Going underground

As design jobs go, a metro system has to be among the most unique. In anticipation of the launch of the Dubai Metro, CID speaks to John Carolan of KCA International about the trials and tribulations of working on such an unusual and iconic project.
Going underground
John Carolan.
By Selina Denman
Wed 09 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

As design jobs go, a metro system has to be among the most unique. In anticipation of the launch of the Dubai Metro, CID speaks to John Carolan of KCA International about the trials and tribulations of working on such an unusual and iconic project.

As a young designer, John Carolan, now design director of KCA International in Dubai, worked on one of the Sultan of Brunei’s palaces.

He was put on ‘bathroom duty’, responsible for designing what can only be imagined were some of the most opulent bathrooms in the world. At the time, he might have been forgiven for thinking that that would be the most prestigious project of his design career. Then came Burj Al Arab, a striking landmark that emerged as a symbol of Dubai’s lofty ambitions – and catapulted KCA International to design stardom. And now, the Dubai Metro.

To coincide with the anticipated launch of the Metro this month, we asked Carolan to talk us through the trials and tribulations inherent in such a large-scale, high-profile project.

As projects go, a metro system is quite unique. I’m assuming that you haven’t worked on anything like this before. Was the prospect quite daunting?

When it happened, we never thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what to do’. I suppose that just comes with experience. When I first qualified as a designer, I remember thinking that I never wanted to be pigeon-holed because that would mean that I wasn’t able to experience the whole spectrum of design.

I went to college as a mature student. I got to a point in my life when I was 26 years old and thought I should start thinking seriously about what I wanted to do. I treated it like a job. I used to get in there at 8.30am and leave at seven, and sometimes work all night, whereas some of the younger guys were just messing around. I got through that and managed to get a distinction.

One of my tutors employed me at his architectural practice as soon as I got out of college but, within a year, he had run out of work. I then worked at the BBC for a year and a half, doing set design. I worked on things like To the Manor Born, Parkinson and Basil Brush, big shows like that. I also worked on the royal wedding.

I then went on to get a job with an international design agency that had offices all over the world. At the time, it was doing a palace for the Sultan of Brunei and needed someone to concentrate on the bathrooms. So I designed the majority of the bathrooms for the palace. It was quite exciting.

I’ve been very fortunate, moving through that and then finally getting into this business, which opened up a whole new sphere. When I got to the Metro five years ago, it was just another job. People were saying: ‘Oh you can’t do that because you’ve never done it before’. But why not? It’s just design. How did KCA International get the job?

We had worked with Al Habtoor-Murray & Roberts on the Burj Al Arab. They were one of three or four consortia bidding on the Metro. All of the bids were based on the principle that you produce architecture and then, obviously, there was the financial bid and the design bid.

Aedas had done a bid for the stations, both overground and underground. It was a beautiful piece of architecture. And then Al Habtoor-Murray & Roberts had this idea that to give them an edge, they would bring in designers – and who better to bring in than KCA International, because we’d done the Burj.I put some ideas together, based on the London Underground. I had been in London, maybe three or four years before and they had just started refurbishing some of the stations.

One of the things that always stuck in my mind was Baker Street and how they had very simply provided a way-finding tool by just having Sherlock Holmes’ stalker hat and pipe.

I thought that was a great idea and that we would do the same, but in a different way. We had to do it with local representation. We decided to use colour, texture and tone, so that even if there are only four colour schemes, you remember the riven. If you are on the train and have fallen asleep, you can immediately ascertain, am I on a water scheme? Which station? So the design was also a way of way-finding for people. That was the general crux.

The joint venture that eventually won was a combination of Turkish and Japanese companies. They won the job but because the client liked Aedas’ architecture, they asked them to come over. The client also asked them to go out and find another designer, so a gentleman from Aedas walked into our office one day and asked us whether we’d wanted to work on the Metro. We did. Tell us about the design.

We presented in June 2006 and it was really out there. I knew the design was quite radical – but I thought that we should just push it out there and see how it was received.

We looked at some of the metros in other parts of the world – Moscow, London, Singapore and Paris, for example. In many cases, they were very hard-edged and unfriendly. They were very Euro-style – a lot of concrete, glass and steel.

They are designed to be vandal-proof, you see, which is half the problem. Once you start down that route, it’s very difficult to know where to stop. I like it because it is minimalist and very engineered. It appeals to me but I could see why it wouldn’t appeal to the client.

Did the client, the Roads & Transport Authority (RTA), have a clear idea of what it wanted?

What we came up with was not what they expected, I don’t think. I think they came at it from a more practical point of view, although they didn’t want that to close down the creativity of the design.

However, when we presented it to the committee, the general view was, this is what we want. We want uniqueness, and this represents Dubai. We got a very positive response to the presentation.

What was your design philosophy?

Our philosophy worked around the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The great thing about this was that you had design and you had colour, so you could mix and match and get quite a lot of variables. When we were doing historical sites, such as Union Square, Burjuman or Al Ghubaiba, we also looked back at historical references to the place. For example, Burjuman means desert pearl, so we used that as the basis.

One of the other things that we did was include historical imagery. This was all placed on vitreous enamel panels. It was a simple idea but actually ended up being incredibly complex. What is your favourite station?

I like Burjuman, just because of the glamour of it all. I also like the overground stations because of their simplicity. Those spaces are special.

Is there anything in the Dubai stations that you might not find in stations in other parts of the world?

We had a long discussion with the RTA about whether they wanted decorative light fittings in there. We showed them examples initially, just to put it out there. We expected them not to like it, but they did, so in the main underground, we’ve got chandeliers.

One of the interesting things was that we also did the interiors for the train. There are three different trains that appeal to particular clients: first class, the women’s and children’s carriage and the standard carriage.

All of them are quite strong in design terms – they wouldn’t do that anywhere else in the world.

Did designing a metro system for a virtually crime-free city allow you to be more creative, seeing as you didn’t have to be overly concerned about making it vandal-proof?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand we didn’t have to worry about vandalism but we still had to worry about durability – people are always in a hurry, they’re not being careful, and they are always brushing against things.

You have to worry about non-slip surfaces and impact damage. Basically, you have to be careful that you are not creating anything in that space that could potentially harm people. So, no sharp corners or sharp angles jutting out.

We were working with Atkins and they are quite thorough like that – so anything we missed, they picked up.

One critical thing was the durability of materials. Obviously, we were looking at anything that was hard, so vitreous enamel panels, industrial quartz stone, glass and metal – the same combinations that have been used in other metros, but presented more creatively.

What were the main challenges that you faced with this project?

I think the main challenge, as with any project, was trying to get inside the head of the client, and trying to make sure that whatever we presented had a basis in terms of practicality. The design had to mean something; it couldn’t just be design for design’s sake.

The one good thing about the RTA is that they always respected our design and kept with our design intent. They were a great client like that.It’s been a long long time coming. It looks fairly straightforward but it wasn’t easy. But the client was very proactive; they’ve been very inclusive, and their eye for detail has been phenomenal. Is it the best-designed Metro in the world, then?

I’d say yes. It’s going to be the most unique, let’s put it that way, because people are always going to be subjective. I think it will set new standards for people to follow.

Stations do not have to be cold, hard and unfriendly. They don’t necessarily have to be glamorous but they can be rich. And that’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to add a degree of richness and vibrancy.

It was interesting; when we first started, one of the engineers was saying: ‘These are stations, people will have their heads down, they won’t be interested’. But why not make them look up? People do walk around with their heads down all the time; but when you look up, your whole world changes.

Now that you’ve got this new iconic project under your belt, do you think people will stop thinking of KCA as the ‘guys that designed the Burj’?

I always remember watching an interview with Alec Guinness, the classical English actor who played Obi Wan Kenobe in Star Wars.

He said: ‘I’ve been an actor for 50 years of my life. I’ve been in some of the most amazing plays and amazing films and all anyone ever shouts across the road is Obi!’. He hated it.

On the one hand, I could take that attitude but I think that the Burj Al Arab is a fantastic thing. We designed that about 13 or 14 years ago now and still people go there and stand outside in hushed tones and take their photos and go inside and look around in awe.

The great thing about it is the opportunity it has given us. People know our name now. And although they associate us with the Burj, they associate us not necessarily with the brashness of the work, but with the quality of the work and with what that building represents.

When we were working on the Sultan of Brunei’s palace, someone said: ‘Look guys, you’re all under a lot of pressure, working seven days a week trying to get this ready, but what you have to remember is this will probably be the biggest and most prestigious project that you will ever work on in your life. Enjoy it’.

A few years later, I was working on the Burj. And now the Metro.

So, once you’ve done the Burj and done the Metro, where do you go from there?

I don’t know. There was always a never-ending supply of amazing projects here and I’m sure there still will be. But even if nothing ever comes after this, we’re happy with what we’ve got.

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