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Fri 9 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Monolith maker

Burj Dubai architect Marshall Strabala on why the credit crunch could curb the Gulf's height wars.

Burj Dubai architect Marshall Strabala is a man at the top of his game, having designed three of the world's 10 tallest buildings. He tells Arabian Business why the credit crunch could curb the Gulf's height wars and why for green building, the only way is up.

It is already one of the world's most recognisable structures, one of modern engineering's greatest achievements - and the cause of many a cricked neck among both locals and visitors to Dubai.

Piercing the blue sky of the Arabian Gulf, the Burj Dubai dwarfs even the 30-storey buildings surrounding it and, once finished, will be the tallest tower in the world by some distance.


The $20bn Downtown Burj Dubai development will itself include 30,000 homes, nine hotels, 6.2 acres of parkland, 19 residential towers, the Dubai Mall, and a 30-acre man-made lake.

Developer Emaar Properties has gone to lengths to keep the tower's final height under wraps, shrouding the plans in secrecy. However, according to the man who designed it six years ago - and has since watched his sketches and models transformed into a concrete-and-steel reality - the project has always been driven by one goal.

"The reason for doing the Burj Dubai was to create the world's tallest building and put it off the water in Dubai, which traditionally is not the most popular [stretch of] land here," explains architect Marshall Strabala.

In 2002, Strabala was working as associate partner and lead designer for his then company Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), when it won the competition to design the Burj Dubai. As such, he is able to shed a little light on that most tightly-guarded secret - when he left SOM in 2006 the skyscraper was planned to be 808 metres, or half a mile tall.

"I don't know where it [the Burj Dubai] is with its steel but 808 metres was its design when I left SOM in 2006, which is exactly half a mile tall," says Strabala, who is now based out of Houston as director of design at Gensler, an international architecture, design, planning and consulting firm. "They should be very close to topping it out."

Emaar remains tight-lipped, merely stating that when completed in September 2009 it will hold the world record in all four categories as recognised by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat - namely, highest structure, roof, antenna and occupied floor.

Whatever the final height, Strabala knows more about tall buildings than most, having worked on three of the world's current top 10 during his 23-year career.

Spanning almost every corner of the globe, the American has worked on the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Nanjing Greenland Zifeng Tower in Shanghai's financial centre, Discovery Tower in Texas, 5 Canada Square in London's Canary Wharf and the financial district of King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, among other illustrious projects.

"The design of the Burj was primarily a residential building," Strabala says of the Downtown Burj Dubai centerpiece. "We changed the top to office very late in the game.

"With a hotel at the bottom, it was primarily super high-end luxury and I think [Emaar chairman] Mohamed Ali Alabbar had a terrific business model for doing it as his whole development is around the Burj... this was an element that marked this part of the city," he explains. "So we have an urban marker that signifies a district in Dubai and creates value for the buildings around it."

With the Burj forming the showpiece of a city within a city, the $20bn Downtown Burj Dubai development will itself include 30,000 homes, nine hotels, 6.2 acres of parkland, 19 residential towers, the Dubai Mall, and a 30-acre man-made lake.

With its distinctive three-legged shape, the plan of the Burj Dubai tower was based on a 72-storey tower SOM worked on called Tower Palace Three in Seoul, South Korea.

"I believe design is an evolution, not a revolution," says Strabala. "You are not coming up with completely independent thoughts every time you do a building, you build on the buildings you've already done before."

Competition for the title of tallest structure is fierce. Since work on the Burj got underway, two equally ambitious skycraper projects have been unveiled which, when completed, would steal the tallest tower crown from the Burj. It is perhaps no surprise that both these projects are in the Gulf, a region with an appetite for super-sized real estate schemes and the bank accounts to support them.

Saudi Arabia's Kingdom Holding unveiled plans in October 2008 to build Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, which it said would be over 1km tall, without being more specific.

Just days earlier, developer Nakheel, a rival in Dubai to Emaar, announced it intended to build its own skyscraper, which at more than 1km tall would dwarf the Burj Dubai.

Yet this is not the first time Strabala has been involved in a project that has designs on featuring the world's tallest building, and so he is philosophical about the next generation of super-structures potentially stealing the limelight from the Burj."I think every tall building has its day," he notes sagely. "They will be judged on quality - and when I say quality, I mean the quality of life of the people who use the building. If a building is built just to be bigger and the quality of life of its inhabitants isn't there, it will be a failure.

"I think the quality of the Burj as a residential project will be fantastic because of its shape and its form. Nakheel's project I don't know that much about but I wouldn't be hurt in the least if they built it, as I think stretching the limits of engineering is intriguing and quite wonderful."

Despite his long association with skyscrapers and his ability to list off the vital statistics of the many super-buildings he's worked on, Strabala claims he is interested in designing buildings with an aspiration for excellence rather than altitude.


I always say with buildings, don’t try to be the longest or tallest, try and be the best.

"At some point it really doesn't matter how tall these buildings are," he insists. "If you want to be the tallest building for the longest time do what Nakheel is doing. [But] 1400 metres - you're going to pay a huge, huge premium for that. I always say with buildings, don't try to be the longest or tallest, try and be the best."

Strabala's point of view is likely driven by the numerous super-tall projects he has been involved in over the years that have fallen by the wayside as costs escalated and funding dried up.

"I have done ‘the world's tallest building' every year for 10 years and one of them was actually built," he says, referring to the Burj. "[It] seems a great idea but once they start getting the bills for all this, a normal 40-storey building starts to look pretty good, as you could build five 40-storey buildings for the same price as a super-tall building."

Indeed, as the real estate market reels from one of the most severe global economic downturns in living memory, the financing for ambitious projects is evaporating, leading to developments being delayed or even cancelled. A spin-off from this has been job cuts in architectural practices around the world.

"I know Gensler's had a few large buildings put on hold in the Middle East but we are a global practice and have enough work worldwide," counters Strabala.

"When I worked at SOM in 1991 the firm went from 1500 people to 150 people in the course of three months because we weren't diversified and the Chicago office had far too many projects in the Middle East during the first Gulf War. When people are blowing up buildings they're not building them - funny how that works."

Gensler's Dubai office worked on the masterplan for the Dubai International Financial Centre and the eye-catching Gate Building at the heart of it. Strabala himself worked on a few schemes in the area for buildings which were around 60 to 70-stories but "never got off the ground."

"One was for an office and there's always a need for office in Dubai, but there's more profit from residential," he says.

But Strabala's latest project is in Shanghai, where he has been living with his wife for most of the past year, and is a building he is clearly passionate about. Groundbreaking commenced last month on the Shanghai Tower, a 632-metre office, residential and retail tower that will take the title of China's tallest building upon completion in 2014.

"Shanghai Tower has nine zones and at the base of every zone there is an amenity floor, which is basically a garden that looks out at the city, that will be a plaza with restaurants," he says.

Strabala is particularly excited about some of the features on top of the building, including a rainwater collection device to replenish the structure's cooling tower and vertical access wind turbines which generate close to 600,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Green building is clearly an important subject for Strabala, and he strongly supports the Dubai government's own initiative on the issue.

"I think it is more economical and green to build tall than sprawl," he says. "I did a lecture in Houston for the US Green Building Council that really compared the 1000 homes in the Burj Dubai against 1000 homes in suburban Houston, and looked at the metrics of what it takes to build - how much concrete is put in the roads and sidewalks as opposed to how much is put into the tower, how many miles of sewer pipes are needed and how much energy is saved when I can share my floor and roof with someone else and so on. There was no comparison."

The design of super-tall structures is also changing to reduce the risks from terrorism, Strabala says, with lessons learnt from the design shortcomings of the World Trade Centre in New York. Thousands of people were killed when the twin towers were destroyed by terrorists in 9/11.

Concentrating the load of tall towers in the supporting columns, ensuring elevators run on emergency generator systems and, in the Burj Dubai's case, encasing the stairs in 600mm thick concrete walls to enable quick exits from the building, are among the measures he has made in his recent buildings to make them safer in the event of a terrorist attack.

Still, Strabala does not see the threat of terrorism stopping mankind's enthusiasm for and fascination with building tall. But how high can we go?

"I love the Italian world for skyscraper, grattacielo, which really means ‘scratch the sky,'" he muses. "I really think the sky's the limit."

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