The world's tallest building recently made its movie debut in Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and the Burj Khalifa Tower's gorgeous parks soaked up the spotlight as Tom Cruise ascended the structure. The landscaping surrounding the incredibly tall building was carefully designed to merge the structure with the ground level while providing space for visitors to enjoy. John Wong, Managing Principal at SWA Group was responsible for the park's Islamic-inspired design, and we were lucky enough to get ahold of him and glean some insight on what it's like to design the groundscape for the world's tallest skyscraper.
The Burj Khalifa Tower Park is an amazing 11-hectare green oasis filled with native and drought tolerant plants and a geometric hardscape with enough pathways and trails to get lost in. The park has the incredible job of connecting the heavens with the earth by scaling down the size of the building to match the surrounding street scape and make it more human-sized. Featured in the park are a lake-edge promenade, a functional island, a leisure forest grove, outdoor dining areas, a children’s play space, reflecting pools, six major water features and promenades that connect to the rest of the city. Palm-lined greenways provide shaded spaces to walk and relax.
Wong took inspiration from native plants, traditional Islamic patterns and especially the hymenocallis, or spider lily, which is seen through an iterative pattern of banding including concentric and radiating arcs and criss-crossing lines. Railings, benches and signs continue with this imagery. Irrigation for this spectacular landscape is sourced via a synergistic relationship with the tower itself. The Burj’s chilled water cooling system produces significant amounts of condensation, which is saved and used to irrigate the park. In fact, SWA’s design allowed the 15 million annual gallons of condensed water to be collected, drained, and pumped into the site irrigation system for use on the tower’s landscape plantings.
This complicated and intense design project required coordination with the architects and engineers on the part of the landscape architects. John Wong, who led the project’s design, took the time to answer a few of our questions about the creation of the park. Read on to see what he said.
INHABITAT: The Burj Khalifia obviously is one of the most famous buildings in the world right now – how do you go about designing and building a landscape to complement something so tall?
John Wong: The groundplane/landscape design for complicated and iconic buildings usually requires a thorough understanding of the various functions and requirements of the inherent mix-use nature of the project. There will be multiple entries and dropoffs, service access, physical connections, front door/backdoor, public and private sides and so on. Each of these requirements and conditions have to be carefully designed and accommodated in order for the project to function seamlessly and orderly. Then there is the aesthetic and artistic design side which requires the understanding of the local culture, context, sustainability and environmental concerns. Addressing the combination of all these concerns through form and expression creates the unique setting in which these iconic projects can become part of the surrounding urban fabric.
To complement a tall building, the design of the landscape usually will encounter additional technical hurdles in creating the base and setting for these structure. The issue of strong wind and turbulence is a major design challenge. Putting softscape and hardscape on top of structure will require a design integration of the ground surface and the layer beneath that’s above the roof of the structure in a most cost effective, workable and uncomplicated way. These projects will typically be designed like a roof garden because of the inherent large program of uses. The mixed circulation requirements for pedestrian, vehicle, and service uses have to be carefully laid out and accommodated to make the project works both within and to its adjoining neighbors. And finally, creating a setting that is human scaled, friendly, inviting and sustainable is a must for these tall and iconic projects.
INHABITAT: Goal-wise, what did you set out to accomplish from the beginning and how did you achieve it?
John Wong: The goal was to create a ‘green’ and engaging footprint that would complement the nature of this one of a kind structure. The design emphasized raising the aesthetic, functional and social value of public space associated with an iconic structure in the gulf region. The 11-hectare green oasis including plazas, native gardens, pools and promenades creates a human-scale setting and framework for the tallest tower in the world. The selected use of indigenous plant materials with a complex pattern of ground plane design weaves the site together to express the beautiful patterning that one finds in Islamic art culture and patterning of the region. The project aims to improve the micro-climate condition of the place from a hot and harsh environment of the region to a livable and culturally aligned landscape with the use of native and indigenous plantings and the sustainable use of water for cooling and comfort.
INHABITAT: What were the challenges of this particular project?
John Wong: There were a number of challenges to address:
– Designing for a pedestrian friendly public space to a world-class destination;
– Complicated structure with highly programmed uses to accommodate;
– Time in that the design was developed while the structure was under construction; it went from Schematic Design to Construction Documents, all in 6 months;
– A fixed, already-set project budget to meet;
– Long list of coordination items with long list of consultants and contractors/subcontractors;
– Fixed design conditions – parking structures under construction while the surface is being designed; structure has limitation on load carrying on soil depth and weight of trees and proposed surface ground structure; fixed exiting stairways, intake and exhaust vents; fixed structural beams and girders to design around;
– Over 50% of the site design work is built on top of the building base structure – essentially the Tower Park is a garden park on top of the building roof; much of the area has limited soil depth; complicated coordination of surface drainage with the roof structure and with existing drainage and utilities;
– Wind and pockets of unusual turbulence at the ground to overcome and mitigate;
– Local and regional climate that has high scorching heat and extreme temperature(105 to 115 F degree/40 to 46 C), sun, muggy conditions and sand in the air; outside air exceeds human comfort much of the time; high glare from sun and reflection;
– Connectivity to the high-traffic of adjacent use and from the urban center;
– Environmental sustainability – water is scarce and precious; designing a state of the art irrigation system; select indigenous and low water/drought tolerant plant materials; using the recycling water from the tower’s cooling equipment for the irrigation of the landscape; reduce the heat island effects on the ground for natural air cooling with the extensive ground coverage of softscape and planting of an extensive tree canopy to create shade and mitigate glare.
– Limitation and available materials for the hardscape – local vs outsource, cost and fabrication; lack of craftsman and knowledgable builders of complicated design; using mock-up and full time field representative as a way to control quality of construction; design details to enable local craftsmen to undertake it.
INHABITAT: What kind of research did your team have to do in order to design this intricate landscape?
John Wong: We put all the best knowledge of design and construction that the firm had accumulated over its 50 years along with the best and talented individual of the company to contribute to the project in design and technical provision. We spent many days in separate trips in researching plant materials by visiting local and regional nurseries; seeing nearby projects to develop plant a palette that works in this extreme climate; visiting stone sources and fabricators to review and select stone and research materials that can sustain the weathering and the wear and tear of the region, and discuss and learn from the local contractors and subcontractors in understanding how things get built in the region.
INHABITAT: What are you most proud of in the project and conversely, what did you learn that you can apply to future work?
John Wong: We are most proud that Burj Khalifa is globally celebrated and locally used. The tallest structure is not only being admired for the grandeur, the beauty, the extraordinary feat in engineering but also for the ground level success that integrates this tall structure with the community and its surrounding neighborhoods. The movie MI-Ghost Protocol is showing ground-level integration to the world.
I’m currently working on new projects that are also supertall like Burj Khalifa and I find the knowledge that I’ve learned on this project definitely applies to our process and approach. Having said that, it is not a formulated approach and the ‘Big Ideas’ for each of these upcoming projects still require fresh thinking. It’s exciting to bring synthesis of each building’s unique circumstances into the form and vision for its artistic environmental setting.
Images ©SWA Group, except lead image provided courtesy of MI-Ghost Protocol