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Twelve aready! Doesn’t time fly? etc.

Born rich and in the Middle East, it’s never really had much to do apart from indicate a destination. It’s easy to criticise and it’s easy to disapprove but it’s actually quite an amazing building. This gets forgotten. I’ve seen many articles about the building as a hotel – its rooms, its restaurants, about tennis on the heliport, about the interiors, and the price of a suite for the night. I’ve read accounts of the landfill, the wave attenuation, the structure, watched videos of its construction, electrics and a whole variety of technical feats and accomplishments. I’ve also absorbed a multitude of random yet interesting facts such as the fact that nothing inside it (such as elevators or bathroom fixtures) has any manufacturer’s branding. Whatsoever. All this and more I have read but I’ve never seen a single piece of writing that discusses it as architecture.  

I can think of two reasons straight away. The first is that the Bilbao Guggenheim was first thought of in 1991 and opened in 1997 whereas Burj Al Arab was conceived in 1993 and completed in 1999. Architecturally, it stole its thunder. 

The second is that containers for art are more likely contenders for architecture with a capital A than an expensive hotel. This is just how it is. I can’t think of any hotels that have made it into the history of modern architecture. They aren’t a new building type, but then – neither are art galleries. 

Another reason I just thought of was that it wasn’t designed by a starchitect. Unlike me, Tom Wright still works for WS Atkins, a firm more widely known for their engineering expertise than their buildings. This is perhaps significant. Back in the 1930s Marcel Duchamp taught the world that art is whatever people say it is

and, ever since then, artists have run with that. It’s only in the past 15 years that architects have cottoned on, but this is why every 3D doodle by architects who give good media, clogs the internet for a week whilst more worthwhile or even interesting buildings by anyone else go unnoticed. 

But back to my main thesis that, as architecture, Burj Al Arab is on par with the Bilbao Guggenheim and, I dare add, the Sydney Opera House as well. I use the word “iconic” here precisely. It’s true that the past two decades have seen many buildings that looked different from any other and that also seemed different from any other. They were unthinkable until somebody did it, truly unique and shocking, rather than just merely novel. Some of them perhaps also had a certain quality that made them seem appropriate for their locations. And some of those also had a certain quality that made them seem like they weren’t buildings at all. They made us question what a building could be. 

The word ‘iconic’ quickly came to refer to a kind of architectural fairydust that clients and cities around the world increasingly came to want. Now, looking back, we can see that all these such buildings ever did was press those four buttons simultaneously – or at least their shapes did.

  1. They looked different from anything around them,
  2. They seemed different from anything we’d ever seen, known, or imagined,
  3. They seemed to resonate or otherwise allude to something local, and
  4. They seemed to be something that wasn’t a building.

And that’s it. No mystery. No magic. Now you can make your own. Note that #2 is extremely hard to do. Fail that and you’re left with something that looks very very lame.

Burj Al Arab came to be known as an iconic building even though it was completed well before the word iconic found popular currency. No-one seems to have noticed how the positioning of Burj Al Arab satisfies those four criteria for an iconic building just as well, if not better, than its shape ever did. Putting it offshore like a cruise liner was the real creative genius. It means that Burj Al Arab isn’t associated with any land other than the conceptually insignificant dot it rests on. Seen against sea and sky, it could be anywhere along Dubai’s coast – or anywhere else’s – and to much the same effect. This sense of not being tied to any one place or location is something we don’t associate with buildings. This unique quality would of course vanish if Burj Al Arab could actually move for it would then actually be a cruise liner and no longer suggest it is one. 

But the fact it is parked offshore from a place called Dubai is significant because one thing we know about cruise liners is that they tend to call at places worth visiting – destinations. This simple chain of association is what ‘put Dubai on the map’ and why Burj Al Arab has been such a successful advertisement. Although it’s not a specifically architectural point, but luxury cruise liners parked offshore also tell us that access to them is restricted to those with money and privilege. This chimes with our knowledge that Burj Al Arab is, after all, a luxury hotel. Clever.

But – and this is the serious bit – as architecture, set as it is against sea and sky, Burj Al Arab embodies the Modernist contrast of the artificial object juxtaposed against nature – the one Le Corbusier made so much of in Vers Une Architecture and used an ocean liner to illustrate. This is a very elemental opposition for a building to have and suggests that being artificial is part of the essential nature of buildings. With Burj Al Arab, this elemental opposition combines with its positioning (plus the colour white) to link it not to Modernism but directly to the ocean liners that inspired it

For architectural historians, it’s a reminder that the inspiration for Modernism à la Corbù lay in engineering decked out as luxury. (I won’t mention the Villa Savoye in this post.)

Burj Al Arab is thus a proto-Modern building, an architectural throwback representing a path architecture could have taken, but didn’t. It’s a reminder that, stripped of all the trappings of luxury and aspiration, transatlanatic liners and buildings exist to make people safe and comfortable when it’s inhospitable outside. It’s an inconvenient truth, but probably the main reason for its continuing exclusion from the official history of modern architecture.



  • the wonderful world of iconic ism
    fits is so well with the notion of starch itect
    elsewhere, there are some who are bemoaning the loss of the architectural critic. ( ) particularly the critic who was able to see through and swat a way the fairy dust.
    I would submit that that time has well gone from mainstream press.
    the value of an instantly identifiable image that represents a place is the branding blokes wet dream. but there are so many of them. comparing them architecturally seems a little pointless. a tripartite discussion of the colosseum, empire state building and sydney opera house (bridge is excluded because it is a literal copy) might be be grounds for a PhD, but as to advancing architecture, doubtful.
    every city, current fashion seems to dictate, needs to have a starch itect sprinkle dust. the press, architecture and general, loves it.
    more interesting however is when you line up all the buildings by an anointed starch itect. what do you get? surprise surprise, they are all recognisable. but then, maybe they are all the same.
    a new meaning for iconic?

    great review. great comments. great comments.