Strategic Asset

A 16-story signature building that recalls the Arc de Triomphe is the focus of an emerging Middle Eastern financial center on the Persian Gulf.
August 11, 2010

As its name implies, The Gate is the symbolic entryway to a rapidly developing, 100-acre financial district in Dubai, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Located at the entrance to the Dubai International Financial Centre, the 54-meter-high Gate Building houses the DIFC's executive offices, the DIFC Financial Services Authority, and the DIFC International Financial Exchange. Its 45,000 sm of floor space also provides office space for international financial institutions. Some tenants have moved in since the building was completed last fall.

Dubai promotes itself as a 24/7 financial hub between Hong Kong and Tokyo in the east and London and New York in the west. The DIFC's objective is to create a physical environment that, with generous tax waivers and other financial incentives, will attract financial service firms to the UAE.

DIFC is a growing commercial center that is just a 10-minute drive from the city center and the nearby palaces of the ruling family. The buildout of DIFC, which may take another six to eight years, is projected to incorporate buildings with a total area in excess of 1.3 million sm, about half of which is expected to be residential. A third of the planned buildings are either completed or under development.

The Gate Building is on an axis with three existing buildings that are not part of the new development, the 56-story Emirates Tower I, the 54-story Emirates Tower II, and the 39-story Dubai World Trade Center.

A touch of Paris in the Gulf

The Gate Building bears the imprint of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who heads the DIFC. He personally selected San Francisco-based architect Gensler to design the building and produce a master plan for the entire site.

The sheikh's inspiration for the design of the granite-clad Gate Building came from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was cited in the brief presented to firms that competed for the design commission.

The opening through the building evolved into an elegant square, not "a building with a hole at its base," says Christopher Johnson, managing principal of Gensler's London office. The cubic shape of the Gate alludes to DIFC's logo, which takes the form of a rotated square.

"A lot of buildings in Dubai are quite iconic and quirky," Johnson says. "We wanted to give them something quite grounded, but still very eye-catching." The objective was a design that would communicate to investors and clients the solidity of the DIFC as a secure institution.

Each leg of the Gate Building's 11 lower floors has an area of 1,200 sm, which is typical for an office floor in Dubai. Levels 12 to 15 are each 4,489 sm, the largest in Dubai. The DIFC, like the London Stock Exchange, does not utilize a trading floor in its operations, but planners wanted to provide space for one in case a future tenant might want have such a need. The additional height of this space made cross-bracing at this level a structural necessity as well as an aesthetic feature.

The DIFC authorities at one point considered reducing the project scope from the original 45,000 sm to 20,000 sm in order to cut costs. But the original scope was reinstated after it became obvious how much the downsized plan would diminish the building's visual impact. Advisors also suggested that if DIFC wasn't confident that it could lease a total of 22 floors (11 in each leg of the building), the entire project could be in doubt.

Gensler initially proposed a design with solid exterior walls and glazing only on the interior walls of the arch—a plan that would both portray DIFC as a solid organization and reduce the impact of the high solar heat gain experienced in the Middle East. DIFC rejected this approach. It wanted full-height glazing on the east and west elevations so that people outside the building would be able to see activity inside, thereby demonstrating the "openness" of the organization.

The architects then proposed a triple-glazed wall with a six-foot gap between inner pane and outer double walls, but this was deemed too costly.

DIFC's rejection of these two energy-saving initiatives suggests that sustainability does not have as high a priority in the Middle East as it does in Europe. Ian Mulcahey, a senior associate in Gensler's London office, thinks the major environmental benefit of the master planned development will be to encourage walking, rather than driving, between buildings. "If we can get people out of their cars, that will be a first in Dubai," he says. Just in case that doesn't work, a light rail transit system is planned along the development's western boundary.

Buildings in the DIFC rise from a podium with four to six below-grade levels that accommodates service vehicles and 35,000 parking spaces. A climate-controlled retail level below the podium connects the buildings.

It is something of a surprise that the Gate Building does not have elaborate security measures, just the standard swipe-card access control. Not that Gensler couldn't have given the DIFC the full monte if the client had wanted it. "Because of our experience in Europe, we can build in as much security as you could probably want," says Johnson. But the powers that be in Dubai felt "a little uncomfortable" turning Gate Building into a fortress. "They felt they didn't need that level, because they don't have terrorism in Dubai," says Johnson.

Johnson says the project's major challenge was to retain quality in the face of the building's fast-track construction schedule (see sidebar). This meant "making sure you see that everything is built the right way, and to the standards we expect."