At least 20 hours have passed so the entire architectural universe must now be familiar with this image.
It’s the new headquarters of the waste management company Bee’ah, based in Sharjah, UAE.
Although there’s a lot of sand around that way, it’s not exactly desert. The Bee’ah Waste Management Complex is on the same side of Al Dhaid Road as Emirates Industrial City. Across the road is land earmarked for the new Al Juwaiza’a suburban development that will be like the Al Suyoh Suburb just over the dune.
It was a lazy Friday morning so I drove over to take a look. Here’s the Bee’ah Waste Management Complex.
This is Al Suyoh Suburb.
The Bee’ah Waste Management Complex is 39km (24 miles) from Burj Khalifa and precisely downwind from Sharjah International Airport.
Here’s the yearly average wind direction and strength data for Sharjah International Airport.
This tells us that prevailing winds are west-north-west, with occasional squalls from due west and less occasionally from the east. Here’s the wind direction data for February.
It would therefore be incorrect for me to say that this building is not shaped in response to the wind for the wind is occasionally from the south. Even a stopped clock tells the correct time twice a day. However, I would be correct in saying the building is not shaped in response to the prevailing wind.
Some commenters have gone as far as to say (or repeat) that the building is shaped in response to the Shamal winds – which are indeed very squally. Trouble is, those winds characteristically come from the north or north-west. Not south. Any Iraqi knows that and any Arab knows that – probably because shamal is Arabic for “north”.
But all this misunderstanding could just be mindless repetition of a press release. Let’s try to get to the bottom of it.
designboom has the following sentence.
ArchDaily has this, noting that it’s “From the Architects:”
It didn’t take long to find the source, did it? Let’s just google “informed by its desert context as a series of intersecting dunes orientated to optimize the prevailing Shamal winds”
ADF Architects’ Data File note that the information was submitted by ZHA.
dezeen places it in quotation marks.
architect magazine at least rewrites it, even if it doesn’t make sense.
As we’ve seen, the words “surrounding desert context” and “oriented according to the prevailing Shamal wind direction” play fast and loose with the truth. “Conceptual driver” is a scary new concept. On the other hand, the phrase “settling upon the notion of …” seems to me to accurately describe the creative process at work here.
As well as the poor grammar and sentence structure, there’s also a logic error in the source PR release, if not the concept itself, or – God forbid! – its driver. How can two intersecting dunes both be oriented according to the same wind direction? Or to put it another way, aren’t adjacent dunes formed by the same wind? And even if they weren’t, wouldn’t they just combine rather than intersect? Life is short. Let’s talk about the renders.
- Natural light
A sensible relationship between light and shadow is the foundation of every Mir image. Architecture “becomes itself” when lit naturally.
- Unforced process
All our best work has started with the freedom to explore and invent. The industry standard of ordering specific viewpoints with mood references does not take into account the interdependence of lighting, composition and colour.
- Unstaged entourage
Staged and unnatural-looking people can reduce art to kitsch in an instant. We believe that entourage should be an integral and unimposing part of the story in the image.
- Natural setting
Nature provides a sense of time and place. Natural elements from the specific location sets the scene for the architecture.
– A rugged urban street in soft morning fog.
– Heatwaves from a scorching sun in the desert.
This is the first philosophy of visualisation I’ve come across and it seems good. The results are certainly amazing. What this philosophy doesn’t mention is also interesting. The only connection with reality is the logical relationship between the sun and the shadows it produces.
- Here’s the aerial render. We’re looking north-west with Emirates Industrial City immediately behind. Not. The angle and length of the palm-tree and vehicle shadows lower right imply sun from the south-west around November just before sunset. The north-west sky is thus unnaturally bright for that time of year. So much for philosophy.
- The sun it seems, much like the wind, can come from whatever direction makes for a nice image. One good thing about the Bee’ah design is that there’s no glazing to the south. In this next image, the sky’s concentric gradations imply the sun is just out of the frame. If you look due north from 25°17’41.18″N anywhere on the planet, you will not see the effect this image is hinting at.
- “Natural elements from the specific location set the scene for the architecture.” Okay. Here, the question is “how specific does specific have to be?” Yes, there is wind in the UAE and yes there is sand and yes there are palm trees. A scene is set but it’s total fiction.
- Those trees however, do look more like date palms than coconut palms so MIR have not made that all-too-common error. Unfortunately for the naturalistic approach to visualizations, there’s not a palm tree to be seen anywhere near the site. The water table in that area is too low to support trees as thirsty as date palms. There’s a reason they grow in oases such as Al Ain.
- Actual vegetation includes the ghaf tree (pictured below) and which is a truly remarkable tree. The ghaf tree has been mentioned in this blog before.
- There’s also rimth (Haloxylon salicornicum). The next image shows some rimth outside the waste management facility.
Both the ghaf tree and the rimth are extremely clever plants but not very attractive and so they don’t exist for visualisers and the internet. Besides, scene setting only works with what people think they know. Or want to think they know. Either way, it’s the raw material for scene setting inasmuch as it constructs the image of the building in the greenfields of our minds.
Here’s what I make of all this.
The proposal won a competition so on some level it must work. It’s not on the level of artistic concept for there’s nothing essentially artistic about two intersecting dunes. And it’s not on the level of a building responding to its environment for the building is depicted as responding to an environment that doesn’t exist. (Virtual passive design – hooray!)
It seems to work best on the level of iconography. The impression generated from a few misleading images and a few misleading thoughts put into our heads, is that a building has been shaped in response to its environment. This is true only for the dimension of iconography as perceived by the competition organisers, how they want to perceive themselves, how they want to perceive we perceive them, and how they want to perceive each other. Oddly, none of this is odd. We lived through the eighties. I never thought I’d say I long for the days when signifiers were enigmatic.
As a stab at bigging ZHA’s scientific cred, the press release claims the building will have zero net energy. ArchDaily parrots:
The building systems of the new Headquarters have been developed in conjunction with Atelier Ten to minimize both the energy required for cooling and the need for potable water consumption. In milder months, the façade is operable to allow natural ventilation – minimizing the need to provide cooling to the building.
“Operable facade elements that allow natural ventilation and minimise the need to provide cooling” eh? What strange new world is this? Soon we’ll be invited to marvel at glazed facade elements that allow sunlight to penetrate so we don’t need to turn the lights on. Has nobody yet invented an emoticon for despair?
In conclusion, this recent news snippet is just another example of the imagery production behemoth that is ZHA. It was distributed to media outlets worldwide and, within 18 hours, is now part of our common cultural heritage. This is not a story of lazy or ill-conceived concepts. It is not even a story of sloppy editing or poor PR management practices. Whatever was done was good enough to do the job it was meant to do. It wouldn’t have happened if it had been otherwise. We’ve yet to find out about the building.
• • •
This link will to take you to the Bee’ah company site where you’ll find information about all the good things they do, such as constructing a plasma-arc gasification plant that will generate 85MW from every 400,000 tonnes of waste. The website also has other images more descriptive of their new headquarters even though they don’t have the panache of MIR’s. It’s now clear that mother dune shades a drop-off area and that baby dunes shade plants and 16 parking spaces. It’s also clear how little building there actually is.
Personally, I think it’s a shame Bee’ah chose to give hackneyed imagery another life instead of giving us an example of how to make a building out of the recycled rubber tyres and the many other products they process.