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Future Past: The Architecture of the United Arab Emirates

Remember those future cities that we were promised? Well, the UAE's architecture almost meets those expectations.

Remember those future cities that we were promised? Well, the UAE's architecture almost meets those expectations.

When you first glimpse Dubai’s skyline, you might think you’re looking at George Jetson’s Orbit City (without the flying cars, of course). Indeed, from the outside, it looks like a city of the future they promised us back during the Space Age. What’s more, it’s hard to believe that these UAE skylines didn’t even exist when the Jetson’s first aired in 1962. It wasn’t until nine years later in 1971 that these single sheikdoms would come together to form today’s the United Arab Emirates.

In fact, a closer look reveals that architecture in UAE cities blends their Islamic past with an eye on the future. That is, when it comes to UAE architecture, history is reflected in a city’s design as much as the future.

So with that, here’s a list of the architecture of the United Arab Emirates we find most awe-inspiring.


THE BURJ KHALIFA

The Burj Khalifa was designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill which has also designed other tall buildings around the world. These include Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and New York’s One World Trade Center. Thus, it just seemed natural that they’d design the world’s tallest building – Dubai’s Burj Khalifa – at 2717 ft. (828 m).

While designing the world’s tallest building, the firm took inspiration from the spiral patterns found in Islamic art and architecture. The 163-floor building has all the amenities a traveler wants, most of which have set records for the “world’s highest”. For example, there’s the world’s highest swimming pool (76th floor). However, there are also the world’s highest nightclub (144th floor) and the world’s highest mosque (158th floor).

Still, getting high might sound fun, but for Muslims, it came with its own unique problem. You see, for those living on higher floors, the sun actually sets later than it does at ground level. This means those living above the 80th floor have to wait a couple of minutes longer to break their Ramadan fast. Above the 150th floor, they have to wait three minutes more.


THE BURJ AL ARAB

When one thinks of the Dubai architecture style, no doubt the first building they think of is the Burj Al Arab. At 1,053 ft. (321 m) tall, it’s surely not the tallest building in the world, and it only comes in 7th for the world’s tallest hotels. However, its unique shape – that of the sail of an Arabian dhow ship – is what has made it so iconic. (Well, that and the world’s highest tennis court at about 690 ft.)

Despite its shape, however, it’s also known for its feats of engineering.  You see, the Burj Al Arab was built on an artificial island and stands about 920 ft (280 m) from the nearest beach. Guests (and employees) get to the hotel by means of a private bridge.

Burj Al Arab has become famous for being the only seven-star in the world. However, that may just be marketing hype, since hotel-rating systems top out at five stars. Still, with its underwater restaurant and a nightly light show, we’re willing to give it a couple of extra stars anyways.


SHEIKH ZAYED GRAND MOSQUE

One thing’s for sure – architecture in the UAE tends to take a “go big or go home” approach when it comes to design. Take, for instance, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It’s the third-largest mosque in the world (and one of the few in the region that allow non-Muslims to visit).

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is also a fine example of modern Islamic architecture in UAE cities. In fact, Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s first president, designed the mosque’s unique blend of Mamluk, Ottoman, Fatimid, and Moorish architectural styles.

And speaking of going big, check out the mosque’s11-tonne chandelier in the main prayer hall. It’s embedded with Swarovski crystals and galvanized gold. Then there’s the world’s largest carpet. Iranian cotton and New Zealand wool make up the 5700m2 carpet that 1200 craftsmen completed in just over two years.


THE EMIRATES PALACE

Some believe that Emirates Palace is where the UAE’s current president lives. However, it’s actually a resort where you’re the one treated like royalty.

The designers of the palace borrowed the aspects of Islamic architecture that stress balance. For instance, outside of the resort, you’ll find lush gardens that surround the property. At the same time, there’s a certain rhythm you’ll find in the palace’s many domes (114 to be exact). Even the building’s colors seemingly flow together in different shades like those found in the sands of Arabian deserts.

Over 1,000 crystal chandeliers hang from the domes lined with gold over beautiful marble floors. It really is no wonder that such an opulent setting has become the cultural center of the UAE. In fact, you’ll even find an art gallery on the premises as well as operas and orchestras regularly playing inside this luxurious resort.

And we cannot move on without speaking to the gourmand within you. For it’s here that you can indulge yourself in such epicurean treats as a cappuccino with real 24-carat gold-flake sprinkles. How’s that for a rich taste?


LOUVRE ABU DHABI

Why go to Paris to see great art when you’re already here in the UAE? Just head over to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Here, you’ll be just as impressed with the architecture as you’ll be with the art inside. Award-winning architect Jean Nouvel drew inspiration from various Islamic architectural styles to create “a floating dome of light and shade”. Indeed, the silvery dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi appears to be floating in sparkling water. At the same time, the geometrical shapes punched in the dome allow light to pass through, creating a “rain of light”.

Under the dome, the largest art museum in the Middle East is spread out across 24,000m2. Here you’ll find works of art that attempt to bridge the gap between cultures and people. Indeed, its exhibits range from artifacts created at the dawn of mankind to modern art. Still, all have the same goal: to present shared themes and common threads that bind mankind together.

Oh, and the coolest thing about the Louvre Abu Dhabi? You can actually kayak through the museum while learning more about its art and architecture.

Sadly, this ends our architecture in UAE examples for now. However, we’re sure you’ll find plenty of other architectural wonders while you explore the truly unique UAE.

Whether touring the Louvre Abu Dhabi or eating at Dubai’s underwater restaurant Al Mahara, you can speak Arabic with ease. The Kaleela Arabic Learning App teaches you Arabic anytime or anywhere and lets you learn at your own pace. It’s perfect for both those just starting out in Arabic or those that already have some Arabic under their belt. Give it a try today by downloading it from kaleela.com

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