Ciel Tower Wasn’t Supposed To Be The World’s Tallest Hotel, Until It Became One


Yahya Jan, President and Design Director of NORR Group
Yahya Jan, President and Design Director of NORR Group

Innovative architecture and engineering are leading to the rise of another iconic skyscraper in Dubai. While this one will complement the skyline, it promises to stand out as a unique addition to this growing city

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Published: Fri 31 Mar 2023, 10:51 AM

Last updated: Fri 31 Mar 2023, 10:53 AM

The story of Ciel, which will be the world’s tallest hotel upon completion next year, reads as a narrative in ingenuity. At its core, the design represents the successful convergence of art and science.

If it wasn’t for the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, the plot of land now housing Ciel would have been constructed as a residential building with a completely different look and feel. The original plan was to construct a rectangle-shaped tower on the plot. The construction of this building, however, stopped as the world economy stalled. The plan to build a tower was resurrected a decade later, in 2017, when The First Group took on the role of developer for the plot.

This latest landmark in the Dubai skyline is designed by Yahya Jan, President and Design Director of NORR Group, a Canadian architecture and engineering firm with a studio in Dubai. “We received a call from The First Group, a developer we have great respect for and for whom we have designed and delivered hotels over the past 15 years. They asked us to study the possibility for a hotel on the property,” said Jan.

“It was a challenging project to begin with, particularly because of the size of the project and shape of the plot. But after four weeks of study, we proposed a design that was unique in meeting the goals of a signature hotel tower. As a result, we were appointed as the chief architects and engineers for this project.”

Ciel, which means ‘sky’ in French, will be the tallest hotel in the world at over 365 metres in height. Literally reaching for the sky, this tower will have 1,000 hotel rooms, bespoke restaurants, landscaped terraces with leisure facilities and swimming pools, a dramatic ocean-facing infinity pool located at level 76, and an observation deck at level 82.

“When we started the design effort on Ciel, it wasn’t to construct the tallest hotel. However, during the design process, over the course of four or five months, as we added atrium gardens and a tower top visitors’ observation deck, we realised that we were fast becoming the tallest hotel in the world,” said Jan, during an interview at his studio in Festival City, Dubai.

“Over a two-year period, we produced thousands of hand-sketches that tested ideas and refined concepts for the tower. In our 3d-printing lab, we made hundreds of models and prototypes. We studied the influence of wind in shaping the tower and the need to bend glass for the exterior envelope of the building. The fact is the design of super-tall buildings, towers over 300 metres in height, is complex. For these types of buildings, clearly defined guiding principles in engineering and architecture are needed to ensure the result is true to the concept,” explains Jan.

Ciel reflects Jan’s design philosophy of combining architecture and engineering, of ‘finding the intersection of art and science’.

And Jan has a passion for combining landscape and architecture. Vertical and horizontal, Jan’s designs combine urban density with natural landscapes. In Jan’s designs, this sensibility is much like his studio in Dubai’s Festival City, where the neatly designed wood tables are interspersed with trees, natural light flooding throughout the space. “We are fascinated with bringing nature into our projects. We love towers and we love trees. Our design for Ciel combines these sensibilities.”

Sustainability and environmental response are key drivers in Jan’s work. In terms of operational energy consumption, Ciel is designed to be 30 per cent more efficient than the ASHRAE guidelines for this building type, making it a very efficient building throughout its life cycle. “Our team has put more than 150,000 hours into designing Ciel. More than half of these are in environmental engineering and structural design by our inhouse team,” said Jan, adding, “Other than the integration of architecture and engineering, our challenge was to bring landscape and the natural environment, in the form of gardens, into a vertical structure.”

This unusual tower features 12 ocean-facing gardens, vertically stacked over each other; each garden eight-storeys in height. “These atrium gardens are places where people come together. Our goal is to provide hotel guests with a variety of spaces for relaxation and to foster a sense of community. The trees and bamboo green walls in these gardens are irrigated with recycled and treated water that would otherwise have been wasted after use. And these spaces are naturally ventilated, with computer-controlled louvers, allowing the exterior ambient air into these gardens.

Other than Ciel, Jan and his team have been responsible for the design of landmark buildings in the UAE and the region. Over the past 27 years, Jan’s projects in the Middle East include the Emirates Towers, Shangri La, and Vida Residence towers in Dubai, Avenues shopping mall and Trade Centre in Kuwait, and the Al Hitmi project in Doha.

“For me, the real challenge in design is the willingness to look at things from first principles, to really ask the dumb questions, and to treat each challenge as unique.” The design of Ciel illustrates Jan’s ‘First Principle’ thinking. “Wind is one of the primary drivers in the structural engineering of super tall buildings. The tapered form and shaping of Ciel, including the cutout at the top of the tower, which we sometimes call the eye of the needle, is designed to reduce wind load for economy and user comfort.”

Jan’s daily routine is fluid. “My work is my passion. In some ways, I have never worked a day in my life. Because what I do is truly my purpose.”

“Over the past few decades, Dubai has become an amazingly exciting place — a highly competitive testing ground for innovative ideas in the design of buildings. As a result, architects, engineers, and contractors have learnt techniques that allow for fast-track construction and cost efficiency,’” says Jan.

In many ways, Ciel is a testament to Dubai’s prowess in innovative design and construction — in pushing boundaries and challenging our imagination.

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