By Christopher Sell
Internationally-renowned architect Hazel Wong, the designer behind Dubai's Emirates Towers and the recently launched West Wharf tower in Business Bay, tells Christopher Sell how she goes about creating iconic buildings.
Could you summarise your design for the West Wharf?
It’s an international design, a sensible design - something one can call home. It is designed to be timeless, so that you won’t get tired of it in 10 or 15 years. It has a nautical theme with white metal panels and rails and is designed as a very efficient building with the tenant in mind, optimising views of the bay and making every unit very efficient.
Do you still get nervous designing a building that will be profiled on the world stage?
I get excited about designing any building. Once you have agreed to design a building, you pour your heart and soul into it. Every building has its unique requirements and opportunities. So yes, I do get excited; it’s like opening a Christmas present.
When you were designing Emirates towers, did you have any idea that it would become such a significant project?
Not at all, I approached it as an everyday project. Obviously it happened at the same time as the Burj Al Arab and it was a very exciting project because it involved working with HH Sheikh Mohammed, and it is certainly a high-profile building. But even though it was to be the 10th tallest building in the world on completion, that wasn’t the goal. The goal was just to come up with very simple elegant forms, and deliver a building that fits into the context and the programme.
It must mean a lot to you now though?
It certainly does mean a lot, and the appreciation everyone has in terms of how one tower is reflected off the other and how one sits higher than the other, has come back in a positive way. And I carry that theme of movement throughout most of the buildings I design, that when you walk around the building, the building moves with you.
What makes certain buildings stand out, is it easy to define?
Certainly the size and the site make a difference. For one of my earlier design works for the National Bank of Dubai, the Creek certainly gave it the right setting. And with the Emirates Towers, I think the grounds around it and the landscape that builds up to it, puts it in the right setting and you can view it in the right light. So I think the size of the project and the site contributes significantly to how the project would be viewed. Beyond that I don’t believe in gimmicks, I think the design should be integral with the architecture itself and the proportion is very significant. Then you consider whether it’s pleasing to the eye, the materials you use and the colour - for example limited palettes, applied wisely, gives you a more sophisticated product.
How difficult is it to introduce new concepts and push the boundaries of building design in Dubai?
I think it is still the place to bring new ideas and be accepted, since new ideas are welcomed and almost demanded.
So do you think there is more openness to ideas here than elsewhere in the world?
Definitely, the clients are sophisticated, they are up to the challenge, they bring something new to the region and, like I said, it is almost demanded here.
What other projects are you currently involved in?
I am working on a couple of high-rise projects in Jeddah. But they are in the design phase and so I cannot disclose any more on them. There are the Dubai towers in Doha and a number of general projects in DIFC and Dubai Marina.
Summarise how you approach your design process.
I interrogate the client’s brief - the site, surroundings and orientation. After that, the focus turns to the building itself. I emphasise the circulation (the skeleton) of the building and once you locate the core - the entrance, exit, the pedestrian movement in the building - then you focus on the interior of the units and how people see out and in. Then there is the envelope (skin, cladding). But while you are doing that, you sense the form - the height, width and balance.
So you have a concept in mind, but does it evolve?
I try not to have pre-conceived concepts. I think every building is unique. The site actually gives you a lot of clues - you analyse where the best view is, for example. It actually makes your job easier because you are working within limitations. What is difficult is picking any site, any building, any view, any height and being told ‘now design me a building’. That is when it becomes really subjective and I don’t think that should be the case. I think it should be influenced by these vectors and I try to make the best of it.