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The human touch

Janus Rostock | 31 Aug 2016 | Comments

Janus Rostock discusses the Dubai Opera and the importance of the human scale in design.

My compatriot, the celebrated Danish architect, urbanist and city planner Jan Gehl, first introduced the idea of the 5kph city and the 60kph city; the difference being that the former was designed with pedestrians in mind, while the latter puts the emphasis on motorists.

You could reasonably say that large swathes of our rapidly growing cities in the Middle East are closer to 120kph cities. That isn’t to say that they’re visually dull. In fact, far from it, but the buildings which make up the region’s impressive skylines have, in general, been designed as individual objects which are best appreciated from a car at distance – or at high velocity. Get out of the car and up close and there tends to be little for the human eye and soul to connect with.

The other, closely linked notion to which most Scandinavian architects are passionate about is human scale in architecture. This is based on the idea that people are able to better interact with the urban environment when it is based on their own physical dimensions and capabilities.

It stands to reason, perhaps, that historic cities built before the age of the car most naturally fit into the mould of the 5kph environment. Copenhagen my hometown, is an excellent example of human scale architectural detailing that encourages pedestrian and cycling activities; this applies not only to historic buildings but also to its bold and distinctive modern architecture.

Newer cities have tended to evolve in a different way, which has been dominated by people’s desire to use private cars. The response from clients and designers has been to focus not on detail, but on being able to capture attention within seconds and from afar. This applies to public space as much as it does to buildings – but what about pedestrians? And what about community? At street level, there is little to offer.

It’s taken some time, but the past five years or so has witnessed an awakening to this challenge in the Middle East. There’s an understanding that to build healthy communities – which evolved over hundreds of years in the “old world”, needs human scale. It needs interaction, fine detail and energy. As humans, we need some subtlety in our environments which encourages us to explore, ask questions and have fun.  

In Dubai, there are now some powerful examples of how this has been put into action to create a new city experience. For instance, Citywalk in Jumeirah and The Beach at JBR offer low-rise, retail centric developments which have quickly been embraced as part of the urban landscape. They promote social interaction of communities – something which is fundamental to improve quality of life and enable the creation of sustainable and liveable cities.

Human scale and a pedestrian friendly cities have long been at the heart of our thinking and when Atkins was appointed to design the Dubai Opera and the Opera District in Downtown Dubai it was pivotal to our idea. It is rare to have an opportunity to fully integrate a building in its context from the earliest master planning stage through to its functionality in the public realm. The vision of our client was very clear from the start and we had a great deal of freedom to bring it to reality. And that vision was very much in keeping with our thinking of a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood – a 5kph city.

Because Dubai Opera sits within Emaar’s Downtown Dubai development, we were tasked with creating a building which must fulfil various roles. Not only should it showcase world-class cultural events to its guests, but the building should also be the iconic centrepiece of the new Opera District and a stimulus for a vibrant, creative public realm.

We had an opportunity to present much more than a stunning new building to the region. Our client’s vision was for a venue which, while hosting fabulous cultural performances within, would also transmit its energy and excitement to the whole community, making full use of its surrounding spaces including Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed Boulevard, The Opera Plaza and Burj Lake Park. It is designed, therefore, to complement rather than compete with its surrounding area, spreading its cultural and artistic function from its internal transformable theatre onto an external multifunctional urban plaza, towards the adjacent walkways and alleyways of surrounding neighbourhoods.

An important dimension of the project is that it closes the circle of attraction points within Downtown Dubai – the others being the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall, as well as the centrepiece of Dubai Fountains. Of these attractions, Dubai Opera is unique in being able to offer a much more al fresco lifestyle as well as tactile involvement to the surrounding neighbourhood, so it was very important that we sought to take advantage of this.

Everything about the building is designed to draw people into its cultural and artistic offering. The building has a 360 degree lobby which is fully integrated with its public realm. The façade design is extremely complex; the glass frontage comprises of 1,710 individual façade and mullion sections, 1,270 individually sized glass panels, which are shaded by the roof overhang and 5 km externally mounted shading louvers. The aim is to make the building as transparent as possible, while keeping solar radiation out through passive design measures.

To this end, the glass is made as transparent as possible thanks to an internal and external anti-reflective coating. In the evening, the impact of this will be even more apparent because lighting is integrated within the buildings vertical columns building only – there is no external illumination. This will create the sense of a lantern which will offer a warm glow to onlookers and accentuate the impact of seeing guests inside the building. The lobby and public realm are therefore seen as one – a space where the audience become performers for residents and visitors of the neighbourhood when they are inside the building.

Arriving at Dubai Opera will also be part of the experience. There is no valet parking at the entrance to the building – guests will make a processional walk across the plaza to the lobby doors, creating a "theatre of people" surrounding the building. This, again, will help to bring the whole Opera District to life, animating its environs like nothing else in the city. The public realm around the building will capture the buzz from the Opera, with retail and cafes, and the opportunity for street performances. Importantly, navigating the area is encouraging pedestrian activities and movement ensuring a high level of accessibility, with plenty of walkways intersecting the boulevard to offer a feeling of openness and space.

It feels very fitting that, in creating Dubai’s new cultural beacon, we’ve had the opportunity to deliver something which is much more than an entertainment venue. We’ve been inspired by the chance to offer the city, and the region, a project which will truly engage passers-by at 5kph through its level of detail and its all-encompassing celebration of performance. Dubai Opera will exude the energy, creativity and excitement of its audience, setting the mood for the whole neighbourhood. I can’t wait to see them perform!

This article was originally featured in ME Consultant