Zaha Hadid’s first project in Dubai is a work of art to rival any of the renowned Iraqi-born architect’s award-winning structures, and will add something very different to the city’s burgeoning collection of prestige buildings.
In many ways, a visit to Dubai’s Business Bay feels like a trip back to the future – to a city that feels eerily familiar to anyone who can remember the giddy days before the financial crisis hit in 2008.
Outside, the air rings with the sound of continuous construction and the plots between Sheikh Zayed Road and the Burj Khalifa, long dormant, are now filled with a ballet of workers, lorries and cranes.
Inside the area’s new towers, many of which are topped with the names of their developer, elevators are filled with men dressed in similar fashion: no jackets and crisp, white shirts with collars that are always worn open.
Their shoes, fresh from site visits, are caked in a layer of fine white dust.
Close to the epicentre of this boomtown within a boomtown stands a futuristic building, a glass cube with a gigantic amorphous void at its centre, which manages to feel modest while entirely at home in a cityscape defined by gratuitous acts of architectural shape-making.
Now that it is nearing completion, The Opus – the latest development from Omniyat Properties – will be the first project from Zaha Hadid Architects to have been built in Dubai.
The company is responsible for the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi, the Olympic Aquatics Centre in London and the MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome.
Despite its appearance, The Opus consists of two glass towers linked by a four-storey podium at ground level, and at a height of 71 metres by an asymmetric steel and glass bridge.
Standing three storeys, 38 metres wide and weighing almost 1,000 tonnes, the bridge and the building’s eight-storey void are clad in 4,500 triple-glazed midnight blue panels.
But thanks to the undulating complexity of the design however, many of the panels are required to curve in two directions which means that every one is unique.
Made of glass from China and aluminium frames from Denmark, the largest panels weigh 800 kilograms each.
The Opus will have 56,000 square feet of office space, a rooftop bar, and a nightclub in its basement, 12 restaurants and ME Dubai, an oddity in the Dubai hospitality market in that it will be a five-star boutique hotel with only 93 guest rooms and 60 apartments.
The first ME by Melia hotels in the Middle East, ME Dubai will become part of an exclusive group of hotels belonging to the Spanish hospitality group that consists of outposts in London, Madrid, Mallorca, Milan, Miami, Ibiza, Cancun and Cabo San Lucas.
The hotel will feature a lobby and central atrium with mezzanines that will rise like the petals of a gigantic flower.
But at the moment the interior of The Opus remains a forest of scaffolding and the only guide to its eventual appearance are the renderings produced by the architects.
Despite the fact that the hotel is not due to open until summer next year, for one man the precise detail of every element of the hotel’s suites and facilities already feels like a reality.
“Being Zaha Hadid, everything is curved and sometimes the design supersedes the functionality so it’s my role to make sure we find the right balance,” says Stefan Viard, the new general manager of the ME Dubai.
“From an operations point of view we try to look at the common designs like the wardrobes and the bathrooms to make sure they are standardised as much as possible.
“Because of the shape of the building, we only have 93 rooms, but out of these there are 68 different types.”
When it is complete, The Opus will feature a dynamic, designed sculptural steel port-cochere and its landscape will include a bespoke asymmetric aluminium installation, Crest, which was developed by the architects for the hotel and originally displayed at the 2014 London Design Festival.
The building and the sculpture are the fruit of a long working relationship that developed between Omniyat’s executive chairman and founder Mahdi Amjad, a businessman of Iranian descent who was born in Iraq, and Zaha Hadid, the renowned British-Iraqi architect who died last year in Miami after a heart attack. She was 65.
In October last year, Mr Amjad established the Zaha Hadid/Omniyat Fellowship Fund, a fellowship at Harvard Graduate School of Design, in the architect’s honour and as a way of providing financial aid to architecture students from the Middle East.
“When I established Omniyat in 2005, I was motivated by my desire to develop uncompromising creative signature buildings and I was fortunate enough to have worked for 10 years with my dear friend and design mentor Dame Zaha Hadid on the creation of The Opus,” Mr Amjad says.
Hadid won countless awards for her contribution to architecture, including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 and the Riba Gold Medal last year, the first woman to do so.
For an architect who only completed her first building project at the age of 43 and who developed a reputation for producing visionary designs often thought to be unbuildable, Hadid enjoyed spectacular successes towards the end of her career.
In the past decade, her visionary designs for the Guangzhou Opera House in China, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in South Korea, and the Messner Mountain Museum in Corones, Italy, were fully realised.
First commissioned by Omniyat in 2008, the Dh2.5 billion Opus project was scheduled for completion at the end of 2009 but will now open as a very different mixed-use development.
“When I met Dame Zaha Hadid the objective was to create a piece of art in Dubai, and it was quite a tall order as we had really only been in business for two years,” Mr Amjad says.
“We had planned to give our smallest project to Zaha Hadid but it evolved in such a way that she ended up working on our largest, and since then it has been a remarkable journey.”
After the global financial crisis, Omniyat put the building on hold between 2009 and 2011 and took the opportunity to rethink the concept. Although its external envelope is unchanged, the building is the result of three years’ further design development.
“We converted a shell and core office building with some retail at the bottom into a lifestyle hotel that will be the first of its type in Dubai and something very unique, and that’s something we are very proud of.”
Despite the risks of delays or of blowing budgets, Mr Amjad insists that working with big-name architects is central to Omniyat’s business model, and he reveals that he will announce another major Dubai-based collaboration with London’s Foster + Partners this year.
“Working with these architects presents its own set of challenges,” the developer says, “but the results for the city, for the investors and for the shareholders are still far greater than the challenges, and I say that after having been involved in this project for the last 10 years.”