Building the Burj Al-Arab – a personal recollection

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Simon Crispe of Atkins remembers the start of the architectural transformation of Dubai

I can still clearly remember arriving in Dubai for the first time back in 1993 for the project which would become known as the Burj Al Arab. As we crossed the Maktoum Bridge we saw a colossal tower appearing over the horizon – the World Trade Center, which had been the region’s tallest building since 1977.

My awe at this sight was mixed with a feeling of excitement and trepidation that we were about to set to work on a project which at 321m-tall was going to dwarf it.

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Over the years since this extraordinary project came into my life, amazing opportunities have come along for Atkins to design incredible projects that have helped to shape and improve the new cities of the Middle East. Many of these achievements have been created or delivered by some of the 250 Atkins people who lived and breathed the Jumeirah Beach Resort, Wild Wadi and Burj al Arab from 1993 to 1999.

It still amazes me how one major project had the power to change a business by changing the people within it – to  grow our belief that “we really can do this”, and to achieve it. This is what happened and many of our colleagues from that project have gone on to do other fantastic things in their careers; I think empowered and inspired by that single seminal project, infused with the confidence that with a truly shared goal in a project or in a business, we can succeed.

At the start we had a small, but talented and motivated team – and with an average age of 36 there was barely a grey hair between us. That’s not to ignore the value of experience (21 years later I’m quite a fan of grey hair!) but the youthful energy and never-say-die spirit that we created from the beginning was very special.

It’s difficult, looking back, to really convey the sleepy hollow that Dubai was in the mid-90s; a far cry from the sophisticated international city we see today. Barely a sealed road, the obligatory 4×4 for the school run and hardly any traffic on the few roads there were and of course, barely a building above 10 storeys.  Moving here for the life of the project felt like an incredibly big step – not just for the project team but also for our very young families.

Working a six-day 80 hour week was the norm, and while we certainly experienced our fair share of stress and anxiety throughout the project, my abiding memory is of the team’s camaraderie and humour – and the knowledge that we were working on something very special; in fact it was unique (and I don’t use that word lightly). The technical and logistical challenges in the design and construction of this building were huge and Burj Al Arab was a life changing project for most of us. It was the type of project and experience which comes along only once or twice in a career… if you’re lucky.

The need for a truly shared goal and self belief are two  very important lessons we learned and still remember two decades later. My message to our new and emerging colleagues, our bright young graduates and our fellow design and construction professionals is that this is now your time to make a sustainable difference to our built environment – you have the world at your feet, so make the most of it.

 

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