Frans Van Vuure, Director and Senior architect at UNStudio talks candidly IGS’s Lewis Wilson about buildings with spirit, in sync with people and the built environment.
Lewis: From the outset, during the competition phase, what was the original design intent, what were the parameters you had to work around?
Frans: wasl Assetmanagement Group, our client, invited us with the idea to create a new ‘beautiful iconic building’ for the city of Dubai, in the sense that it should be ready for the new century and provide a benchmark for other projects in the region. The location of the project – along Sheikh Zayed Road downtown area, in between the Dubai Mall and City Walk, two of Dubai’s most important retail centers – gave reason to connect to public areas and anchor the project in the city. Although the client wanted high-rise, we were convinced the project needed to attract visitors that would be able to meet the tower’s inhabitants.
The size of the project was flexible for the client and, with them, we researched the business plan concerning usage and possible GFA. The client decided to enlarge the project two-fold and create a substantial mixed-use project consisting of offices, residential, a hotel and, alongside that, public areas where the typologies would overlap and create special moments. We created four public lobby spaces, a ground floor lobby, a spa lobby that connects the tower and carpark roof/pool area, a sky lobby at 130m and a rooftop lobby.
Lewis: Wasl tower is framed by Dubai’s famous Burj Khalifa. What influence did the proximity of the world’s tallest building have on the design?
Frans: The vicinity of the Burj Khalifa was a tremendous opportunity for us. This defined the quality of the location and as center of downtown Dubai and created the necessary footfall to tap into. of course wasl Tower’s public accessibility, its sustainable character and its sheer image creates a building that will have its own position in the city overall, for the years to come.
But we did also make use of the views towards the Burj Khalifa by raising the sky lobby to 130m and projecting the exit from the express elevators towards that view, with the result that visitors be immediately able to orientate themselves. That is the literal connection to the -currently- world’s highest tower.
Lewis: Dubai skyline is renowned for its spectacle of skyscrapers. How does Wasl tower differentiate itself and stand-out in a crowd of iconic buildings?
Frans: Wasl Tower had such a specific and unique location that the concept actually taps into Dubai’s full infrastructure. By utilizing a geometry that responds to the North-South axis, as well as to the views on West and East, we could create a very dynamic silhouette.
As one of the major high-rises along the future profile of Sheikh Zayed Road, and close to one of the major infrastructural cross-points in Dubai, we developed the tower with a specific organic geometry. Combining this with the intent to create a highly sustainable project, we introduced a shape that we refer to as classic ‘contraposto’, a tower with a twist. The inclined parapet of the tower emphasizes its usability, opening up to the cool, shaded direction and inviting you to visit the rooftop lobby terrace. Although not consciously designed, the client liked the fact that, from the top, the tower looks like the letter ‘D’, for Dubai. So even airplanes will recognize the tower from above.
Lewis: Taking into account the local environment, climate and context into which the project is built – what challenges did these factors pose when designing and constructing Wasl tower?
Frans: We developed the tower keeping the sun orientation firmly in mind in order to reduce the heat load. By adding a veiled skin around the facade, we could play with additional shading and actually reduce the cooling load by about 25% in relation to older high-rises in the city.
The tower has a 360 degree facade that is built up in layers. We also have a zone right behind the facade, which provides a connection to all of the interiors. The unitized glazed facade, is opaque and transparent depending on the orientation. The outer zone uses a local product, in this case in a very novel way: the facade is clad in thousands of solar shading fins made of resilient clay fired ceramic tiles. The ceramic is glazed with a metallic finish to create a patina that can stand the harsh conditions of the desert climate. The shininess of this finish makes the building look different at any time of the day, so the sun also has an enormous effect on the appearance of the building.
Lewis: Considering current issues of climate change and sustainability – how much of a driving influence did these sentiments have on the overall design?
Frans: In all our projects worldwide we emphasize to our clients the need for a holistic approach to sustainable development. wasl themselves were very keen to show how we could bring sustainability into the (cultural) heart of Dubai, where currently mostly glazed mirrored high-rises dominate the skyline. Alongside the volumetric envelope, we designed the facade as optimally as possible, avoiding too much heat-load, especially on the East and West. Utilizing the fins as a veil for shading purposes enhances cooling and brings daylight deep into the building. With our facade engineer Werner Sobek, we established a shading pattern that enables us to keep the glazing highly transparent. Some minor corners needed additional fritting.
With the client, we defined additional measures for sustainability, such as the use of district cooling, grey-water recycling and the use of PV, which is integrated into the parking building, to provide energy for the lighting of the facade. In addition to this, we concentrated on the health and well-being of the guests and residents. Werner Sobek and UNStudio composed a protocol for the use of clean materials and finishes that enhances comfort and user experience throughout the project’s interior. With technology and a clear spatial setup, we also make sure that people can find their way throughout the project and orientate themselves easily. These measures, in addition to a precise planning of public levels and group amenities, make the project highly socially sustainable.
Lewis: wasl Tower has one of the world’s tallest ceramic facades – what swayed your decision to use clay as the basic material for this facade instead of more traditional materials?
UNStudio is constantly experimenting with innovative materials and new technologies, including glazed ceramics. Because we found ourselves in this harsh desert climate, we were looking for a local product that could withstand 50-100 years of sun, wind, sand and salty humidity. Glazed clay seemed to be the most logical solution, but for use in a high-rise, this had to be re-invented. Weight, danger of chipping/falling and costs were intensively researched with suppliers. Benchmarking was done on other locations. We found that for the fins, which sit on top of the facade in 3D, we should use only the face that is oriented to the outside. The cavity it creates between the facade and the outside face ensures that the heat is absorbed by the clay and cooled down by the air around it. One side of the fin also has an open aluminum grill which enhances this effect.
The additional advantage of a bronze glazed effect on the façade was endorsed by our client and when the client introduced the project to HRH Sheikh Al-Makthoum, we made sure they could present him with a ceramic model of the tower.
Lewis: A welcomed reprieve from the box skyscrapers of old, the geometry of the tower is aesthetically unique, adopting a classic contrapposto movement that creates a sense of movement. There is no rhyme without reason; aesthetics aside, what are the practical and engineering benefits to this form?
Frans: The tower’s organic shape symbolically taps in to the central location it has in Dubai’s overwhelming infrastructure. It aesthetically ‘looks’ (faces) in every direction, while focusing mainly on the South-Easternly hectic downtown side and the North-Westernly calm sea side. This dynamic shape creates its own tension lines that are utilized in the structural model, it naturally follows the architecture. The geometry, combined with the parametrically defined pattern, direction and protrusion of the fins make the overall building model advantageous concerning solar heat gain.
The vertical boulevard, which is used to take in the tolerance during engineering and construction of the complex facade, emphasizes the need for indoor-outdoor space in high-rises. Every floor has two external terraces in the boulevard, which runs from downtown side to sea side, and emphasizes the more public program (offices) on the lower levels and the more private program (residential) on the higher levels. The hotel is between these two programs and makes use of the tower’s ‘waist’ to highlight the raised sky lobby, which serves as the main ‘living room’ for the hotel’s guests.
Lewis: A unique lighting system, designed by our friends at ARUP, has been engineered and built-in to the façade. What function does this system serve in the overall construction of the tower?
Frans: At night we use an indirect lighting effect that takes advantage of the internal spacing of the fins and creates a gentle ‘breathing’ effect, which will synchronize with the rhythm of the city. For this lighting, we created a sustainable PV power block to supply the energy. The ground floor lobby and the sky lobby will both have light installations on the downtown side, in keeping with the breathing light pattern on the facade. This creates two distinct and recognizable levels that invite you to come up and visit the tower.
Lewis: wasl tower is programmed for mixed-use; globally we are seeing a trend in architecture whereby buildings are required to serve multiple functions. More broadly, why do you think this trend is gaining momentum?
Frans: We in fact see, not only mixed-use as a trend, but also versatility. How can we create buildings/high-rises that can transform overtime and adapt to future -social or economic- changes? The need for mixed-use is partially to spread the financial risks in a project: more varied program provides more financial flexibility of revenue income. For architects, on the other hand, mixed-use means the possibility to find overlaps in usage which can serve the community overall and relate to how a city is configured. Mono programming, whether in a building or a city neighborhood, has always resulted in very restricted use and dynamics. We would rather create buildings and neighborhoods that are active for 18 hours, instead of only 10 hours. Mixed-use enhances our use of space, as well as making it possible to create micro-neighborhoods and communities that remain lively.
Lewis: Can you give our readers an idea of the glass used in this project? How integral to the design has glass been? And what role is it playing in realizing your design goals?
Frans: As already mentioned, our goal was to provide a building that would be as transparent as possible, within the sustainable boundaries that the location provided. The fins ensured that the glazing of the unitized facade could remain as transparent as possible. The originally conceived grey (colorless) glass, was later replaced – at the request of the client – with a somewhat bronze coating, in order to enhance the overall appearance of the building. The ground floor lobby, which consists of 3 levels, still has the highly transparent facade however. This is in order to establish a larger realm, in which the inner garden (between the parking and the tower volume) defines this lobby as the real urban setting of the project.
Lewis: From a personal stand-point, what have been the highlights of this project, from design to fruition?
Frans: Personal? Well, that we actually managed to get the project from its initial design in 2014 to full construction in 2021, without major changes to the conceptual approach. There is nothing more satisfying – after the enormously difficult processes of design approval, budget approval and the approval of the authorities for such a different project in Dubai, as well as awarding and maintaining the contractor to guarantee high quality – than to see the project rising up from the ground. This is only possible if you have the right client and the right team. Boots on the ground, our project coordinators in Dubai are key to the uniqueness of the project. With them, we are in fact currently establishing a consistent presence of UNStudio in Dubai for projects in the larger region.
In the Middle-East, achieving the right quality with a unique design, is extremely difficult. But the mindset of the region is changing now. They are looking for more durable, sustainable and identifiable projects that will enhance the quality of built environment. The next step for Dubai is to transform the urban realm on ground level into a much more human and comfortable environment. We need to anchor the high-rises in the city taking this in account; always looking at the larger area around any plot.
Lewis: Can you give us a heads up on some projects in the pipeline that look set to gain traction and change the game in 2020?
Frans: Innovation is key: enabling more durable, versatile and circular ways of producing architecture and cities. Using the latest technologies, coupled with the collaboration of bright minds and high social responsibility is what is needed to improve our built environment. The fact that cities are growing exponentially means we have to be at the forefront of trying to make the necessary changes, consistently.
Lewis: And Finally, what are your thoughts on glass as a structural material? Does glass perform enough functions to satisfy your creative designs? Or is there something you would like glass to do that it currently does not do…to your knowledge?
Frans: The use of glass could more versatile. We have been looking for high-quality and affordable pv-integrated glass already for years. Also being able to use glass for more structural functions would be great, in addition to the development of more transparent and colorless coatings. Overall architects are very fond of glass, so we should keep on asking for critical, larger, affordable innovations from the glazing industry.
This interview was originally published in IGS Magazines Spring 2020 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
About the Author:
Frans van Vuure is a Director and Senior Architect at UNStudio, which he joined in 2008, bringing a wealth of experience translating design concepts into technical and feasible construction processes. He received his Master of Architecture from the Architecture Academy in Amsterdam in 2000.
Since Frans joined the studio, he has coordinated a variety of projects, of which the project management process has required special attention as the qualitative aspects of these projects had to be established very early in the design phase. He worked as Senior Architect on a successful PPP/DBFMO project for the head office of the Education Executive Agency in Groningen, in addition to the Kutaisi International Airport, a fastpaced project in which planes were landing just nine months after construction began.
Currently Frans is responsible for some of UNStudio’s vital Middle East projects and acts as lead consultant for the design and construction of wasl Tower, a more than 300 meter-tall high-rise project in downtown Dubai in an exclusive luxury hotel and operate residential apartments are planned to open in 2020.