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Sun 17 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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The blank canvas

When it comes to dream projects, designing an island has to be pretty high up on the wish list.

Designing an island is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any designer, and it doesn't get much better than that island being part of The World. Michele Howe talks to Ron Mitchell, the visionary behind Oqyana World First.

When it comes to dream projects, designing an island has to be pretty high up on the list. Unfortunately, for most, that project will remain just a dream but for the chosen few working on The World in Dubai, the dream has just become a reality.

Ron Mitchell, director of US-based Global Design Collaborative, is one of the lucky ones. He is overseeing the design of Oqyana World First, a group of 22 islands that make up the Australasian continent and the New Zealand islands of The World, which is under development by Nakheel Properties.

We weren’t about building monumentality or icons. We were about building a lifestyle looking on the sea.

Located four kilometres from the coastline of Dubai and occupying a total area of 1.87 million m2, Oqyana - derived from the Arabic word for oceanic - is pitched as an exclusive lifestyle destination and community.

The development, which will be powered by its own 50,000 m2 utility island, will have villas and apartments as well as a retail hub, three hotels, and restaurants and cafes. Infrastructure works are due to start on Oqyana towards the end of this year with completion for the project slated for 2011.

All design projects are a challenge, but where do you start with an uninhabited, and until recently non-existent, group of islands? The primary consideration was to establish an identity for the project, Mitchell tells Commercial Outdoor Design.

"The first questions we were asking were what is going to make Oqyana special? What kind of a destination resort is it?," he recalls. "It's really more of an urban destination. It's very close to Dubai.

There are a lot of buildings on these islands. It isn't Bali or the Maldives where you have three or four beautiful villas and a sandy beach. There is a lot of density here. We decided very early on that Oqyana is not going to be a sleepy resort, it is about island lifestyle. Island lifestyle next to one of the most exciting cities in the world."

While the project had much scope for creativity, it wasn't a completely blank canvas, however. The investors behind Oqyana, The Investment Dar and EFAD Holdings, had a strong vision as to what they wanted to see, says Mitchell. "Oqyana set the vision in so far as they said we don't want a resort like any other. We want you to create an Oqyana style," he says.

What this meant was finding a way to combine the relaxed pace of island life with the sophistication of a modern city. "One of the decisions we made early on was that we didn't want to be thematic," says Mitchell. "We wanted to create the Oqyana style that was particular to this group of islands, [something] that you wouldn't see anywhere else in the world."

"We decided we wanted to do contemporary, we wanted it to be of the 21st century. We wanted to do a lifestyle development for very wealthy and sophisticated individuals without doing clichés. There is a sophisticated elegance in the whole product, but it's relaxed. It is all about the water, about living on an island."

In contrast to the current trend for iconic developments sweeping the Gulf, the team pledged to create something with more lasting appeal, taking the lifestyle as its indicator. "Dubai has so much of what we call satellite architecture," says Mitchell.

"If you are looking down from out of space, it looks like a palm tree or it spells something special and I'm not opposed to any of that, but we decided not to be iconic. We weren't about building monumentality or icons. We were about building a lifestyle looking on the sea."

This vision was translated into a creation of what Mitchell terms ‘signature moments', celebration of the island lifestyle. And the outdoor space was pivotal to achieving this. "It's all about moments of delight. The delight of just sitting on a shaded structure reading or walking with your children or your family on the beach," says Mitchell.The development will have a significant amount of outdoor space, with 17 kilometres of inter-linked walkways, and 15,000 metres of shorefront. There will also be public plazas and strategically placed exterior art work. "I believe in every community the landscape and the public spaces are the most critical," says Mitchell.

One of the challenges that designers working in this region have in focusing on the outdoor space, however, is ensuring that people actually make use of it.

The problem is not just the extreme temperatures during the summer - proximity to the sea will give some breeze in this case - it's persuading people used to moving from one air-conditioned environment to another to spend time outdoors. While sceptics say there is little point in investing in outdoor space as it will only be underused, Mitchell disagrees.

I believe in every community the landscape and the public spaces are the most critical.

"I think it's a question of design," he states. "The problem is people aren't providing the delightful outdoor spaces. They start off [thinking] it won't work, they won't do it, let's not bother. But if it's done right and it's designed right, I believe people will flock to the outdoor spaces and all of Oqyana is based on that premise."

Transportation was designed to encourage greater use of the outdoor space. The archipelago, which is car free, will be reached by ferry, with the individual islands connected by boats. There are also approximately seven bridges interconnecting the islands.

Oqyana has been designed primarily as a second home destination, and it is estimated that only 10% of the people who buy properties will live there full time. Mitchell predicts, however, that the actual number will be much higher as Dubai residents sick of traffic jams and city living are enticed by an easy commute and an island lifestyle.

The risk that a destination resort such as Oqyana has is that it could become a one-stop destination, a nice place to visit but not somewhere that requires a return trip. For the investment to work, however, the archipelago has to be more than that.

The key here, says Mitchell, is to incorporate into the design plenty of ‘attractors' - elements that will encourage people to make repeat visits, such as entertainment and retail.

"For a destination resort to be successful, you have to get people to come once, to stay there and spend as much of their money there as possible and [then] to come back again and again and again," he says.

Project details

Investors:The Investment Dar and EFAD Holdings

Masterplanner:Global Design Co-operative

Design central core:HOK

Interior design consultants:HOK, Hirsch Bedner Associates

Landscape design:Belt Collins USA

Master developer:The World Nakheel Properties

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