Compared to its neighborhood rival Dubai, the United Arab Emirate of Abu Dhabi has been relatively conservative. Its economy is solidly sustained by oil money, rather than puffed out (and then horribly deflated) by the shifting winds of international finance. And when Abu Dhabi went to spend a little cash on itself, it didn′t go for glitzy stunts like indoor ski-parks, underwater hotels, or the world′s tallest building (as in Dubai—although they had to borrow money from Abu Dhabi for that last one). It planned as a city for what it wanted to be in twenty years, and that plan included responsible stuff like schools, light rails, and mixed use housing. And an impressive cultural zone including a Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry and a performance hall designed by Zaha Hadid. (In Dubai: Cirque du Soleil and a Marvel Comics theme park. I′m not kidding.)
But just because Abu Dhabi acts more like a grown-up than Dubai, doesn′t mean it′s not cool. For cool I′ll put the Yas Marina Hotel up against anything. Designed by Asymptote Architects, the hotel is 30 miles outside the city center, on Yas Island.
It′s built (how do I describe this?) on a Formula One racetrack—Yas Marina Circuit—that twists and turns around the island and is the site of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Hanging thrillingly low over this track is a sculpted steel and glass bridge that connects the two twelve-story towers of the Yas.
But that′s not the coolest part. The coolest part is the Grid Shell. That′s a sort of second skin that drapes the top of the towers in an expanse of sweeping, curvilinear glass and steel latticework consisting of 5,800 pivoting diamond-shaped glass panels. Those panels reflect the sky and environs during the day and at night is lit up in washes of color through an embedded LED system. The whole thing somehow evokes desert sand dunes, a curving racetrack, and the dishdasha—the long, flowing traditional light-colored robe that protects Arab men from the sun. There′s a reason for that last one. The Grid Shell similarly—ingeniously—protects the hotel from the sun, providing shade and channeling breezes through the space between itself (the exterior faÇade) and the interior faÇade of the towers.
Yes, the Yas Marina Hotel is a high-end, luxury destination for people who have too much money (and their yachts), but it′s also architecture for the ages. Extremely modern and cutting-edge, and yet so responsive to its environment, so concerned with the realities of life in a place dominated by sun and sand, that it already seems grounded in its place, in Abu Dhabi.
And you should see the rooftop bar. Pretty much the epitome of grown-up cool.
Dubai, you have been schooled.