Arabian Architecture

From wind towers to the world’s tallest buildings, the cities of the Middle East Arabian Architecture never fail to impress award-winning Architect Jason Burnside of Dubai-based company GAJ

In the past 10 years, the list of architectural achievements within the Middle East has grown significantly. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is found in Dubai – scaled by actor Tom Cruise in the movie Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol – and the city also features a number of other record-breaking feats, including the world’s largest man-made islands, the Palm Jumeirah among them. In Abu Dhabi, work continues on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, and the city’s own Guggenheim museum, courtesy of Frank Gehry. There are shining, gleaming towers pushing the limits of design, and yet there are also nods to the region’s cultural heritage through designs that channel the traditional features.

This mix of building styles can be found in many major cities across the Middle East, and for architects like Jason Burnside it is simply fascinating. ‘I arrived a few years before the construction boom, so initially it was quite laid back,’ Jason says. ‘However, things soon took off and it was certainly liberating to work in an environment with such a fast pace of development, and far less bureaucracy and legislation than I was used to in the UK.’ Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ), at which Jason is a partner, has certainly been kept busy, working on a diverse range of projects, from residential palaces and commercial offices to luxury hotels and schools. Jason seems to have taken to the mix of demands and styles with ease, however, and last year was named architect of the year at the Middle East Architect Awards.

‘One of the biggest advantages of the region is the hands-on approach of the ruling families,’ says Jason. ‘They are dedicated to putting the Middle East on the map, and therefore actively promote and support new and innovative projects.’ These have included record-breaking shopping malls, hotels, theme parks, museums and towers, with many of the world’s greatest architects invited to lend their expertise. Some of the projects announced seem a little outlandish, such as underwater hotels, or Dubai’s Falcon City, which seeks to create replicas of famous buildings from around the world. ‘These projects may become popular tourist attractions,’ says Jason, ‘but personally I would prefer the inspiration of the souks or Dubai Creek.’

Jason, of course, refers to the oldest parts of his home city, where traditional Arab architecture can be found, including mosques with towering minarets and domes, covered in geometric patterns, or buildings using wind towers as a form of cooling. ‘This architecture was a basic response to providing shelter and protection from the heat through the clever adaptation of locally-available materials,’ Jason reveals. ‘The wind towers were an ingenious way of redirecting air movement in the hot summer months, deep into the buildings to help cool the interiors.’ The forts and hill villages of Oman, or the Bastakiya area in Dubai, are perfect examples of this classic style. This heritage is even reflected in newer buildings, with Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace hotel and its Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, desert resorts such as Qasr Al Sarab, or Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art with its sandy-coloured exterior, all influenced by what has come before.

So that is the past and the present, but what of the future for the region’s architecture? ‘As a whole, it is looking optimistic and it will continue to challenge architects and planners as it continues to expand,’ says Jason. ‘With new green legislation coming into effect from next year, designers will be forced to innovate, so we will look more to regional styles and the environment.’

Where to stay

Sleep in an iconic building or look upon one? The sail-shaped Burj Al Arab is Dubai’s most luxurious hotel, or book into The Oberoi, Dubai with amazing views of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

Architecture | Highlights

Abu Dhabi, UAE

Emirates Palace

Doha, Qatar

Museum of Islamic Art

Dubai, UAE

Burj Khalifa

Muscat, Oman

Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Jason grew up in Derry, Northern Ireland, and studied architecture in Scotland at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. He then worked in London for five years and moved to Dubai in 2001 after visiting friends. A chance meeting with Brian Johnson, managing partner of GAJ, led to a job offer. Jason still lives in the city with his family.

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