Home >> Build It Bigger, Season 4, Episode 8: Abu Dhabi

Build It Bigger, Season 4, Episode 8: Abu Dhabi

by Danny Forster on May 7, 2010

Abu Dhabi Central Market Towers
Episode 8 season 4
Al Dar Central Market, Abu Dhabi

The old Central Market souk in Abu Dhabi was an open-air warren of shops, where you could buy everything from shoes to fruit to plumbing supplies. In the tradition of all Arabian souks, it was also a meeting place, buzzing with social as well as commercial activity. The souk fell silent in 2003, however, when a terrible fire tore through it, and the city decided to raze the remains and redevelop the Central Market.

Abu Dhabi is a trading town with ancient Bedouin roots, but it is also a modern city, gleaming with all the high-end hotels and malls that can be bought with lots and lots of oil money. So which way to go for the new Al Dar Central Market? Would the city embrace the style I like to call Global Moolah (glass, steel, and more glass) or cling to the clichés of Arabian Nostalgia (bulbous turrets sporting spires)? In the end the architects, Foster and Partners, headed by Sir Norman Foster, found a third way. By reinvestigating the history and the climate, they found a solution that elegantly connects the city′s past with its future.

The plan is this: three skyscrapers (residential, commercial, and hotel) anchored in a retail base. Sounds boring, right? But here′s the twist: the base, instead of being your standard shopping mall, will be a reimagined souk.

It will have courtyards and alleyways, balconies and colonnades, long corridors, and little shops. Mirroring the jumble of goods and services in a traditional souk, it will have some high-end stores, but it will also have room for all 148 local sellers who had to vacate the Central Market souk when the city decided to rebuild.

The souk will be enclosed, but the faÇade will be made of 3,100 intricately patterned panels made of Glass Reinforced Concrete. Essentially that means the concrete is infused with sand, which not only gives the faÇade a beautifully textured, desert look, but handles the perennial problem faced by every building in the city: sand storms. Sand can wear out the exterior of a building in no time, but by embracing the weathered look from the start, this exterior is essentially impervious to it.

Inside the souk, the walls are covered with handcrafted Arabic tiles—not your standard mall blandness. And the roof is a gorgeous grid of individually sliding squares that can be opened and closed depending on the need for light, air, or shade.

Then there are the skyscrapers. There′s no real way to make a skyscraper that celebrates ancient . . . skyscrapers. So Foster and Partners turned their thoughtfulness from Abu Dhabi′s traditions to its climate. The most striking feature of the towers is the 50-degree angle at which the tops seem to be cut. This is not an arbitrary design, but a calculated plan to catch sunlight in the solar panels that will help power the building.

While the roof catches the sun, the walls will use a double faÇade system to let in light but to insulate against heat. The outer faÇade deals with the perennial problem of blowing sand differently from the way the souk does: it boasts a glass exterior so sheer and taut as to essentially render the building surfaceless—with no edges, ridges, or grooves for the sand to catch.

The best thing about the whole project, I think, is the way in which it really seems to be for the residents. Yes, it will attract tourists, and yes, the skyscrapers are designed to be a gorgeous new landmark and emblem of the city. But at its heart the market will still be a gathering place for locals, and place for Abu Dhabi, past, present, and future, to come together.