An architect’s paradise

Dubai ArchitectureHazel Wong has designed Palma Holding’s Serenia Residences on the Palm Jumeirah

Hazel Wong is probably best known as the architect behind the Emirates Towers, but she has since designed many other projects in the emirate, including Palma Holding’s Serenia Residences on the Palm Jumeirah.

Not one for shouting from the rooftops, this petite woman expresses her immense creative talents in her unique design solutions. She often designs residential and hospitality projects, servicing a select clientele via her architecture and engineering consultancy firm, WSW Architects, a boutique design studio in the UAE.

What has changed over the years in the architectural landscape of Dubai?

To understand how architecture, its style and direction have evolved in Dubai, it is important to underscore the catalyst that drove its development. During the mid to late 1990s, architecture was essentially driven by the aspirations and leadership of the rulers of the emirate and their vision for a modern Dubai. For instance, the Emirates Towers had to frame the then tallest structure in the city — the Dubai World Trade Centre. There is no doubt that the vision of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to create unique and quality designs for his many high-profile projects brings about what we witness in Dubai today.

Family and business groups were also eagerly striving for iconic designs for their personal and company projects. The relatively lax planning controls in those earlier years not only allowed but encouraged imaginative and visionary thinking, something out of the box. I have always considered Dubai an architect’s paradise where they have the will and resources to realise their visions.

How well did the out-of-the-box design work?

The style and direction that developed have been eclectic. Clients constantly craved for unique ideas and solutions, something human eyes had never seen before. This brought about various groundbreaking projects, and at times some rather naïve adaptations of New World architecture, all with varying degrees of success.

Many architects who took on the challenges and developed iconic designs went on to receive worldwide recognition. The designs became symbolic of brand Dubai and its global standing as a centre for architectural achievements. It was, however, also a period when some seriously questioned the balance, or rather imbalance, of design management versus budget, style, speed and quality of construction.

Has the balance been achieved today?

Although there will always be developers setting out to develop unique and iconic projects, distinguishing their products from the general market, they have always been very cautious of both time and cost. Today developers and contractors are much more sophisticated and discerning since the days when I designed the Emirates Towers.

The ultimate goal is to create a city offering a comfortable, happy lifestyle. Do you feel the emirate is on the right track?

Indeed Dubai’s phenomenal growth over the past 15 years has had some adverse effects, which, in hindsight, could have turned out differently depending on whom you talked to. Some lessons have been learned bearing in mind developers need to balance their investment and returns. Dubai Municipality’s (DM) planning guidelines and other government regulations are constantly being updated to respond to the requirements of modern-day living. Dubai has developed at such a pace that it always seems to be catching up with itself. Many things that may have been considered adequate and acceptable only a short time ago may no longer be true or viable.

What could ideally be factored into current and future plans?

Personally, I’d like to see more of smaller communities and street-related commercial developments serving the neighbourhood population. This would enrich city living, create a sense of identity, promote social integration and support the communities. Nowadays, public spaces are at a premium. We need them to not just soften the landscape but also for a myriad of social, leisure and recreational purposes.

For example, less wild beaches may not necessarily make them attractive to the masses. Having said that adding jogging tracks and facilities may be one way of adding functional outdoor spaces as a positive addition to our environment.

Equally, whatever wildlife spots remain within, or immediately outside the city, are precious beyond monetary value. They should be protected from disruption and erosion. The city needs lungs to breathe and open spaces should be preserved as natural habitats without overrunning them.

We need the support of the DM and local leaders to foster an independent professional urban planning and architectural association. This would champion a credible debate on architectural and urban design issues to understand and address deficiency and to establish standards and means for their rectification.

In terms of master-planned communities springing up, are they creating the right amount of quality lifestyle?

They are a step in the right direction. Being able to create architectural harmony is an obvious advantage, as is the creation of outdoor spaces serving the needs of the community. Often the extent of this space is invariably driven by commercial consideration. For example, does Dubai need another golf course encircled by high-rise buildings and villas to increase property values? Residential communities should also cater to schools and other civic and public facilities. Providing adequate external shading should also be considered to improve quality of life.

In terms of space to breathe, do you feel this is considered sufficiently?

Pockets of high density isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The point is to achieve a proper balance in mass and scale, whether it is for a large development or for groups of smaller buildings. I try to understand the nature and purpose of the development and consider ways to make it functional, as well as attractive to work and live in. I think one must consider not only the big picture but also understand the value of the details on a smaller scale.

For example, what is the reason so many desert space developers fail to create larger margin-buffer zones around their villa communities? This comes back to understanding the built environment, beautification of the city, quality of the environment, etc. I am honestly surprised that some developers are still building very close to the main roads. Surely high-speed traffic noise has to be irritable to the occupants, and pedestrian safety could also be an issue.

These should be and must be addressed by the DM and the various Master Developers who set the development guidelines and planning controls and parameters for individual building plots and their subsequent designs.

These days most developers are opting for the contemporary over the Arabian look. Why?

There has been a commercial realisation that there may be a need to diversify from an oversupply of traditional Arabian and Mediterranean designs. In addition, as the pendulum swings towards owner-occupied premises, there is a need for elegant, timeless and more functional designs over the simply fashionable and at times frivolous architectural solutions.

New project

The Serenia Residences is a mid-rise residential development spanning 79,000 sq m on the Palm Jumeirah with 250 luxury residential units.

The upscale residential community is the latest design project of Hazel Wong, who is admired for her work on the iconic Emirates Towers in Dubai.

“The objective of the owner Banian and the developer Palma Development was to create a resort-style beachfront living environment,” says Wong, who created an elegant, and functional design that captures the most important elements of the location — sun, sand and sea.

“Another key to its success is the ultimate decision to amalgamate the four separate plots into a single entity, offering the flexibility and opportunity to best position the structures to maximize views, and at the same time retain 70 per cent of the site for open landscaped areas and recreational amenities,” says Wong.

Source: Nicole Walter, Special to Property Weekly


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