Creating iconic destinations in the UAE

As Director and Head of Benoy's Middle East and North Africa (Mena) Studio, Paul Priest is responsible for numerous high-profile projects across the Middle East, including The Beach at Jumeirah Beach Residence, Citywalk Dubai and The Galleria at Sowwah Square in Abu Dhabi. He has also worked on projects in Oman and Egypt.

As an architect, Priest has extensive design experience working across a range of sectors, including retail, residentiaL mixed-use, commercial and hospitality. He joined the design firm Benoy in 2007 and was based on-site to deliver the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the world's first Ferrari theme park.

Priest talks about industry trends, regional growth and Benoy's work on The Galleria in Abu Dhabi, which was recently named the 2014 Best International Retail and Leisure Destination at the Global Retail and Leisure International Awards.

• Tell us about your work on The Galleria, particularly its design.

The Galleria on Al Maryah Island is one of Benoy's award-winning projects, having scooped the Middle East Architect Award and the Hospitality and Leisure Project of the Year 2013 at the Middle East Architect Awards. More recently, it won the Best Retail and Leisure Destination Award 2014 at the Global Retail and Leisure International Awards.

The project's brief required a contemporary and relaxed consumer experience set in the opulent Sowwah Square. Inspiration for the design emanated from the exclusive and unique brands that would occupy the space, enabling Benoy to deliver a sophisticated prime retail location.

The 33,000-sq-m luxury retail and dining destination boasts the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange situated above a 95m-diameter pool within the central area of the mall.

The retail podium is also connected to two new hotels located at the northwest and southwest comers of the site, with restaurants accessible from both the hotel and an extensive promenade walk lining the waterfront.

• In your seven years with Benoy, you have been through the height of the boom, the crash and the steady recovery. How has the Industry evolved through these years?

Benoy has been operating in the UK since 1947. Some 60 years and a few recessions later, a booming economy and growing tourist industry made the Middle East a natural choice for Benoy to set up office in 2007. The first project we delivered here was the now iconic leisure destination and the world's largest indoor theme park, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.

Since then, our ability to marry imagination with realism continues to underpin our work and has proven to be a winning formula around the world - not least here in the Middle East where the Benoy name has become synonymous with excellence in design.

We currently have a team of 20 based in the UAE, all of whom have experience across a wide range of sectors and services, including master planning, hospitality, retail and leisure.

Our work is becoming renowned for the essence of urban development and community lifestyle enhancement that we deliver, with notable projects in this domain, including The Beach, Citywalk Dubai, The Galleria and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.

• How are clients from the Middle East different from those in other parts of the world?

This region is a particularly unique design landscape and the UAE in particular is at the forefront of urban design creativity right now, with one of the most renowned cityscapes globally. While the economic climate around the world remains unpredictable, I can safely say that our business strategy remains one of growth for the UAE and for the wider Mena region.

Now, as the construction sector continues to grow, the industry is developing rapidly and there is heavy investment in the pipeline. We are constantly diversifying our offer and expanding our core business in new areas of architecture, design, master planning and retail consultancy, while we continue to create spaces where people can explore, relax, shop, dine and reflect.

• What are some of the key trends in the Industry?

There bas been a marked shift in the industry towards utilising sustainable materials and at Benoy we recognize that we have a responsibility to effectively contribute to social, economic and environmental sustainability.

We have, therefore, developed a policy to embed sustainable thinking within the culture of the firm and we work closely with our clients and providers of expert knowledge to deliver more sustainable design solutions, relevant to the unique social economic and environmental context of each project.

We believe that the region in general, and the UAE in particular, has taken momentous steps in moving to the forefront of urban design creativity, and market confidence has led to additional spend by developers who are prepared to invest more to create a unique and differentiating product.

In our experience, there has been a marked shift in the increase and upgrade of leisure and entertainment in retail, which reinforces our core belief that creativity and commercial viability are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are essential and complementary elements, which more and more need to be in the DNA of any destination.

We are starting to see the effects of this shift on the area efficiencies of destination environments. There has been a significant return in confidence in the market regionally, and the driving force at the heart of this has been retail.

• Tell us about your ongoing projects and the kind of work you are doing.

In addition to The Galleria, projects recently delivered in the UAE include Citywalk and The Beach in Dubai, all of which reinforce Benoy's reputation as one of the world's most successful commercial architectural practices.

The Beach opened this year and we have received very positive feedback about its practicality as a real desirable, mixed-use destination.

Across the Mena region, Benoy is also working on projects in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Egypt. Muscat Grand Mall will be a popular shopping centre in the heart of Muscat and is being extended to create a new lifestyle destination. The completed development will create a true destination popular with families, tourists and residents.

In Egypt, we are working on KM45 in New Cairo. The project represents a key master-planning project for Benoy, where the aim is to create a global mixed-use resort connected to Old Cairo through the planned Cairo Suez Metro line.

• What is your outlook for the Industry?

Looking ahead, it is clear that tourism growth will help drive development in the region. For our business, Benoy continues to expand its Middle East footprint to meet the architectural design needs of our discerning client base.

We are currently working with a number of prominent developers in the region on a diverse portfolio of projects, which are at various stages of the design and construction.

These projects include master plans of large-scale, mixed-use developments, urban retail schemes, hospitality developments and destination enhancements.

There has been a strong push for both the refurbishment and new design of community centres in the region and this has given us a great opportunity to push the architectural boundaries to create dynamic lifestyle destinations.

Source: Sanaya Pavri, Features Writer, Property Weekly


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