The creators of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa standing at 828m above sea level undoubtedly deserve the global recognition that has bestowed them since its inception. But as the architect who designed the building said: “The Burj’s iconic status does not just depend on height..,” its slender beauty is magnified by the Landscape that envelops it.
This month Landscape turns the spotlight on to the man responsible for creating and executing the master plan for the Burj Khalifa landscape design, which includes the park plaza’s, oasis gardens and water fountains and the streetscape for Emaar boulevard, Mr John L. Wong of the California based, SWA Group-a world leading firm in landscape architecture, planning and urban design, was the Principal-in-charge and Principal designer for the Burj Khalifa landscape project in Dubai.
Mr Wong tells Landscape about the impromptu invitation that he received from the Managing Partner of Chicago based SOM-the architecture firm who designed the Burj Khalifa, to meet with the Project Director of the Dubai developer who built the iconic building, Emaar.
He begins: “The SWA Group were appointed by the developers Emaar, with the recommendation of SOM in September 2007 to redesign the landscaping around the Burj Khalifa after the original landscape architects’ design failed to meet the owner's expectations.
“We had four weeks to come up with a new concept that would be more reflective of what the Chairman of Emaar wanted to see and to base the design more closely between the tower and the site, and to the immediate surroundings. Over the course of a morning, we sat down with Emaar and SOM and learnt about some of their design concerns and issues; we listened and evaluated the previous proposal,” Mr Wong said.
Mr Wong explained that as a result of his company’s unexpected involvement in the project they had no choice but to overcome certain limitations that had already impacted on their overall landscape design plans. He cites the tight construction schedule along with critical design and construction decisions that were presented by the original designers prior to their involvement, as one of the limitations placed upon him in terms of design.
“We had to deal with certain design issues and overcome any limitations before we presented our new plans to Emaar. An access route for vehicular, pedestrian and emergency paths needed to be figured into our plans, as well as a grade garage structure; utilities; the limitation of soil depth; the weight limitation on top of the structure; drainage layout and fixed connections; air vents for intake and exhaust fumes; pop-ups; valves and access covers; certain stone materials and so on.”
However, he says that they were not put off by this challenge and instead saw it as a “tremendous opportunity” to do something great, despite the fact that the ground outside the tower was riddled with layers and layers of pre-existing conditions that limited further some of the design options available to them.
According to Mr Wong the decision to relook at the original design was an immediate one for Emaar who were willing to ‘scrap everything on the site work proposal’ since nothing had been started on the ground, although the tower was built up at 600m at this stage.
“The time to make the move was imminent and the Chairman (of Emaar) had a vision for the project that he felt the previous site design was lacking.” Mr Wong explained.
Mr Wong added that owners of the building were not in the least bit hesitant to make changes at such a late stage because they knew exactly what they wanted was: “something very different from what they had been given on paper from the initial design.” To further emphasize how important this quest for perfection was to them, was mirrored by the fact that they held on to this vision, knowing that the construction documents had been completed and the bid and tendering for the project scope on the site work was already in-place.
Mr Wong said that although his design team was met with some “resistance” to change from the construction team, (mainly due to time and cost concerns as well as logistics, approval and worries about the purchasing and ordering of materials) ultimately they supported each other and put the vision of the project at the forefront of their professional minds.
Challenges that affected the ideas for design
“The challenges on this project were many; Over 50% of the landscape was already proposed and built on top of two to three levels of parking underneath. It was essentially a roof garden design where a great deal of coordination for soil depth, drainage, intake and exhaust, access requirements had to be a part of the overall thinking. The other extreme was the climate of Dubai, which presented a challenge to us in designing a green, shaded and cooling environment for the public realm.
“When I first came to Dubai, I went around the area and looked and studied and learned what worked and what didn’t work there. We spent a lot of time meeting and working with the building contractor, landscape contractor and their team of construction workers. We provided careful reviews of shop drawings and we requested full scale mock-ups to be provided so we could review the finished product for their installation and craftsmanship for final approval.
“We learnt a great deal from each other on what could be done, what could be expected and how we could improve and make sure the quality of construction was maintained from the approved mock-up through to the final completion of the hardscape and softscape. We overcame these challenges by working hard, working thoroughly and asking a lot of questions. We had full time construction observation and support during the 15 months of construction and David Gal and Travis Theobald, our field representatives and Mohamed Sheriff from SOM really made the difference to insure the construction was being properly executed.”
He continued: “The other major challenge on the environmental side was dealing with the extreme temperatures of the region, often ranging from 35 degrees C to 48 degrees C with hot and often humid conditions everyday. These temperatures and the subsequent human comfort level, limits the range of outdoor uses but a number of landscape choices that we implemented can make a distinct difference - green, shaded and cooling environments for the outdoor. Water conservation has always been a major issue and concern for the work that we do. Even before the increase in local and global awareness for water conservation and water quality, SWA has been practiced on the idea of using low water usage, drought tolerant, indigenous, native plants where's possible; limit the use of lawn except in area where people can use and access; design efficient automatic irrigation system; collect storm water runoff for reuse and recharge into the ground and at the Burj Khalifa it was no different, we reused fifteen million gallons of condensed water from the building cooling system to supplement the irrigation system. All these contribute to the idea of sustainable practice along with many other techniques that we applied to all our design, the projects and their execution.
“The other challenge for the landscape profession throughout the Middle East is designing for the larger surroundings. There are lots of projects that have strong displays of designed landscape but they are internally oriented and they have been designed as an isolated island. Most projects do not connect together and have no context or connection to the overall neighborhood and community. At Burj Khalifa, the landscape celebrated a new world center. Using materials and design elements derived from the context -- the green oasis, the regal palms, and nature based imagery of Islamic tradition -- the landscape established spaces that are grand and intimate, hard and soft, interconnected and individual.
From the Tower Park that frames the world's tallest tower to the grand Emaar Boulevard that rivals the world's most famous streets, the landscape of Downtown Burj Khalifa welcomes the visitor into a new urban destination that is green, shaded and filled with delight. The ensuring of human scale to super-tall and high-impact structure is certainly one of the most important challenges.”
The process of drawing up a landscape design concept
The project scope involved Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documentation and Construction Observation.
Mr Wong said that during the four weeks it took to develop the design concept, they had two design work sessions with SOM. Adrian Smith, the tower Design Partner from SOM had already left the firm and started his new practice by this stage.
“We did not communicate with Mr Smith or discuss any specific ideas; I had a full understanding of the project based on our years of working together and collaborating on other commissions. The site design was very much up to us and SOM provided important feedback and necessary input when we proposed and revealed our approach to the Burj.
“A combination of coloured illustrative plans, sections, sketches, diagrams and study models were drawn up and prepared. The Tower Park concept was presented to the chairman of Emaar with a more integrated design of hardscape, softscape with the use of water that extended from the tower.
“Our proposed schematic design actually had less hardscape and more softscape, less water and water features in comparison to the earlier design. An overall budget was already in place and an individual itemized budget was set up for the various parts of the project and we worked hard to maintain the design be practical, functional, constructible and aesthetically unique and thereby keeping the cost to a manageable level through detailed reviews and cost check. Furthermore, we worked very closely to accommodate the existing condition thereby eliminate a great deal of design changes and unnecessary demolition on built elements.”
He continued: “Over an eight month period, we had a number of collaborative design meetings with SOM and Fisher Marantz Stone for lighting and other consultant teams for festival lighting, security, acoustics, signage, civil and structural, and other consultants, SWA brought in WET design fountain consultants for the design refinement of the six proposed water features with technical plumbing, mechanical and electrical design. SWA completed full Design Development for all of the site work and construction documents for the softscape and site furnishings and with SOM completed the Construction Documents for the hardscape with numerous peers' reviews and coordination meetings in Sausalito, Chicago and in Dubai - a truly collaborative effort from the consultant project team. We also met with the construction team Hyder Consulting and Turner Construction for technical coordination, field mock-up reviews and reviews of various on-site requirements.
“We had not worked for Emaar prior to Burj Khalifa but our association and collaboration with SOM goes back to almost 50 years. The SWA Group has been the landscape architect and consultant to SOM on many significant projects starting from the selected few of the early Upjohn World Headquarter in Kalamazoo, Michigan; Weyerhauser Headquarter in Tacoma, Washington; World Wide Center in New York; LG twin Towers, LG Kangnam and Tower Palace III in Seoul, Korea; Beijing Finance Center, Beijing and Poly International Plaza, Guangzhou, and Nanjing Greenland International Commercial Center, Nanjing, China; and so on to the current Burj Khalifa.”
Oasis Gardens, Dancing Water Fountains, a Tower Park and Park Plaza’s
An oasis of green and water was one of the main concepts for the Landscape design surrounding the Burj Khalifa. The tower park was inspired by the design of Burj Khalifa 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.
The towering iteration of Hymenocallis which has three distinct "petals" as a building form-giver is also reflected in the design of the plaza. 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.
The plants featured in the tower park gardens were carefully selected for their ability to grow in Dubai's challenging climate. The summer is hot and humid in the region characterized by scarcity of water, desert winds and poor soil. Plants were chosen for their low water usage, special bloom in the region and with evergreen trees for their capacity to provide year-round shade. Succulents and special desert plants were also featured as well as other selection criteria for the gardens which included easy maintenance and special interest in texture, shape, form and colour of the bloom.
The gardens are partly irrigated with water collected through the building condensate collection system. The hot and humid outside air, combined with the tower's cooling requirements result in a significant amount of condensation of moisture from the air. This water collected in the storage tank provides approximately 15 million gallons of supplemental water per year to maintain the plants in the garden. Other sustainable features include large shade tree canopy to lessen the heat island effect. The use of also lawn is kept to a minimum in a bid to save water.
The Tower Park - playing on the metaphor of "A Tower in a Park", the verdant, shaded-giving landscape of the eleven-hectare Tower Park created a compelling oasis of green, with distinct areas to serve the tower's hotel, residential, spa and corporate office areas. Where the visitors enter at the main arrival court at the base of the tower is where the "prow" of the building intersects a grand circular court -- a "water room" defined by fountains, palms and park trees.
Mission Impossible at the Burj Khalifa
From here, entry roads lead through the park-like landscape to separate the hotel and residential arrival courts. While distinct in character--the hotel courts 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 strong sense of place for each court.
On the lake side, the Grand Terrace celebrates the scale and importance of the tower with a series of large reflecting pools that cascade from upper terraces to the lake itself. Comfortable walkways define the infinity-edge pools and are designed to encourage tourists to take a leisurely walk. 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.
These outdoor spaces create a front door to the tower, serving the various uses and reflecting the building's unique forms. All site furnishings, from railings, pots to benches and signs, incorporate the abstracted imagery of the spider lily and other patterns from nature, true to the historic traditions of Islamic architecture and design. Shade trees give comfort, and a rich plant palette of succulents, flowering trees, and other species suited to the area's extreme temperatures create beauty, interest and character in the Tower Park landscape.
The landscape elements of the Tower Park continue to Emaar Boulevard which is the main roadway of downtown Burj Khalifa. With ground-level shops along its entire 3.5 kilometer length, the boulevard encompasses and connects all major destinations and activities, establishing a world-class street on par with the Champs-Elysees, Park Avenue or the Ramblas. The interplay of landscape and architecture makes this happen. Tightly spaced, double rows of date palms create shade and scale while allowing views to retail frontages and establishing a module for street fairs and gatherings. The palms extend as a green colonnade that conveys scale, identity, and connection to the dominant tower within its park. Deep plaza-like sidewalks, lighting, shade coverings, benches, and an artful array of paving designs and materials reinforce an atmosphere of comfort and urban life.
Events and activities further enliven the street --car park access pop-ups, tram stations, cafes and kiosks, news and flower stands, and public art. The street becomes a place in itself, the framework for "rooms" of distinct activities and luxury retail attractions, from high fashion to automobiles and elegant dining.
Other elements of the streetscape also tie the boulevard to the tower; at six locations fountains provide photo opportunities featuring the tower in the background. Carefully detailed paving at intersections echoes the design of paving within the Tower Park and encourages motorists to slow at crossings. Street furnishings make use of the Hymenocallis motif, and plant selection further extends the oasis character of the Tower Park along the boulevard, destined to be one of the world's premier streets.
‘The ultimate success of the project’
Visitors to the tallest building in the world are often awe-struck by its most renowned attribute, sheer height, but the vision for the entire Burj Khalifa development is what's often missed. Its close design relationship to the region and its ground-level neighborhood are equally instructive aspects for future developers and planners who, no doubt, will eventually eclipse it vertically.
“The ultimate success of this project is dependent on how the design on the ground serves the occupants, visitors and the general population of the region. The ground level success aims to integrate this tall structure with the community and its surrounding neighborhoods and more importantly to create a project that will be globally-celebrated and locally used.
“In the 33 years of my practice in Landscape Architecture, Burj Khalifa is certainly up there as one of the more unique, challenging and demanding project that I am fortunate to be a part of. The value that we added to the project will continue to be a positive addition to the region and raise the stature of the city to a higher level. Its success ultimately depends on how the project serves the occupants and visitors as it relates to the community. As I compare to all the other projects that I have been involved, whether small or large, local or international, each project is important to the set goal and vision and each plays a role in shaping the future of our city,” said Mr Wong.
With thanks to The SWA Group based in Sausalito, California who contributed to this article- John L. Wong, FASLA, FAAR, Hui-Li Lee, Joe Newton, Sergio Lima, Chih-Wei Lin, Jack Wu, David Gal, Travis Theobald, Chih-Wei Chang, Katy Sun, Luis Kao, Scott Chuang.
Architects: Skidmore Owings and Merrill, LLP (SOM) - Chicago
Fountain Consultant: WET
Lighting: Fisher Marantz Stone
Festival Lighting: Speirs and Major
Security Systems: Sinclair Knight Merz
Signage: Square Peg Design
Civil and Structural Design: Hyder Consulting
Gatehouse and Armani/Pavilion: Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture.