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10 December 2023

Giving shape to big ambitions and tall buildings around the world

By Adrian Murphy



In 2003, Emaar held a competition to design the world’s tallest building to be built in Dubai, which Adrian Smith won. Now, his design dominates the Dubai skyline with office and residential space selling for up to $4,000 (Dh14,680) per square feet. However, Emaar this week said the project was four months behind schedule.


Burj Dubai is currently the tallest man-made structure on Earth and will be the tallest building in the world when it is completed next year. As well as being a super-structure, Smith’s skyscraper will have green features such as the capacity to collect enough condensation to fill 20 Olympic-size swimming pools each year, which will be reused throughout the building. Emirates Business spoke to Smith at the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s Eighth World Congress, where Burj Dubai took centre stage.


How did your design come to be the one we see today towering over the Dubai landscape?


After an initial interview with Mark Amirault at Emaar, I was asked to submit a design. I pretty much knew what I wanted to do with the building and the two-week deadline was not a big challenge. I developed the three-legged structure and when the company saw the design against the others, work started on my project within three months.


What experience did you have in tall buildings before Burj Dubai?


To put it in context, four years before this project I designed the Jin Mao Building in Shanghai, China, which was the third tallest at the time. I also worked on the John Hancock Center in Chicago in the 1960s, which is still one of the world’s tallest. I have trained all my life to design buildings like these and have also designed five to six towers that were not built. I had the background and I felt it was what I could do.


Why do you think developers want to build tall buildings?


I think there are a few reasons why you would want a tall structure. One, to have a landmark that is super tall. Also, Emaar Chairman Mohammed Ali Alabbar said he had 400 acres around the site. When you build a super structure, all the land around it becomes valuable.
So this was essentially a good business idea and there is tremendous value to it. Sometimes developers will build super-tall structures because of ego. But I don’t think that was the case here. Ali Alabbar was looking at a structure for residence and business.


What was your inspiration behind the design of the tower?


It was an evolutionary process. I developed the Tower Palace Three in Seoul, South Korea, and there I used three oval lobes and this helped to fuse together my other thoughts.


What were the major challenges you faced while designing it?


The biggest challenge was of the unknown. All previous tall buildings were less than 500 metres. When you do that [build beyond 500m] you are under more pressure – especially from the engineering point of view.


What are you working on now?


I am working on five buildings in different parts of the world, mainly in the Middle East and China.


How do you feel now when you look at Burj Dubai?


I would say I am very proud and pleased with the way things have gone. I spend some time in Dubai each month and have watched its progress. The skin of the building meets our expectations and I think it’s a case of so far so good.


Have you been to the top and if so what is it like up there?


Stunning – it’s like being in an aeroplane. I think people are in for a real treat when the viewing gallery opens. The view from the top is simply amazing.



Adrian Smith



Adrian Smith is an architect and partner at Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture. Smith worked with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) – the firm behind the Sears Tower and New York’s Twin Towers’ replacement Freedom Tower – from 1967 to 2006. He became a design partner at SOM before he left to set up his own company. While at SOM, Smith was part of the designs for many tall structures and continues to reach new heights with his firm. Among his work is the John Hancock building in Chicago, Canary Wharf, London and the Jin Mao Tower in South Korea.