8 oct 09 | CNN (online)

Sexy architecture alive and well in Middle East

by Daniela Deane

With all the pomp and money befitting its status as the world's richest city, Abu Dhabi will soon unveil its new Formula One track on Yas Island, a spectacular entertainment destination emerging from the turquoise waters off the coast of the Emirati capital.

In true Gulf style, the new Yas Marina Circuit is iconic -- its roof is huge, ringed with thousands of lights, and modeled on the classic double curve of a Ferrari racing chassis.

The new flagship Yas Hotel -- just one of some two dozen luxury hotels on the man-made island -- overlooks the track, which wends its way under the hotel, and then emerges along the island's waterfront.

"It's the only hotel that has a Formula One track running through it," Hamed Al Harthi, spokesman for the Yas Marina Circuit, told CNN. "And it's the longest straight line in any Formula One track. The cars will go up to 317 kilometers an hour (197 mph) there." Check out our interactive map of Abu Dhabi's new Yas Marina circuit.

Abu Dhabi will host the final round of this year's Formula One series at the new track on Nov. 1. The track is part of a sprawling new entertainment complex on the island, which includes the world's largest indoor theme park, several marinas, golf courses and some 20 signature hotels.

"It's incredible the way they've put the circuit right into the community," Iseeb Rehman, managing director of Sherwoods Property Consultants in the United Arab Emirates, told CNN. It's a definite statement."

It's not the first architectural statement of its kind in the cash-rich Gulf, where eye-catching, money-is-no-object architecture designed by the world's "starchitects" -- the bright stars of their profession -- has become the norm.

Think the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, shaped like a billowing sail, the Burj Dubai tower, the world's tallest building, or the man-made islands in the form of palm trees dotting the Persian Gulf shore. But in these recessionary, cash-strapped times, will Yas be the last?

Probably not.

"There will always be iconic projects coming on here in terms of architecture," said Rehman.  "Whether the scale and size remain the same will be a test of time."

And innovation is alive and well there too, according to architects with global practices.

"They've moved beyond thinking iconic is just a funny-shaped building," said Gerard Evenden, partner at Foster + Partners, a British-based architectural company designing the Masdar Initiative, a carbon-neutral, zero-waste community in Abu Dhabi, one of the world's largest oil producers.

"They're wanting the architecture to have meaning, whether for the place, its use, or the environment. The project we're working on is a very significant, world-class project."

Almost every country in the Gulf has raised its budget for infrastructure and development projects, like roads, transportation links, airports and museums.

Dubai recently opened the first subway system in the Middle East. A massive new airport is currently under construction between and Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Qatar unveiled a spectacular new museum for Islamic art designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei last winter.

And a $27 billion arts extravaganza with an offshoot of the Louvre, a new Guggenheim museum, a National Museum inspired by the British Museum, a performing arts center, and several arts schools is being built on a sandy atoll called Saadiyat off Abu Dhabi.

Celebrity architects Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando are working on the project, which if completed according to plan, would be the world's largest single arts development project to be built in recent times.

As long as government money is involved, deep pockets still prevail.

"They've got oil for another 200 years," said Rehman. The slowdown that has been evident in the Gulf has mostly involved projects with private individual developers heavily reliant on purchases by credit-crunched investors, such as commercial and residential projects, according to Rehman.

World-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who's designing the new Guggenheim museum on Saadiyat, recently had two of his favourite projects -- huge mixed-used developments in Los Angeles and Brooklyn -- indefinitely delayed. The one bright spot in his work portfolio, he was quoted recently as saying, is his work in the Gulf, where the money for creative architecture is still flowing.

Not everyone believes the cash will flow endlessly, however.

George Efstathiou, managing partner and architect at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the company that designed the master plan for Saadiyat, says a lot of the big projects in the Middle East "have stopped dead."

"Things have stopped in Dubai, except finishing projects like the Burj Dubai," Efstathiou told CNN. He said there's recently been a shift to Saudi Arabia, where building is going on in both Jeddah and Riyadh, where the government is building the new King Abdullah Financial District downtown.

"Over the last six or so years, the market has shifted from place to place, depending on the economics of the particular locale or the wherewithal of each of the cities," said Efstathiou, who concentrates on the Middle East for his firm.

He said "hordes of architects and engineers" are following the work around the region. "We keep bumping into the same people," he said.

He said that although the Middle East will always be a place for "starchitects," developers there are being more cautious and worry about the price tag that comes with employing world-renowned names.

"Not every building needs to be an icon," he said. "And there"s not an endless supply of money in the Middle East either."