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01 December 2023

A celebration of two cultures

A celebration of two cultures. (SUPPLIED)

By Sona Nambiar

Som was hired to carry out the interior design of the residential and public areas of Burj Dubai in 2005. "Later we were commissioned to do the interiors for the 15,000 square foot chairman's suite, the corporate offices (375,000 sq ft) and the health club (60,000 sq ft)," Associate Director Nada Andric, who led the interior design team, told Emirates Business.

"Barring the observatory and the Armani Hotel, our scope of work covered around two million sq ft."

What were the inspirations for theinteriors of the tallest building in the world?

AAt the beginning of this project, it was notable that the early 21st century symbol of high human spirit and achievement would not be built in one of the world's long-established metropolises, not even in our own city of Chicago where the skyscraper was born, but in the middle of a sun-bleached, sand-covered land on the edge of the Arabian Sea. This building is a blend of two cultures – one with the vision, ambition and means to conceive it and another with the know-how to design and build it. Our original understanding of the project carried significant symbolism and influenced our thoughts about how to articulate spaces within this architectural masterpiece. The inspiration was drawn from the regional context of the tower and from the technological aspect. In our talks with the client we had a good rapport and were mostly encouraged to continue with the concept we developed, and one commission followed another with minor changes. We were looking to create a broad appeal so we chose a middle road that is highly architectural and is a response to the global landmark that Burj Dubai represents. The Som team that is living and working in Dubai has been the major interface between the interior design team at Som and the subcontractors.

So how did you interpret all this in the interiors?

AThe public interiors of the Burj Dubai were driven by two major objectives. First, we sought to recognise and acknowledge multiple factors, including the building's architectural and structural rationale and challenges, its intricate vocabulary of concrete, steel and glass, and its awe-inspiring goal to be the tallest manmade structure on Earth. Our second objective was to recognise the building's heritage and find the right language to express it. We did not, however, seek literal or stereotypical translations of those influences. It was our intention to devise an interpretive language that included the cultures of both architect and builder. We achieved this through multiple methodologies: Space planning and organisation, discreet cultural inferences, focused materials selection and a complete commitment to the modernism of present times.

Could you elaborate on the choice of materials?

AOur simple, highly edited colour and material palette is inspired by the fine sand and pearls harvested in the region for centuries. Offset by the indigenous dark hues of Brazilian wood, these materials provide an oasis from the elements and sun. The three entry pavilions, the areas first encountered by visitors, are contemporary architectural and engineering gems. The "skin and bones" of the entry pavilions, constructed of glass and stainless steel, utilise polished dark stones. A distinct nod to the building design, these stones are further enriched by prominently placed international art within the soaring interior volumes. Within the building, materials were carefully selected – silver travertine flooring, Venetian stucco walls that curve as softly as folds on the local dress, handmade rugs and stone flooring that subtly recall manuscript pages, dark and intricate Brazilian santos rosewood. Throughout, these finishes suggest shelter, comfort and above all a modern world of restrained luxury.

What is the background to using Arabic calligraphy in the project?

AOur layouts for common areas on the ground, 43rd and 76th floors resemble Arabic writing – a distinct cursive that flows elegantly through intimate rooms filled with shadow and light. Soaring ceilings explode after low passages, reminding occupants of the building's height. Softly murmuring pools and fountains are surrounded by comfortable seating. All of these details embrace the traditions of local culture but reinterpret that past in contemporary ways.

The inspiration comes more from a subliminal background than a visual patterning. We looked into the alphabet and recognised the fluidity of the characters. All the stacks on the building sides are structured to grow exponentially. You cannot find a straight angle on these three floors. Some of the major structures in the world are inspired by the language – for example, the Gothic tower of Chicago Tribune in the US. From our side, it was a nod to the contribution that Arabic culture had made to world civilisation.

Does it say something specific?

AThe best expression of the functional areas in this building will happen if we allow our walls to flow smoothly. It does not say anything specific. This was another subtle introduction of the local culture and we were shaping and forming them like a male robe folds. It is a homage to the written language of Dubai and the culture.

What about the 1,000-strong artwork collection? Was it sourced by you or in conjunction with the client?

AArt is inseparable from the entire project. A celebration of two cultures, the "oneness" with which this building was created served as the inspiration for all of our work. Inseparable from this process was our goal to weave in another human achievement that reflects and parallels world cultures, often showing the way to the future: Local and international art. Both the interiors and the exterior of the building incorporate art, not only for the enjoyment of inhabitants and visitors, but as a significant symbolic link that ties cultures and worlds together. Consistent with Emaar's vision of the Burj Dubai's global importance, the art is an international and optimistic representation of "one world" with limitless possibilities. This impressive art programme will contain close to 1,000 works by artists from the Gulf and beyond. The programme will include not only the most prominent contemporary artists, but also a museum quality collection of historic art in recognition of the region's past. From the beginning we thought of bringing in the human element of art into the spaces and were thinking of the sizes, proportions and location for these pieces. The Burj Dubai art collection is primarily from the Gulf and was acquired in association with Samia Baker. It also includes numerous artists from all over the world. They are all modern pieces. The most important is the one by Plensa (see page 14). We decided that we wanted to commission a world-renowned artist and went to a competition and selected two artists. We had a small art committee and the chairman approved of the Plensa piece. The other artwork is by Karim Rashid and will be housed in the ground floor of the office lobby.

Is it true that you have incorporated feng shui in the interiors?

AWe did have a review. It was a delicate process that we addressed at the beginning but I cannot tell you much more. It did not create any problems for us and we did not have to make any big adjustments.


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