Driving along the desert road and with the anticipation of reaching Abu Dhabi a shining element captures one eye from a distance. As one moves closer to the object, it becomes obvious that the extensive blurring of scale generally experienced in the desert landscape is once again apparent but this time through an iconic man made creation: the HQ.
THE IDEA In the wake of the construction boom of Abu Dhabi and in an effort to put the area on the map, MZ Architects were commissioned the design of the Aldar HQ, a building that will change and expand the Abu Dhabi skyline forever. This architectural icon was to shine at the center of Al Raha Beach Development, also a project by Aldar and a newly envisioned microcosm that would bring new life and activity to the Abu Dhabi waterfront. The HQ was to rise from the sea and become a landmark for area, the city as well as the group behind its creation. For the architect Marwan Zgheib, the power of the monument and the icon lies in its simplicity. His enthusiasm for the project led him to a clear objective: create a simple, daring and powerfully present object that was able to compete with the iconic architecture of the UAE and create a sense of place and identity for the area. Inspired by the clam shell which has deep meaning for Abu Dhabi with its seafaring heritage, as well as the symbolism of the geometric round shape, the architect imagined two giant circular curved walls of glass mirroring an open clam shell. An extremely pure geometrical but daring design was born: a round skyscraper with a curved glass skin.
THE ARCHITECTURE The circular skyscraper flaunts its form across the open waters and land, like a pearl resting on the sand shores. The architecture is understood from a distance and is equally impressive from both close range and afar. Its timeless geometry, symbol of perfection and infinity, holds a rich presence and brings with it new challenges of stability and structure. Developing the concept, the ideas of simplicity, purity and learning from nature, were coupled with the reliance on one of the oldest rules of architecture: that of proportion. In fact to help MZ Architects bring their concept to life, the issue of stability proved to be a crucial one for the circular building. The architects took the challenge and elevated it by looking back at the idea of the cosmic body of the man in the circle and by inscribing the pentagram into the circular façade, they were able to locate the two points of stability; the two points where the building will meet the earth. The complexities of simplicity indeed proved to be many, and the design of the HQ could only be a holistic one, merging architecture and structure. It became an object of both fields, showcasing the expansion and blurring of their respective limits in order to form a combined product. Like many of nature’s creations, the building comes together by allowing each one of its elements to play a crucial role in its being and construction.
THE SKIN Just like a seashell, HQ’s morphology merged the idea of shape, sculpture and pattern into one unified and expressive whole. The curved glass skin became one of its most complex components to be executed in record time. The HQ structure having a 25m cantilevered design in every longitudinal direction, concrete couldn’t be considered as construction material. A concrete structure would have required unwanted internal supports and entailed time-consuming and costly on-site construction work. Therefore, the team developed a complex external diamond-shaped steel structure, called a diagrid, which achieved the striking shape of the building. The first of its kind in the UAE, the diagrid allowed the creation of structural efficiency and stability appropriate to the circular building. The system not only helped minimize the impact of the steel frame on the façade but also served as an architectural element that blurred all sense of scale and inflated the structure, moving away from the typical horizontal stratification of the facades. This diagrid system eliminates the need for internal columns to support the building which would compromise the aesthetic appeal as well as the views from within. This improved the building's efficiency, providing layout flexibility for tenants.
THE FAÇADE GEOMETRY The main facades were defined using a toroidal geometry cut by a cylinder to create the perfect circle in elevation. By using this form, each horizontal section through the façade is described by a circle of varying radii at different heights all with their centres along the same vertical axis. All panels on one floor are then exactly the same size with the same angle change at each joint due to the equal chord lengths along the circular line in plan. The rate of change of size of panels increases as one moves further away from the equator of the building with the top and bottom of the building being an exact mirror image of the other. To further increase the repeatability of panels the joint sizes were sized so that the same panel could be utilized over a number of theoretically geometrically different floors without being able to visibly see the change in joint width. This exercise allowed the initial architectural vision to be created with approximately ten panel sizes instead of the original 10,000 sizes that would have been theoretically needed before the geometry refinement.
THE ZIPPER Unlike the conventional four sided buildings, the project challenges the approach to construction by questioning the typical roof structure. This three faceted building relies on its zipper-like element, a continuous glass and structural band that stitches the two main facets together, creating a slim continuous surface that is both vertical and horizontal, side and face, window and roof. This lateral element, the structural ‘backbone’ of the project, brilliantly creates the fusion between façade and roof and allows for the monolithic shape of the object.
THE PROCESS With a fast track construction schedule of 30 months that was meant to meet the opening of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, architects, engineers and the many experts on board worked with a collaborative effort and helped smartly run the intricate overlap of design and construction with its new challenges and complexities. This contractual joint venture arrangement was key to the successful design and construction of the project. An innovative method of Analysis and Drafting was adopted during the construction of the Aldar HQ building. Engineering and model data were used at the earliest stages of the project to take full advantage of early procurement and optimized use of material. The structural analysis of the podium and tower superstructure was undertaken using the 3D finite element analysis program, Strand 7. The advanced 3D models developed by Arup were shared between the Engineers, the Architects, the Steelwork Contractor, the Façade Contractor and the MEP consultant, who were each able to import the model into their own 3D modeling software. Within 3 months of the design team’s appointment, piling work had started on the site. Foundation works began just 1 month after the design was sketched, before a full set of plans was developed by the engineers. The concrete cores were completed within a year. Within 14 months of the project start, the steelwork was already erected up to the fourth floor. Concrete elements, such as stairs, columns and even the bathrooms, were pre-cast.
From a non-existing site to the rise of a 110 meter high circular skyscraper on a manmade land of recycled marine sand in the Persian Gulf, the HQ celebrates the rise of the new Al Raha Beach and Abu Dhabi’s growth. Its curved glass facades, does not only reflect the project’s surrounding and the vibrant new city in which it was born but also allows one to face his own reflection and image in the much larger universe. It is a space that captivates its visitors during the day and exposes their activities at night along with the reflections of the sleepless environment neighboring it. A small shiny dot rising from the water becomes a giant mirror of the world and an extension of Abu Dhabi. Its presence is molded by its surrounding and its being shifts with the cycle of the sun that continuously animates its skin.
The simple, expressive and glowing presence of the HQ makes it hard to miss and its structural complexity elevates it to the new levels of construction achievements in the region.
The Aldar HQ has won the “Best Futuristic Design” Award at the 2008 Building Exchange conference (Valencia, Spain) as well as the “Best Architecture” Award at the 2009 CNBC Arabian Property Awards, and has been featured in special reports on National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel.
(Text by Nayla Al-Akl)