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HomeNewsboxAs Dubai’s Skyline Adds a Trophy, the Architect Calls It Stolen

As Dubai’s Skyline Adds a Trophy, the Architect Calls It Stolen

But the agent has his passport and has refused to refund his recruitment fee, he said. He has no money for a plane ticket.

“There is a huge dependence on migrant workers who have employment terms that are no different than indentured servitude,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group that has documented abuses of migrant workers in the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi. “This is a system that’s put in place to entrap workers.”

The view engineered by Mr. Donis, the architect, crops out such everyday tragedies, spotlighting a futuristic tangle of glass and steel.

Mr. Ramesh is beyond that frame.

“This is my destiny,” he said. “I’m stuck.”

A Landmark in Dispute

For Mr. Donis, Dubai was supposed to be the place for his solo debut.

For eight years, he labored alongside a glittering star, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Mr. Donis handled the design for the CCTV tower headquarters in Beijing, an oddly angular structure that has gained international acclaim. He designed a new airport for Jedda, Saudi Arabia, but it was never built. Ditto an office building in Dubai.

The competition, in 2008, beckoned as an invitation to create something prominent — “an iconic tall emblem structure that contributes to the new face of Dubai,” according to the rules. The municipality set a goal of attracting two million tourists a year to the site.

The contest was overseen by ThyssenKrupp Elevator, a German industrial giant. It was governed by the rules of the International Union of Architects, an organization affiliated with Unesco that lays down a code of conduct for professionals. Union-supervised competitions had produced designs for the Sydney Opera House in Australia and the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Mr. Donis, 44, had already spent enough time in Dubai to be struck by its audacity. “It’s incredible that a city can just be raised from scratch in such a short time,” he said.

Unlike neighboring Abu Dhabi, which is rich in oil, Dubai has little of that precious commodity. City leaders folded the proceeds from what oil they had into infrastructure, making Dubai a major shipbuilder and container port. Then, they turned it into one of the busiest air hubs on earth, a gateway connecting Asia to Europe and North America.

Successive waves of real estate development have constructed an empire of luxury high-rise apartments and resorts centered on hedonistic pursuits. Today, Dubai is a city where one can sit in a glass-fronted dining room atop a seven-star hotel and dine on truffles and caviar while gazing at beachfront villas set on an island shaped like a palm tree.

“I was very critical of the architecture,” Mr. Donis said. “I thought, you could propose something else, something more serious.”

He sketched a slender, unadorned frame, a concept he had written about at length in his graduate studies. City leaders declared him the winner. They flew him to Dubai and honored him with a celebration dinner at the Raffles Hotel. He presented his vision to the crown prince.

The contest rules endowed him with legal ownership of his idea: “The author of the preliminary design placed first will keep his copyright and his work may only be used by the Dubai Municipality when he has signed the corresponding contract.”

Yet almost as soon as contract negotiations commenced in June 2009, municipal officials signaled their intent to force Mr. Donis to transfer the copyright, according to hundreds of pages of correspondence reviewed by The Times.


Fernando Donis, the Mexican-born architect whose initial design inspired the Dubai Frame.

Ana Hop for The New York Times

They haggled over fees. The municipality threatened to give the job to a local firm, according to the documents reviewed by The Times. Mr. Donis repeatedly lowered his demands for compensation while holding fast to the one thing he valued most — his copyright.

But the municipality insisted on gaining the copyright, Mr. Donis said. It cited rules requiring that architects working in Dubai maintain a local registered office, meaning he could serve only as a consultant.

In May 2011, Mr. Donis received an alarming email from Roxy Binno, an expert in the urban design and planning department of the Dubai municipality. His copyright covered only the “conceptual design,” the letter declared, whereas the municipality “owns the project now,” ostensibly meaning it had the authority to proceed absent a contract.

Mr. Binno did not respond to repeated calls and emails posing questions.

Mr. Donis raised the specter of legal action. He sought aid from ThyssenKrupp. He wrote a complaint to the International Union of Architects, addressing his letter to the co-director of the union’s competition division, Tomaz Kancler.

In an email to The New York Times sent in response to questions, Mr. Kancler said he and the union confronted Dubai officials with concerns that Mr. Donis was being unfairly excluded.

“We realized the deviations from the rules,” Mr. Kancler wrote.

The pressure produced an invitation for Mr. Donis to visit Dubai. There, the architect recalled, municipal officials assured him that a contract would soon be readied enabling him to keep the copyright.

But when the proposed contract arrived, it offered only an advisory role. He had to hand over his copyright. He would be barred from promoting his work. The municipality could terminate the contract at any point.

“It’s like you have no contract,” Mr. Donis said.

He tried to negotiate further, but Dubai officials stopped responding. Construction began.

In October 2012, he received a letter from Ramón Sotomayor, chief executive at the time for southern Europe, Africa and the Middle East for ThyssenKrupp Elevator. The issue Mr. Donis had been complaining about amounted to “a commercial disagreement,” Mr. Sotomayor wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by The Times. “ThyssenKrupp does not have any possibility to interfere.”

Mr. Donis ultimately named ThyssenKrupp a co-defendant in his lawsuit. A ThyssenKrupp spokesman said the suit “has no basis at all,” because the company “had no role in the decision awarding the architecture contract for the Dubai Frame,” adding, “We will defend our position in court vigorously.”

Late in 2013, Mr. Donis was aghast to find photos on the web showing that the Frame had been transformed into a literal picture frame adorned with gold leaf — a departure from his stark, unornamented conception.

He wrote one last time to the Dubai director general: “If the images published indeed show what seems to be the updated building design, the Dubai Frame — and I say this with the highest respect — will be far from becoming a masterpiece.”

These days, Mr. Donis works in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, more than 4,000 miles away from Dubai. He catches glimpses of his creation via occasional news articles on the web.

“It looks fantastic over all,” he said. “But they stole it.”

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