A year ago Bernardo Fort-Brescia, a renowned architect and founder of the firm Arquitectonica, was getting exasperated. No matter what his team came up with, many of his clients in the Gulf wanted something bigger and brasher.
“We have a reputation for being a very avant-garde, creative firm,” he says. “But they would tell us ‘that’s not enough, we want more’. Everyone wanted to stand out in the market and budget was never an issue.”
If artists’ renderings were to be a guide to the future of the world’s fastest growing cities, the residents of places such as Dubai in the year 2020 would work in ultra-modern towers so high it would be hard to see the ground. They would live in all-glass buildings with amorphous shapes that seem physically impossible and spend their leisure time travelling between themed master developments the size of small cities.
A bridge might also have a hotel suspended over it. But in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the philosophy of architectural fantasy has changed sharply.
Mr Fort-Brescia, whose firm designed the Sun and Sky towers on Reem Island and the Al Manhal project for downtown Abu Dhabi, says he now finds “a certain resistance to extravagance” from his customers, even those with deep pockets.
“The era of shock architecture is over,” he says. “The propositions today have to be responsible. There is a consciousness of people not wanting to do something that is not sustainable and economically responsible.”
The state of the economy has impact on everything, from the life of a construction labourer to fashion and who is elected to political office. But few things have such an enduring physical presence as the buildings we erect on the skyline.
In New York, the era of skyscrapers in the early to mid-20th century came alongside an economic boom and speculative frenzy. The race came to a halt with the Great Depression, but not without leaving three of the city’s tallest buildings as memento: 40 Wall Tower in 1929, the Chrysler Building in 1930 and the Empire State Building in 1931.
Likewise, the Burj Dubai will be seen as the reflection of an era of exuberance in the Gulf, architects say. Whatever its final height, it is one of the most imposing and grand structures in the world today. Plans for half a dozen tall buildings in the Middle East, including Nakheel’s 1.4km skyscraper and the 600m Meraas Tower, have been put on the back burner.
In the years ahead, architects and planners will move away from the idea of a city as “an enormous megastructure place that overwhelms its citizens”, says George Katodrytis, an architect and professor at the American University of Sharjah, referring to futuristic films such as Metropolis and Blade Runner that evoke dystopian, machine-like worlds. “The whole notion of architectural fantasy and the city of the future is now being reconsidered,” he says. “There will be more looking inward to the spaces around buildings and the street participation. The bigness is going to give way to closeness and density and some kind of social cohesion. The task now is to fill the gaps that the first wave of development has left behind.”
Massive infrastructure projects such as the Dubai Metro will emerge into the spotlight as the most meaningful initiatives – the Metro because it connects the city neighbourhoods and adds another dimension to daily life, he says. There will be more focus on parks and “greening” empty areas, as well as affordable housing, which will allow more low and middle-income people to make their homes in Dubai.
“It’s going to be a new kind of urbanism here,” Mr Katodrytis says. “Dubai has to become a normal city in a way. The new projects will be of a smaller scale and with much more careful planning. We’ll see them not popping out of the desert to create another skyline or oasis. It’s more about intensifying what is already there, adding more activities and spaces other than shopping malls.”
Architects have begun shifting their focus towards public buildings such as schools, train stations and hospitals. In down times, governments tend to increase their spending to bolster the economy. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have committed to spend tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dirhams over the next decades to develop the UAE into a world-class place to live, do business and visit.
“We are focusing on social architecture,” says David Ross, the design director at Keppie Design in Scotland. “If you look back through history at times of recession, any investment is in the realm of infrastructure.” Keppie is among a small group of architecture companies bidding for a contract to design schools for the Abu Dhabi Education Council. In Libya, the company is designing eight university campuses as “part of a long-term programme of regeneration” in that country.
The commercially driven projects are likely to suffer more from the effects of the downturn than any other type of property development, he says. “With a hospital or a school, costs don’t matter as much because there is a perceived standard that needs to be reached.”
Architecture firms, like construction contractors and other companies that rely on developers for business, are also spreading out in the region to guarantee a more steady stream of income.
FXFowle, a firm based in New York, recently secured some large contracts to build middle-income housing in Riyadh, says Steven Miller, the managing director of the Dubai office.
“Now that property values are getting to where they should be, middle-income
housing is a great business model,” he says, adding that many of his old clients have “gone to sleep”. “We’ve spent most of our time looking for fresh market places,” Mr Miller says. But the most important thing, Mr Fort-Brescia says, is to get rid of the “ego aspect of architecture” in proposals.
“There were really illogical things being proposed out there, with a lot of ego and intent to impress,” he says. “But when you look at the landscape of the region today, those are the ones that haven’t been built. It’s the simpler, cleaner, logical buildings that are actually going to make it.”