In 2010 observations about the Burj Khalifa from the President of the 4,000 member Verband Deutscher Architekten- und Ingenieurvereine (DAI is the Federation of German Architectural and Engineering Associations and one of Europe’s most influential professional bodies), made international headlines. In an exclusive interview with FM Magazine, Professor Christian Baumgart reveals his comments were reported outside the context of his wider vision for the future development of the Gulf.
You are quoted as saying the Burj Khalifa, “hardly represents a sustainable contribution to current world building practices”. What might the architectural team have done better?
The critique from 2010 regarding the Burj Khalifa skyscraper was not intended to be a criticism. In fact, what was criticised was the sheer focus on technical achievements and record-breaking financial figures relating to its construction. In terms of architecture, building culture, urban planning, architectonic requirements and quality characteristics; materialistic concerns such as whether a particular building will be taller, wider or larger than another are unimportant. Instead, there should be a sensitive analysis of the specific requirements of each location and region. We believe these factors should be combined with cautious planning and implementation that takes account of the sustainable interplay between ecology and economy.
New York has its Freedom Tower, London its Canary Wharf, the Shanghai Tower is nearing completion and even Frankfurt boasts the Commerzbank Tower. Why should cities in the Middle East be any different?
In the view of the DAI, the same challenges apply to construction and building in the tradition of European cities as are faced today by mega-cities in rapidly growing regions of our world. In many GCC capitals cityscapes are new.
If a cityscape is synonymous with a city’s global branding, couldn’t it be argued iconic buildings such as the Burj Khalifa are necessary?
Obviously, the right of each city (including New York City, London, Shanghai and even Frankfurt which you mention) to have its landmarks must be guaranteed. However, from my perspective, certain requirements in terms of building culture are not being fulfilled or developed further. Apart from that, the respective spatial and historical contexts must be considered. Even in European megacities, there are big differences in terms of compatibility of skyscrapers with particular skylines.
Are your beliefs influenced by planning practices in Germany?
Generally speaking, my perception is influenced greatly by the history of European cities. Nevertheless, it cannot be the goal of humanity to construct skylines all over the world that have the same shape and consequently enter into a form of “skyscraper building” competition.
So what do you believe the urban landscape in the GCC should look like?
The rapid settlement development in the Gulf region might, in my opinion, provide the best justification for a distinctive, region-typical and innovative architecture that also takes into account economic and ecological issues. The Gulf region enjoys worldwide attention. It acts as a stimulus for the global economy and is a highly attractive destination for tourists not only from Western countries, but also for millions of people in the Far East. As such, the region bears a heavy responsibility which it generally lives up to. Two good examples of this are the Sultanate of Oman and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City; which demonstrates consciousness of tradition and historical forms within a new building project. Indeed, a singular culture, geographic landscape and climatic situation across the region, provide all of the ingredients that are necessary for intensive planning and development of any “Future City”. Here, opportunities and project sizes are less constrained than in central Europe where urban planners have to take settlement patterns and building history into context.
What are your views about the extensive use of glass as a material for building facades in the region?
The extensive usage of glass elements as construction or design forms has been, and still is, acknowledged worldwide. Having said that, we know the transparency, impact on energy consumption, and even durability of the substrate is not always as desired.
DAI conducts research into building and roofing materials - can you envisage a replacement for glass?
There is strong market demand for engineers and architects to develop new, aesthetically pleasing substrates using new and existing materials and composites. This is especially the case in regions with intensive solar radiation, since “complete” solar facade systems are required to support new energy standards, construction techniques, design criteria or even building orientations. Of course, when considering sustainability, the form of particular buildings, structure of the construction mass, density of built-up areas; and the balance between “closed” and “open” facades, are all crucial. Architectural education and practice will increasingly demand closer interdisciplinary cooperation with energy management and engineering professionals – DAI calls this integrated approach “Future Architecture”.
Do you believe Dubai’s new Green Building Code, which becomes mandatory for new building and refurbishment projects next year, will guide architects in the right direction?
Without even attempting to go into detail, I can say the new Dubai “Green Building Code” definitely provides a basis forfor appropriate architectural approaches. It also symbolises a now region-wide commitment which extends beyond merely using modern and innovative construction techniques, to actually planning and building in a future- oriented way.
If you were made responsible for all planning approvals across the GCC, which two requirements or restrictions would you place on architects?
City planners and architects in the Gulf need to show greater awareness of the privileged position they enjoy by virtue of being commissioned to set new goals and build pieces of a new future in one of the most exciting regions of the world.
Architects should not only respect and acknowledge spatial, geographic and climatic requirements, but must also rise to the challenge of creating buildings that are both unique and region-specific. After all, the task of the urban planner or architect is not merely to copy or surpass things that already exist but also to exhibit the courage that is required when embracing the new.