Skyscrapers essentially are glass and steel, but the design is what gives some structures their distinct look and feel. So, when the proposal for the construction of One Za’abeel was floated in 2014, the idea was to build a structure that resonates with the ambitious spirit of Dubai, provides a comfortable and luxurious space for tourists, and serves as a coveted address for residents. Nikken Sekkei, a Japanese firm with more than 35 years of presence in the region, won the contract hands down. The resulting twin-tower project symbolises a father-and-son relationship and their strong mutual bond, as visualised through the cantilever bridge that joins them. The project has all the elements to attract residents and tourists.
“The One Za’abeel project represents one of the boldest new additions to the skyline of Dubai and a genuine engineering feat,” said Dr. Fadi Jabri, Executive Officer at Nikken Sekkei. “It serves as a gateway to modern Dubai as well as a must-see world-class travel destination.” The twin towers are built on opposing sides of an expressway. ‘The Link’, joining them, at 230-metres, is the world’s longest cantilevered building for a commercial building. The building is a mixed-use development consisting of retail, offices, hotel, and residences, and offers amenities such as a spacious pool, state-of-the-art entertainment, luxury hospitality, and cosmopolitan culture venues.
Talking about the scope of urban development in Dubai, Jabri said that the pace of development is astonishing. Despite the desert, heat and arid climate, Dubai has created a very attractive cosmopolitan city. He went on to state that the structure of grape vines serves as a fitting analogy for the morphology of Dubai’s master plan. Highways like the Sheikh Zayed Road resemble the plant’s canes, while narrower service roads correspond to peduncles. Clusters such as the Downtown area, Business Bay and Marina are the rachis and berries. He added that each year we see more ‘berries’ appear as the city continues to evolve. Each of these districts has its own spirit, competes with the others, and is constantly changing. The ‘grape’ structure allows this transformation. Perhaps the only downside is the difficulty of walking between the ‘berry’ features, as they are not interconnected for pedestrian and cycling use. But the city is making great efforts to make Dubai more walkable and pedestrian-friendly.
Discussing the role of advanced technologies, Jabri said that there could be no doubt that technological advances are emboldening, and liberate our creative potential. Simulation software allows for predicting building behavior and to perceive space with much more accuracy. On the question of whether we are living in the best time for architects, he said the present times are definitely better than before.
“Each city possesses its own beauty. As architects, our mission is to understand the city, feel its charm and design projects that compliment and contribute to it. For example, One Za’abeel reflects the spirit of Dubai; it’s bold yet welcoming, simple yet challenging, a graceful, one-of-a-kind place that looks to the future,” said Jabri.
The project benefited from several sources of inspiration, according to Nikken Sekkei Chief Architect Koko Nakamura. “Firstly, the location. It is across a busy expressway that runs from the airport to the city centre. It is the first sight for visitors upon arrival in Dubai and also the last when they leave. Thus, the idea of creating a ‘gateway’ was strong,” she said.
“However, far from downsizing the concept to a mere ‘gate’, we envisioned a majestic yet sleek structure, a powerful, elegant, attention-grabbing figure — an unforgettable encounter, like royalty. The configuration of the twin towers, together with the connecting cantilevered structure, adds extra visual impact. The cantilever’s positional direction — pointing towards the horizon — is a tribute to the dynamic soul of Dubai and its bright future,” Nakamura added. “From the height of the towers to ground level, the two-story podium steps down gently to a roundabout, which embodies the city’s welcoming spirit.”
The structure seems to embody the Japanese concept of Ihyou, wherein the designer seeks to convey impossibility, incongruity, and totality. Nakamura added that One Za’abeel project is bold, with its two towers and The Link, all being asymmetrical designs, and therefore, creating a certain tension in the air. The Link is cantilevered to represent the dynamism of the city, and its straight lines expand the perception of its volume space, conferring an appreciation for its marginal beauty. The skyline of Dubai is rich with many gorgeous buildings. In this project, she said, there was a keen attempt to introduce the concept of ‘iki’ (‘subdued beauty’ in Japanese), which gracefully emerges.
One Za’abeel reflects Japanese architectural influence on the tower exteriors and podium with carefully layered façade components. Emirati stylistic influences are visualised through the cantilever bridge that stretches between the two towers, representing the importance of human bonds, relationships and unity.
As beautiful and awe-inspiring as it looks, the positioning of The Link was a crucial element of the design. “From a physical perspective, hoisting the cantilever bridge was the greatest challenge,” explains Dr. Jabri. “The massive 23,000-tonne structure was assembled on the ground, then transported in seven stages and lifted into place in two pieces. The success of each stage was a milestone, warranting celebration. The first lifting manoeuvre took three days to complete. I remember the high-pitched sound, similar to chirping birds, caused by the wind passing through 800 ultra-strong construction tendons stretched to their limit. Naturally, safety was the primary concern,” he added. “On this point, Nikken Sekkei structural engineers worked tirelessly with WSP and ALEC. The team was compelled to account for everything from wind, thermal expansion and contraction and seismic tremors to cleaning and maintenance.”
The Link reinforces the structural stability of both towers. “Approximately 70 metres of its 230 metre length projects from the taller tower, which reduces wind-induced movement,” Nakamura noted. “Its structure also provides vertical and torsional strength, and allows the upper tower floors to utilise column-free spaces. Positioned 100 metres above ground, it offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire city.”
Realising the design required the most advanced structural concepts and the latest in Japanese technology to take it from the drawing board to the visually impressive, sophisticated structure we see today, she added, pointing as an example to steel frame-reinforced concrete columns that allow for a reduction in their diameters, yielding more floor space.
Elsewhere, glass fins placed outside the glass curtain wall surfaces of the two tower façades illustrate various expressions, depending on the viewing angle. The fins are printed with white dots, softening the ‘mirror effect’ of the Low E glass on the exterior face and elegantly highlight the towers’ silhouettes. The podium façade features a layered composition of monotone vertical fins and metallic panels, while the back layer is glazed to create an expression of depth, while retaining important functions such as air supply and exhaust, etc. The long wall surface is effectively arranged with hotel, residential, office and commercial entrances, terrace balconies and bay windows. The vertical fin design along its entire length helps to maintain a sense of structural unity.
Far from the project’s design aspects, its logistical challenges also deserve acknowledgement. These include coordinating multiple teams of people, more than 1,000 consultants from over 60 consultancy firms across five continents contributed architects, engineers, façade engineers, interior designers, and experts in entertainment, artistic lighting and acoustics. In addition, differences in everything from time zones, culture, working style and personalities made it more challenging to navigate the various stages of design.
Nikken Sekkei has designed many projects in the region over the last three-plus decades. Starting with the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, the Cairo National Culture Centre and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Dubai in the mid-1980s, the firm has been the aesthetic brain behind several projects. One Za’abeel adds to Dubai’s most iconic sites, which include the Burj Khalifa and the Emirates Towers.