To celebrate the 10th birthday of Dubai’s quintessential icon, the Burj al Arab hotel, we present an interview with architect Carlos Ott from the archives of Al Manakh 1.
‘What’s good for the merchant is good for Dubai.’
– Dubai’s motto, the late Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum
The Gulf’s motives are simple, and you could say that simple is fair. A region of transparent ends, it harbors no hesitation to expand on vision and strategy. The Gulf makes for exciting work, but it also demands a broad acceptance of risk. Clarity of ends does not entail the clarity of means.
The Gulf has time to hear your ideas, but not to tolerate your bitterness. In August, 2006, AMO spoke with the optimist and Uruguayan architect Carlos A. Ott about his extensive experience in the Gulf. Ott demonstrates an architect’s adept ability to relativize loss and to accept that a region’s accelerated development cannot compensate for the bruised egos of architects.
During the 200th anniversary celebrations for Bastille Day, the UAE’s cultural diplomat Sheikh Nahyan attended the opening of the Bastille Opera House in Paris. I had designed the building. He invited me to come to Abu Dhabi to learn about some projects. I would eventually design the National Bank of Abu Dhabi.
The Gulf is very open to foreign architects, and their leaders are the architect’s true clients. Sheikh Nahyan was a very powerful person. I told him the building should avoid the usual Arabic pastiche style. Convincing Nahyan was the way toward breaking that pattern. Because he backed the design, it was built.
The Gulf wants more from architects than you might think. Our second competition was National Bank of Dubai. They rejected all the submissions. I said, ‘Give me 30 days, and I will show you something you will like.’ They agreed. This was at the same time as the first Gulf War. There were no flights over the Arabian peninsula, so I had to fl y via Pakistan… getting models through x-rays was nearly impossible. They liked it and it was built.
The bank’s chairman was an old gentleman, Ali Al Owais. He was 85 years old and the richest man in Dubai. He had a run-down office in the middle of Deira. I wanted to talk about a building, and he about poetry – Arabic and Spanish. The influence of Arabic on the Spanish language and vice versa. I would sit down for hours, drinking tea, eating dates, talking about Andalucía and the importance of the Alhambra. I could not imagine sitting like that with Mr. Rockefeller.
The Middle East turns on the opinions of strong rulers. Their opinions make cities. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has single-handedly made Dubai into an international city. He made Dubai in ten years.
These leaders know a horizon, a goal – whether or not you agree with them – that of creating an important city, an important country. They are today’s Haussmann. You may not agree that Haussmann was right in rebuilding Paris. But they’ve all done it. Dubai has lost some things … perhaps its original quaintness. But the grand, tall buildings along Sheikh Zayed Road, the new airport, the new metro, the islands, etc. – they’re creating an image the world can’t ignore.
The UAE was dead, after the first Gulf War. We were competing with a sea of local firms for few projects.
My most horrible experience as an architect. I was once asked to make a conceptual design for an iconic hotel on Dubai’s coast. I locked myself in my hotel for two weeks. I came up with a proposal for the Burj Al Arab… identical to the building that stands today.
I had done the sketches in pencil. Quick drawings without my name on them. I submitted them to a satisfied client. We would see each other in a month’s time. One month later I learned my contact had been fired and the project halted. Three years later, I saw the building being built.
It was my fault. I had not included my name on the drawings. Sketches with Prisma colors on blue Canson paper. Since they didn’t know whose drawings they were, someone else was asked to build it, and they did. My fault.
My building was identical to Burj Al Arab, but a bit taller. Main concepts – building in the water, a sail motif, a restaurant with an aquarium – were my ideas. You can see on my website a building I did at the same time. The two share the same concept.
It was the first idea for a building in the water. You can see Dubai’s future development took this idea further.
The experience spoiled my relationship with myself, not with Dubai. I was a typical idiotic architect. I could not blame anybody but myself. When I drive by and look at the building, I say, ‘Oh, what an idiot I was.’
It looks a bit like a roach from the back. The building that we did in Montevideo is much cleaner and taller. And those diagonal elements on the façade were not my idea. But anyway…
But I have many buildings built in the region. Some are in planning now. I know many of these emirates and their leaders. They are all amazing in their own ways.
If you start with a tabula rasa, then everything is questionable. Dubai’s vision is now mostly in the ground. Not so for other Gulf cities. They will want to define themselves against Dubai’s mistakes. In Dubai, we made mistakes because it was new.
Remember. St. Petersburg was built overnight. Florence during a time of Tuscan prosperity. Same with Haussmann’s Paris. Wealth comes in short-lived spurts and needs to be taken advantage of when it is there. Obviously, many mistakes are being made. Errarum humanum est.