The Burj Khalifa is a celebration of rigorous design, construction, and, most of all, possibility. The 27-acre "green oasis" features plazas, gardens, pools and promenades in a human-scaled setting that grounds the world's tallest building. In the middle of an extreme desert climate, the landscape architects forged a new baseline for design achievement, while creating a lasting model of environmental efficiency and sensitivity.
The story of the Burj Khalifa is well known. The tallest building in the world deserves an equally awe-inspiring setting. Unsurprisingly, designing such an iconic landscape was but one of many challenges. Not only did the landscape architects have to consider the significant subterranean infrastructure associated with a building that is over half a mile tall--indeed, 80 percent of the site design work is built on top of building structure, making the park akin to a giant green roof with limited soil depth--they also contended with an exceedingly harsh and hot desert environment. Rather than being seen as restrictions, however, these constraints enabled the designers to develop many innovative solutions that placed equal emphasis on aesthetic and technical achievement--a singular solution for this tremendously unique structure.
Technical challenges were not the only complex issues this project raised. Pressing questions of sustainability were particularly important and every possible measure was taken to ensure that this landscape would be a lasting model of efficiency and environmental sensitivity. Ultimately, given that humans have been inhabiting some of the most unlivable places on Earth for thousands of years, this project set out to pay tribute to human life in the desert by creating a stunning green space that works with the desert climate instead of against it, resulting in a world-class space that is accessible and enjoyable for humans but still mindful of the remarkable beauty and history of this unique environment. Offering an invitation to spend more time outdoors comfortably, an extension of the park design follows a promenade along its two-kilometer length and provides the kind of connective tissue that typically does not exist in this city where people drive from place to place.
Project Site, Scope, and Challenges
Situated on 27 acres of land, the "green oasis" encircling the Burj Khalifa tower includes plazas, gardens, pools and promenades that create a human-scale frame for the tallest tower in the world. On the ground, the scale of the building is nearly unfathomable--the residential high-rises that form the backdrop for the tower look miniscule by comparison. Given the dominance of the building, it was important to create a landscape that featured the building, yet still provided refuge in places from its awesome mass.
Without proper care, the design of the ground surrounding the building ran the risk of creating a uninhabitable no-man's land, alternating between sun-induced conditions such as scorching glare, distortion from sand in the air, and extreme temperatures of 115? F or more, and building-induced conditions such as pervasive shadow as well as pockets of unusual wind turbulence created by the tower's aerodynamic shape. Instead, the groundscape mitigates these variable conditions or uses them to its advantage, resulting in a project that is simultaneously innovative and stunning. As an example, an exhaustive process of wind-tunnel studies led the team to use tree canopy in several areas to overcome the wind's force and make the spaces habitable.
Creating this landscape required a thorough understanding of the building's multiple functions and inherent mixed-use nature, as well as the multi-model traffic coordination entailed by its adjacency to a bustling urban center. Multiple entries and drop-offs, service access points, garage and structural considerations, and public versus private entrances were just some of the many circulation nodes considered on the ground level, prompting the design of clear navigation and wayfinding graphics to direct visitors towards building entrances as well as public oasis, cooling, and garden areas.
Each circulatory system had to be carefully designed and sequenced for the project to function seamlessly, but also consider the nuanced social interactions in Middle Eastern culture. Beyond the choreography of various circulation and access paths, there were coordination complexities induced by fixed design elements, such as emergency exits, intake and exhaust vents, and structural beams and girders, as well as the sequencing challenge of designing the surface landscape while subterranean parking structures were in the midst of construction. Technical and structural complexities abounded as well. How can a robust landscape thrive on layers and layers of structural and mechanical infrastructure that allowed limited soil depth? Last, but certainly not least, were the project's numerous environmental considerations: How can the landscape evoke an oasis within a desert while minimizing water use?
The solution to all of these concerns was to stay mindful of locality. Cultural and social customs yielded interwoven circulation and outdoor rooms; local artistic traditions showed up in the use of Islamic patterning as a recurring motif; and finally, an indigenous plant palette maximized scarce water resources and minimized the need for deep soil.
Indigenous Planting for Sustainability, Water Conversation and Cultural Reference
The inspiration for the Burj Khalifa groundscape was the intricate and beautiful patterning found in the region's art, architecture and gardens. Indigenous plant materials and local stone paving are woven across the ground plane in complex geometric patterns reminiscent of the region's spider lilies, as well as the formal gardens that spread throughout the Persian Gulf.
By using native plantings and sustainable water features for cooling and comfort, the project aims to improve the microclimates surrounding the building and provide respite from an exceedingly hot desert climate. Water in the Emirates is scarce and becoming scarcer; in addition to using low-water, drought-tolerant native plant species, the design of a state-of-the-art irrigation system that uses recycled water from the tower's cooling equipment helped to ensure efficient usage of this precious resource, while still reducing the heat island effects on the ground, cooling the air with extensive softscape, and providing shade and mitigating glare with an extensive tree canopy comprised of more than 15 different species, including date palms, silver buttonwoods, banyans, olives and laurels. Apart from the environmental benefits, the use of indigenous plantings and locally sourced materials arrayed in patterns that reference Middle Eastern designs further the theme of locality by providing a culturally and historically aligned echo of the tower's aesthetic references.
The project required in-depth design and technical expertise in the areas of hydrological engineering, horticulture, international building codes and construction standards and materials sourcing. In addition, members of the design team spent several multi-day research trips in Dubai researching plant materials by visiting local and regional nurseries, as well as nearby projects to develop a plant palette that works in this extreme climate. These trips also provided time to: visit stone suppliers and fabricators--local stone was selected despite limited availability in the area; evaluate custom site furnishing mock-ups; research materials that could sustain the climate's weathering, erosion and sun bleaching; and discuss the project with local contractors and subcontractors to gain an understanding of how things get built in the country.
Lastly, to ensure that the project was built to the highest standards of construction, the firm's full-time field representative remained onsite to coordinate with contractors and assess craftsmanship at regular intervals. Through expertise and careful planning, the work was completed from schematic design to construction documents in six months, on time and within the fixed project budget.
As designers, we were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from a project of this scope and nature. The knowledge gained from many years spent implementing new projects around the world continually reaffirms the focus of our global practice and reflects the changes happening in the larger world of landscape architecture.
U.S. designers can have an instrumental hand in the development of spaces and places anywhere, but in an increasingly global economy, every new project requires fresh thinking that is innovative from a design standpoint and synthesizes the complexities of "glocal" cultures and ecologies as well as business, design, and engineering practices.