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The Podium Building

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At a Dubai design fair several years ago now, I attended a presentation by the then CEO of EMAAR, a large property development company in Dubai. EMAAR is responsible for Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa and pretty much everything in the vicinity including a road known here as The [Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid] Boulevard encircling much of it.

The panorama below was taken from the top of the tall beige building in the top left corner of the photo above. The tall building to the left in the panorama is at the 12 o’clock position in the aerial. Burj Khalifa, uncharacteristically inconspicuous, is the one casting the big shadow. In the panorama, the build-up of towers in the distance to the left, is at the 3 o’clock position in the above photo that shows how Dubai Mall links both ends of The Boulevard to make full-circle. The thinking’s sound.

The CEO went on to say how EMAAR wanted this street to be one of the world’s great thoroughfares and, to that end, they had dispatched a team of researchers to visit the great streets of the world to find out what makes them great. Nice work if you can get it, I thought as I imagined myself in Fifth Avenue with a clipboard, on the Champs Élysées dictating notes, and on Ginza measuring sidewalk widths and traffic. If at the time I’d known of Munich’s Neuhauser Straße and Vienna’s Kärtner Straße I’d have added them to my fantasy list.

The fortunes of these streets rise and fall. Times Square has had its tacky years. Champs Élysées hasn’t always lived up to its reputation and for a quarter of the year Kärtner Straße has more tourists than residents but, by and large, these streets survive as examples of urbanism done right. It’s not something designed-in as there’s an historic element and a symbolic component. They’re places we gravitate to when we want to celebrate or grieve or air grievances with others.

It’s possible to design multi-purpose urban event spaces but they lack this. To the south-west of the fountains at Dubai Mall is a grassed space that’s monetized in several different ways each year. On New Year’s Eve it offers prime views of the Burj Khalifa fireworks but, while these mass gatherings are fun in their own way, they’re not spontaneous public outpourings of emotion. More common and more natural is the simple and more daily pleasure of sitting down and eating and drinking and watching others pass by and go on about their business. It must be one of the universal human pleasures and every country has its own version. The words diversity and vitality are usually used to describe places where this happens. Anyway, it’s been several years since that design fair and the results of the research team’s conclusions are now there for all to see. Here’s what I think those conclusions were.

1) Increase the density

There are at least forty 40–50 storey residential towers completed or being completed along this 3.5-kilometer curve of road.

One newly opened grocery store and the promise of another suggests that not all these apartments will be short-term lets, and points to the beginnings of functioning neighbourhoods. Increasing the density has been taken care of.

2) Streetside retail

Getting people onto the streets and having them walk along them for pleasure is still a novelty here. The public transport system doesn’t cover enough of the city to make walking to public transport a daily option for many. Attractors are necessary and so the greater proportion of the ground floor retail along The Boulevard is cafés and restaurants. This next photograph was taken during lockdown but you get the idea. Restaurants such as these are normally crowded well into the night. People here eat late.

3) More streetside retail

This is another way of saying monetize as much of it as possible and it’s generally been for the better. In front of this town “wall” was a dead piece of land that wasn’t paying its way and so this Starbucks store and a couple of others were built on it. Podium as walled city wasn’t such a great design idea – at least not in this day and age.

In these next photos, the low-rise apartment buildings are part of the residential sector known as Old Town, but the kiosks came later to distract pedestrians and reduce the amount of blank wall at eye level, although the bougainvillea is nice.

This process of addition and intensification is an ongoing one that on the whole works. These new kiosks weren’t part of the original design and so replicate in compressed time the ad-hoc and accumulative nature of city-building.

Normal mall principles operate within the area bounded by The Boulevard. The many extensions and infill buildings suggest someone was tasked with identifying any underperforming area and monetizing it. Many of these spaces are restaurants and cafés but artwork and selfie opportunities create traffic for diners to observe people between fountain shows.

The Botero horse I quite liked has been replaced by Richard Hudson’s Love Me.

20/05/2020: Only this morning did I discover it had been relocated.

4) Encourage people to walk by adding some art and things for people to see

This isn’t something the team brought back from Paris but New York has many examples of corporate art of which Alexander Calder’s stabiles are most decent. Over the years The Boulevard has seen much art come or go or move around. Most isn’t big-ticket items but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Louise Bourgeois’ Maman appear one day. I sense a policy and that it’s somebody’s job to curate the art offerings.

Part of that policy seems to be to keep changing it around to see what works. Much is brightly coloured as if to appeal to children and that’s not a bad thing. Much also seems to have a strange sense of whimsy but that might just be me.

7) Provide parking

This contradicts the previous point about encouraging people to walk. The ATM/florist/ice-cream kiosks could have come from Paris but the under-boulevard parking definitely so.

There can’t be 11,000 cars under here for two double-loaded roads would require at least 7 kilometers of road and The Boulevard is only 3.5 kilometers long. There is a second level, so the first digit probably refers to the level, and the others the car parking space number. The numbered columns will make life easier for the valet car parkers.

There’s at least 2,000 car parking spaces down there and many will be reserved for valet parking for streetside restaurants. Thus there is the contradiction of providing parking to encourage walking but persons intending to eat would drive to the establishment they’ll either begin or end with and have their car parked there. After their meal, they may wander up or down the street to somewhere else for coffee and a shisha before returning to collect their car. Valet car parking is a necessary service but not everybody will or wants to eat out every night.

The Podium Building

The podium building isn’t some new typology. A typical podium building along Sheikh Zayed Road or in Business Bay will have ground level retail but the tower will be either residential only or commercial only, and the car parking podium is usually clad with some kind of screen of decorative intent. In Business Bay there was an attempt to unify them by regulating setback and height.

Executive Towers was completed in 2009 and the earlier Jumeirah Beach Residences (JBR) was completed in 2010. Both are residential tower developments on two-story podiums with street retail covering ground level parking and mechanical space above. JBR‘s podium is unique by being publicly accessible from the street.

That of Executive Towers is private, but unusual with perimeter “villa apartments” opening directly and very openly onto it.

Each has different boundary conditions. JBR‘s podium has all its retail activity on the Promenade side across from the beach whereas Executive Tower’s podium has retail buffers fronting customer car parking. This accounts for the slightly suburban feel on one side.

5) Keep it low-rise and residential along the street

This is something most likely learned from Paris, one of the densest low-rise cities in the world. Typical mixed-use towers in Dubai have ground floor retail, the first twenty or so floors office space, and everything above that residential but the problem with the office space is that the lights go off at night. Residential buildings don’t necessarily need balconies to communicate activity for, at night, the pattern of illumination indicates the presence of people behind even curtain walls. This next early example has all the characteristics of The Podium Building.

  • low-rise along street
  • street-level retail at front
  • deck car parking behind (with ventilation openings)
  • podium residential [living facade? active band?] above street retail
  • residential tower set back from street
  • residential amenity on top of the podium, typically with swimming pool and changing rooms, children’s pool, landscaped pool deck, gymnasium and barbecue area.

I include this next example because I could find plans and a key plan. Larger apartments are in the towers while the podium apartments are mostly single-aspect studio and 1-bed apartments.

The podium’s living facade is no surprise. Fire escape stairs at each end of a single-loaded corridor, with the two vertical access corridors linking to tower elevator lobbies piercing the car parking.

Another development had this plan that shows how podium residential, parking and tower core coexist, if not exactly relate. Podium apartment dwellers don’t need elevators to access their cars.

These next two podium developments interrupt the podium so the towers front the street but are set back from it. Visually, it’s a welcome variation and also creates a little area of street space only residents use.

The development on the left above has apartments on both sides of its podium. The site has a front-to-back level difference and although ground level at the back was never going to have retail it can still have apartments. The key plan shows the podium’s topmost surface is visual amenity space akin to a courtyard and that that functional amenity space is above the perimeter apartments.

The key plan shows that the front corridor is long because the central tower doesn’t connect to it for, if it connected both from and rear corridors, it would split the car park in two.

The amenity space is also unusual in having palm trees in the podium landscaping as the default is usually frangipani and poinciana trees, probably because they’re more decorative but I also suspect because they have root systems more tolerant of shallow soil depth. Palm trees are top heavy and have shallow root systems – not a good combination on a podium.

Adjacent to the above example is this podium that dispenses with apartments at the rear.

On the The Boulevard side, the podium is treated as an extension of the towers, with street level retail and first floor level a retail arcade directly linked to Dubai Mall Metro by a bridge and elevated walkway. It’s a better way to get from station to Boulevard.

If you put it all together this is what you get. It’s a typology I’ve not seen anywhere else. New York’s Lever House has a podium intended to create a more human scale along Park Avenue. Hong Kong has its residential towers on podiums filled with shopping malls. These are car parks with, on top, amenity spaces servicing the towers and, facing the street, an active facade of shops and apartments. The Boulevard may not have the aura of Les Champs Elysées or Ginza but it’s pleasant to walk along or sit alongside and is probably all it can be for now. [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to HONG KONG]

At the rear, the podium building reverts to type with the usual decorative cladding. It’s a shame there aren’t more apartments on this side as these back streets also have supermarkets and small stores and are perfectly decent environments with a relative quiet and lack of pretense. Any apartments would need separate access to avoid splitting the car park. The potential of these secondary streets is undervalued, not in the economic sense but that somewhere is not as nice as it could be.

Further around The Boulevard is this podium development that contains an extension to Dubai Mall, about twelve levels of car parking and apartment towers on top. At this end of The Boulevard pedestrians are invited off the street and into Dubai Mall.

I’ve mentioned before how this podium car park features a strip of perimeter apartments monetizing a view corridor to Burj Khalifa.

The podium building is a terminal typology in that there’s nothing left for it to do. Its columns and slabs can be whatever they need to be wherever they need to be. It’s probably only possible to evolve a typology like this in a place like Dubai where a single contractor can masterplan an entire area from scratch.

Like most things, the podium building is a logical consequence of its premises and there’s still an element of if you build it they will come. Given more time, I expect to see more people will live in podium buildings around The Boulevard not because they want to live there because of some restaurants and palm trees wrapped in fairy lights, but because it’s convenient, it sustains them and they can afford it. Then it will stop being a representation of a place and begin to function as a proper one. For now, the ingredients are there and mixed together and all that’s needed is to leave it and let it cook, adjusting the seasoning occasionally.



  • says:

    Very interesting, great photos an illustration, thank you. I’ll go back and read it in more depth later, but it seems that, even if folks have never even heard of Jane Jacobs, the intelligent, observant ones get it- mixed uses and scales (and preferably styles but you can’t have everything), pedestrian traffic, both local and visitors, make for a vibrant neighborhood. I’ve been to NYC, San Francisco, Paris, London, Vienna, Madrid, Lucerne, etc. but never the Middle East or Far East and likely never will so I appreciate your insights on those.