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11 December 2023

An iterative pattern


By Sona Nambiar

W hen the original design did not meet with their expectations, the developer Emaar invited the international landscaping firm SWA to redesign the landscaping around the Burj Dubai.

"We were given a couple of weeks to come up with a new landscape concept," said Design Principal John Wong. "The original scope of the work was conceptual landscape design. After our design was approved we were asked to provide full design services outside the tower, including schematic design, design development, construction documentation and construction observation with full-time personnel on site for the duration of construction."

The firm was awarded the contract in July 2007. The 11-hectare site was bordered by Emaar Boulevard to the north, the Dubai Mall to the east, the lake edge to the south and the lake canal to the west.

While working on the tower site, SWA was asked to look at all the public realm areas along with the lake edge, paseo and Emaar Boulevard and redesign the entire 3.5km length, which encompasses and connects all major destinations and activities within the project.

The firm, which is based in Sausalito, California, was given a total of eight months to go from schematic designs to construction documents and six months to work on plans for Emaar Boulevard. It has been participating in the field construction work with full-time personnel on site since February 2009.

The Tower Park concept design was a collaborative effort between SOM and SWA. The design was accomplished by a team of individuals each working on different aspects of the concept under the direction of SOM's Design Partner Brian Lee and SWA's Wong.

Wong said: "Our association with SOM goes back almost 50 years. I have been collaborating with primarily the Chicago SOM office since 1978 on over 100 projects. I have worked with Adrian Smith, the Design Partner on the Burj Dubai, on many projects including the Tower Palace III in Seoul, South Korea, and projects in China, such as the Nanjing Greenland International Commercial Centre, Nanjing, the Shanghai Grand Tower, Shanghai, and the Zero Energy Tower in Guangzhou.

"Recently, Adrian Smith left SOM and started another practice with his partner Gordon Gill, a former colleague at SOM, and we have since continued collaborating with them on their current projects in the Middle East and Asia.

"When SOM's Chicago office won a limited invited competition for the Burj Dubai, SWA was recommended by them to be the landscape architect. We then received an invitation from Emaar to submit a proposal for the landscape design for the Burj and the surrounding area."

But SWA was not selected at the final evaluation stage and another, locally based, firm was hired to carry out the design work.

"In 2007 I got a phone call from George Efstathiou, Managing Partner of the Chicago SOM office and we were invited to take over the entire project and redesign the landscape and grounds of the Burj," said Wong.

"We were given four weeks to come up with a new concept that would be more reflective of what the Chairman of Emaar would like to see. We listened and evaluated the previous proposal, the state of construction at the time – the tower was up but nothing on the ground was built – the schedule, and the limitations resulting from certain decisions that had been made for the site in relationship to the tower construction. These decisions concerned utilities, below-grade garage structure, access, the limitations of solid depth, weight limitations on top of the structure, drainage, air vents and pop-ups."

SWA saw a tremendous opportunity to produce something great.

"However, the ground outside the tower is riddled with layers and layers of pre-existing conditions that limit some of the design options. The client wanted something different from what had been produced on paper even though the construction documents had been completed.

"It was willing to scrap the whole thing on the site since nothing had been executed. The tower construction was up to 600 metres at the time. The time to make a move was imminent and the Chairman had a vision for the project that he felt the site design was lacking.

"The construction team was supportive but showed a strong resistance to change in mid-stream due to logistics, approvals, schedules, the ordering process for materials, costs, time and so on.

"The new vision for the Tower Park concept comprised a more integrated design incorporating plant materials, water and hardscape that extended from the tower. The plan was presented and was well received, and we have been busy ever since."

SWA brought in Wet fountain consultants to refine the designs of the water features, plumbing and electrical systems.

"We are currently providing construction review and support on the implementation of the site work. During the construction document phase we were also asked by the client to redesign Emaar Boulevard, the central lake promenade and the Island Park. During the four weeks when we developed the design concept we had two design work sessions with SOM.

"Adrian had already left SOM and starting his new practice. We did not communicate or discuss any ideas but I had a full understanding of the project based on our years of working together on other commissions.

"And we were provided with great background support from the SOM technical and engineering group, which we have known and worked with over the years. The site design was very much up to us and SOM provided the feedback when we proposed and revealed our approach."

The material chosen for the hardscape was granite for both the horizontal paving and vertical wall surfacing.

"We worked closely with the SOM for the material design and material selection to closely match the overall building design palette and the form and pattern of the tower," said Wong.

Efstathiou said: "In particular the plaza that encircles the tower expresses the key imagery of the Hymenocallis, or spider lily, through an iterative pattern of banding including concentric and radiating arcs, criss-crossing lines and a cool gray palette of granite to convey the extension of the tower-inspired form and a feeling of comfort through the seasons.

"All site furnishings, from railings to benches and signs, incorporate the abstract imagery of the spider lily and other patterns from nature, true to the historic traditions of the region's architecture and design.

"The landscape utilised abundance of indigenous shade trees that provide comfort and visual interest. A rich plant palette of succulents, flowering shrubs and other species suited to the area's extreme temperatures create beauty, interest and character in the Tower ground landscape.

"Playing on the metaphor of a tower in a park, the verdant, shaded- landscape of the eleven-hectare Tower Park creates a compelling oasis of green, with distinct areas to serve the tower's hotel, residential, spa and corporate office areas."

A very important aspect of any project in Dubai is the need to understand that the harsh climate – with its high summer temperatures, sandy soil that is poor in nutrients, scarcity of water and dry desert winds – is a challenging environment for any man-made landscape.

Wong said: "It would not be correct to classify Dubai as a desert zone. The high percentage of humidity, due to the extensive irrigated areas and the proximity to the sea, allows for the growth of species that would not normally survive in a desert climate, such as Ficuses, Hymenocallis, Pseuderanthemum and so on."

Significant effort was directed to providing the site with imported soils that would guarantee that plants would survive and grow well. Most soil in Dubai is poor in organic matter and high in salt and sand.

"The soil used at the Burj Dubai was appropriately amended to reduce the salinity and increase the organic content. Sweet soils tested in the US were used for that purpose to make sure that all parameters were met.

"The first criterion to guide our choice for the planting material was, of course, the compatibility with the harsh climate. Particular attention has been put on selecting evergreen trees and planting them, when possible, in proximity, to ensure a continuous shading canopy all year round for the landscape at the ground level.

"Such a huge landscape site also poses significant – and expensive – maintenance challenges and in order to minimise the seasonal maintenance work we purposefully stayed away from fruit-bearing plants and deciduous species."

Another factor that had to be taken into consideration was that almost a third of the planting material lay on structures, which imposed significant limitations on the depth and weight of the soil. Since the overall design of the Burj Dubai reflects the shape and form of the spider lily, SWA's approach to the planting design surrounding the tower retained a close reference to the spiralling form of the Hymenocallis corona, whose curves shape the planting beds and masses.

"Due to their long presence in the area, their highly symbolic character and their outstanding performance in the local climate, date palms and olive trees have been given a dominant role in the landscape," added Wong. "The palm trees identify the main circulation paths of travel, ensure continuity with the planting at the boulevard, greet visitors both at the main entrance to the site and at the hotel plaza, and frame the edge of the landscape along the lake. Olive trees punctuate the landscape at all the areas intended for pedestrian, outdoor use and where a more gardenesque feel is intended."

Colour, texture and size of planting vary in relation to the use of the different areas, with finer, smaller, colourful plants located in the areas more intensively used by pedestrians.

"For this reason, plants of a finer texture and form are found at the three plazas – north, east and west. The main entry plaza displays an array of date palms in continuity with the palms at the boulevard. The radial bougainvillea planting, on the southern side, reflects the design of the paving, alternating red and white flowers.

"The landscapes at the two entry areas integrate the curves of the fountains with the spiralling vehicular ramp to the garages, providing two colourful and aesthetically pleasing plazas. The planting material chosen for these areas is mostly composed by low growing, colourful, soft texture species arranged in finer brushes of green circles."

The project posed its own challenges, said Wong. "There are new complexities and problems associated with a project of this type where previous project experiences have provided only a few answers. Much of the design and solution has to be newly developed and appropriately responded and generated for the project's artistic and contextual effect.

"Another challenge was to design the environs of Burj Dubai that are expansive yet human-scale. The landscape design creates a green park offering shade, water features, and varieties of settings for a memorable urban experience for public gatherings.

"Inviting pedestrian walks, a series of opened and shaded plazas, courts, a water parterre terrace and a lake promenade with a central oasis park created destination-settings for urban celebrations.

"The design further features a variety of programmes and uses shaded outdoor seating and gathering areas, outdoor dining, lookouts, a leisure forest grove, play areas for children, recreation game courts, and major water terraces and gardens.

"The design goal is to create human scale and a comfortable environment for residents and visitors alike and to link the sleek and contextual tower to a surrounding community of mixed use of live, work and play with parks, lakes and walkable streets and urban experiences – a provision of human and community sustainability."

Other challenges included environmental sustainability, which is a key aspect for this project.

"The reducing of heat island affects the ground for natural air cooling leads the way for the design of the Tower Park. The selection and broad use of low water requirement/ drought-tolerant indigenous plants with an efficient state-of-the-art irrigation system design in direct responding to the regional climate.

"The irrigation water also uses a recovery system with a condensate collection system from the tower's cooling equipment. The result is a recovery in estimation of 15 million gallons of water a year.

"Finally, the design complexity of the project where more than 50 per cent of the site design work is built on top of the building base structure. The project is essentially a garden park on top of the building roof. The provision of minimum soil depth to grow plants, the limitation of weight for tree and soil depth, the coordination of surface drainage with the roof structure, the utilities and exhaust and intake vents and stairs all created a challenge to the overall design of the Tower Park."

The visitor begins at the main arrival court at the base of the tower, where the "prow" of the building intersects a grand circular court – a "water room" defined by fountains, palms and park trees.

Efstathiou said: "From here, entry roads lead through the park-like landscape to separate hotel and residential arrival courts. While distinct in character – the hotel court with its large palms, the residential arrival with its more pastoral quality – both feel carved from the informal forest around them.

"Vehicular circulation spirals down to garage level, while flowering trees and seasonal plantings, fountains, and distinct paving patterns establish a sense of place for each court," he said.

On the lake side, the Grand Terrace features a series of large reflecting pools that cascade from upper terraces to the lake itself. Comfortable walkways define the infinity-edge pools and more direct walkways lead to the same connections, offering a variety of pedestrian routes to the Dubai mall, Island Park, residential towers and hotels, and promenades that border the entire edge of the lake.

"The Tower Park was inspired by the design of Burj Dubai itself, and is composed of both water features and greenery. Large water terraces make up parts of the gardens. Reflecting water pools cascade, intersected by walkways leading down to the Lake, allowing visitors to enjoy this oasis of natural beauty up close.

Types of plants

Royal Poincianas (Delonix Regia), large trees with profuse bright red blooms, ornate the 'prow' of the building (the north segment) and the terraces on the southern side.

The tower is embraced in dense landscape masses on the north, east and west side, along the perimeter of the site. These are the areas where we have concentrated the larger species of evergreen trees (Ficuses, Peltophorums Spathodeas, and Cassias), with large continuous canopies. The planting at the ground level shows large shrub and groundcover masses (Jatrophas, low growing Acacias, Yellow Elders, Chaste Trees) in sinuous planting beds that, due to their large size, are meant to create a pattern visible from high above.

The hotel plaza is more colorful, with splashes of Bougainvillea, Pseuderanthemum and taller shrubs at the edge of the ramp (Thevetia, and Jatropha). A ring of Hymenocallis circles the entire plaza, while the grove of date palms strengthens the visual link and continuity with the large entry plaza north of the site.

The residential plaza is more geometric, with a predominance of white coloured flowers. Concentric hedges of Carissa alternate with swaths of Star Jasmine, Iresine and Quisqualis, while Plumerias and Ficuses punctuate the landscape.

The planting at the terraces facing the Mimeo fountain, finally, was integrated into the design of the paving. Raised planters punctuate the radial paving pattern with splashes of colours provided by varieties of annuals (Portulaca, Lobularia, Celosia) and low growing vines and groundcovers (Quisqualis, Aptenia and Setcreasea). All the lawn areas are concentrated in this part of the landscape, where visitors may mingle and enjoy the view and cooler air near the Mimeo fountain, and in the areas adjacent to the children playground and to the tennis courts.

Two areas of particular interest, as far as the planting material utilised, are the planting beds adjacent to the tennis courts (on the west side) and the planters facing the offices, on the south east side. Both areas have been treated as exhibition gardens, displaying a variety of exotic species and colourful plants.


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