Hailed by National Geographic as one of the most beautiful museums in the World, an extraordinary gleaming torus sits gently on a mounded landscape, creating a startling intervention within urban downtown Dubai.

Both the building & landscape have set new benchmarks for innovation & resilient design. Beneath the surface of this simple concept lie complex technologies that have pushed the boundaries of technology and sustainable strategies.

The visionary concept closely integrated the landscape & architecture; most of the building, including the parking & infrastructure was to be concealed beneath a ‘green skin’. The eye-catching torus shape was to create an illusion of a sculptural building resting lightly on a planted mound. Given high regional temperatures, extreme topography & the structure’s relatively low loading capacity, the extent of the planting required presented formidable demands in terms of sustainability & water consumption.

The Museum was to be a high profile, iconic landmark, lying adjacent to the Sheikh Zayed Road, at the foot of the Emirates Towers. The dramatic siting presented complex design challenges; the area was criss-crossed by underground services & roads & restricted by the adjacent buildings, & there was a requirement to tie the building into overhead pedestrian walkways that would punch into the mound.

In line with the Museum’s ethos of being a place where ‘people can see, touch & shape our shared future’, the landscape was to present the latest innovation in green wall/steep slope technology. The design process was complex; the result looks simple, but there is a lot happening below ground. The exacting site restrictions meant the mound had to mould into a tight and complex urban space; collaborative design in such a setting required significant coordination between all consultants.

The steeper than 60º slopes required a new approach to suspend the soil ‘carpet’; at these angles soil weight no longer holds it in place. Green wall technology & recycled material geocell systems retain & stabilise the slopes alongside specialised in-line drip irrigation systems using grey/treated sewage water. These elements sit within an engineered ‘sandwich’ that drapes the mound in a xerotropic living carpet.

Complex modelling allowed minimisation of structural loads on the building by keeping soil layers thin & filling pockets of the concealed structure with lightweight expanded polystyrene (EPS) geofoam. In addition, cocopeat (bio-product) and lightweight perlite improved the soil’s water holding capacity and helped to create a lightweight planting medium.

The evolution of LEEDv3 Platinum compliant planting strategies was challenging but was exceeded. Plant selection with low water requirement was key, in addition to design of smart irrigation systems that automated water application based on data from soil moisture sensors & local weather stations. Concerns about rapid loss of irrigation water from root zone run-off on the steep slopes was counteracted with frequent ‘bursts’ of water minimising wastage & evaporation, whilst subsurface geocells allow excess irrigation/stormwater to be harvested & recycled on site. The integral irrigation system reduced water use by 30% from the designed system, contributing to the mound’s success.

Sea-purslanes are one of the primary plants used. A variety of the native S. verrucosum commonly found on the Middle East coast, these succulents are quick growing, tolerant of heat/salt & require minimal irrigation; they ‘green’ the ‘mound’ sustainably. Native trees make striking statements against the succulent carpet; Ghaf, Zizyphus spina-christi (Sidr) & Acacias require minimal water & fertiliser. Their nectar rich flowers support native bees, & seasonal fruits attract wild birds. Further ecological value is brought by native grasses & ground covers which are adapted to poor saline soils & are self-propagating; their seeds sustain local birds such as Hoopoes, Sun-birds & White-eared Bulbuls.

We shaped the plazas to interface elegantly with the existing busy public realm, being careful to create a positive visual impact. At the entrance, a tranquil mirror pool reflects the building’s Arabic inscriptions; starting from the pool centre, a timeline spirals into the building, symbolising the evolution of ideas from the past & entering the Museum where the future awaits. Dramatic ‘eyebrow’ entrances merge with the landscape creating a harmony of architectural form.

An opportunity to create a unique visitor experience, the mound is a distinct and arresting counterpoint to the urban context. A series of stepped walkways encourage exploration, giving a unique city view while embracing visitors in a native landscape of grasses & acacias, creating a memorable journey beneath one of the World’s most esteemed buildings.

The landscape design is integral to the overall building concept for an expressive, forward-thinking Dubai architectural statement & World sustainability benchmark.

Architecture offices involved in the design: Killa Design

Others to mention:

Client – Museum of the Future

Civil/Infrastructure Engineers – Buro Happold

Lighting Design – Cracknell/Buro Happold

Contractors – BAM International

Landscape Contractors – Desert Landscape Co.

Location: Sheikh Zayed Road, Trade Centre 2, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Design year: 2015 – 2020

Year Completed: Project completion: November 2021. Museum opening: 22nd February 2022.

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