved with the VVIPs seeing the funny side of their virtual adventure at sea.”

As the hotel celebrates twenty years since its official opening, a true test of its longevity and status is the high calibre of guests it has continued to attract.

“Some of the great memories revolve around visits of high profile people to the hotel such as Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, but I will always cherish the opportunity I had to welcome President Nelson Mandela to Burj Al Arab,” says Lawless.

“I was only a small part of the entire concept and I owe so much to Dubai, plus all the contractors and designers. But, most of all, a great hotel depends on amazingly dedicated colleagues (our staff) at all levels. I have huge respect for what these individuals achieved on behalf of Jumeirah and the Burj Al Arab. I am delighted to see that this legacy continues under the leadership of Tony Costa and Jose Silva,” he added.

We look forward to decades more to come for this truly global icon. 

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