Returning to Five is a new series of the programme that lifts the lid on some of the most incredible structures and machines ever created. Megastructures reveals the stories behind some unbelievable feats of engineering, from aircraft to airports, and bridges to oil rigs. The first episode looks at the construction of the world’s tallest hotel, the Burj Al-Arab off the coast of Dubai. Megastructures heads to the tiny desert kingdom of Dubai to explore the remarkable engineering behind the seven-star Burj Al-Arab Hotel. Five years in the making, this striking building stands like a gigantic white sail off the shore of Dubai.
As this programme reveals, a refusal to compromise on the part of the hotel’s young designers ensured that the project pushed the boundaries of design. The Burj Al-Arab was envisaged by Dubai’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, as a means of diversifying the country’s economy away from oil into tourism. The Sheikh dreamt of a luxury hotel that would put Dubai on the world map, and surprised many by choosing a relatively inexperienced British firm to supply the design. The Sheikh was impressed by architect Tom Wright’s sketch of a building inspired by a yacht.
Wright was aiming for an “iconic” design comparable to the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House, which could be drawn in a few simple lines. “We had many sleepless nights worrying that the building we’d designed wouldn’t turn out to be iconic,” he says. More used to building schools and offices than luxury hotels, Wright and his team now faced the greatest challenge of their careers. Wright wanted the 321-metre structure to rise into the sky on an island, giving it the illusion of being at sea. His refusal to compromise led to the construction of a low-rise, artificial island from concrete cubes. It’s never been done before, to build something like this on re-claimed land,” colleague Simon Crispe remarks. Further challenges lay in store when engineers could find no solid rock beneath the site, so they bored steel and concrete poles deep into the sand to serve as the foundations. The poles used friction against the compacted sand to hold the building steady against the powerful winds of the Arabian Gulf. The next problem came with the 85-metre-long steel trusses designed to hold the structure together. “It’s okay for the architect to draw pretty pictures, but we had to build it! contractor Malcom Murphy says. These enormous trusses were winched into place 200m in the air to provide a strong exoskeleton for the building. Tom Wright’s extraordinary designs did not stop there – crowning the hotel was an enormous “floating” restaurant hanging in the air 27m away from the spine of the building. Structural engineer Anthony McCarter had to find a method to attach the restaurant far away from the building’s centre of gravity: “When Tom first showed it to me, I must admit I thought it was crazy! ” he says.
McCarter’s solution ensured that the hotel’s exclusive clients would enjoy unparalleled views as they dined. With the hotel scheduled to open before the Millennium, the builders toiled relentlessly to finish the skin of the Burj Al-Arab so that work could begin on its opulent interior. The building had to be sealed against the searing desert heat, so the contractors fitted a giant fabric wall to create the largest atrium in the world and form a unique feature both inside and outside the hotel. This innovation, and many more, ensured that the finished hotel would take its place as a unique world structure.