In 1993, the resort company Jumeirah International delivered its vision to Burj Al Arab architect Tom Wright. Jumeirah wanted something iconic -- a building that could stand among the world's great landmarks. Price was not a factor. As Wright and his firm, W.S. Atkins & Partners, started planning, they used a "Pictionary test." Could a person recognize the Burj from a 30-second sketch? In a spectacularly creative nod to Dubai's fishing past, the architects adopted the distinctive shape of an Arabian dhow, or yacht's sail.
Jumeirah also wanted its luxury hotel built off the coast so that it would stand apart from surrounding development. Jumeirah did not want the monolithic tower, just 197 feet shorter than the Empire State Building, to cast a shadow on its other beach resort. So, all parties agreed, the yacht hotel would fittingly rise out of the Persian Gulf, connected by a causeway that would be crossed only by the hotel's Rolls Royce fleet.
But reclaiming land from the ocean is extremely difficult. It took two years to create an island that sits on a foundation of sand held in place by friction. Workers drilled steel piles into the seabed to support the massive building and armored the island with precast concrete "shed" units -- specially designed hollow blocks made to minimize the force of waves. Workers then filled the structure with sand dredged from an offshore seabed. The island, however, is no simple sandcastle bolstered by concrete. It not only supports a 1,053-foot building but also three levels of basement carved out from the sea.
Even after the completion of a sandy island 919 feet out in the Gulf, architects and engineers still had to design a building that could withstand strong gulf winds, seismic tremors and a corrosive atmosphere. The Burj consists of a steel exoskeleton, highly reflective glass, a mast and the defining fabric sail. The exoskeleton bows out in a V-shape, framing the contour of the sail. Two layers of Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric stretch over pre-tensioned arches and connect to girders on two floors. During the day, the fabric softens the light that filters into the atrium. At night, the scrim serves as a projection screen for a colorful light show. The mast, which is not part of the exoskeleton, rises 197 feet above the top of the building.
Two structures jut out past the straight line of the mast and curved sail. The Sky View Restaurant perches on the side of the mast, 656 feet above the ocean. On the other side of the building, a circular helipad seemingly hovers in front of the sail.
But much of the magic of the Burj Al Arab magic happens inside the hotel. In the next section, we'll learn about the atrium, the suites, the service and the gold.