In recent decades Abu Dhabi, the opulent capital city of the United Arab Emirates has been elevated as the eminent area of architectural design. With a stunning skyline boasting some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world and innovative buildings pushing the limits of architectural imagination like never before, it’s easy to see why. The first circular skyscraper, the first building reaching over 300 meters and the first structure with 30 floors above ground are all situated in this affluent Middle Eastern gem. So to be blown away by innovative architecture and stunning shapes on the skyline, look no further. Culture Trip brings you the top ten architectural wonders of Abu Dhabi.
Renowned as a “beyond 5 star” resort, covering eighty-four hectares and boasting its own private beach and idyllic marina, the Emirates Palace is like a real life Disney castle offering unprecedented luxury in the heart of Abu Dhabi. An abode fit for royalty, the establishment is comprised of two hotel wings, a guest palace and a sublime stretch of sand. It features 114 domes which are 80 meters high and houses 394 rooms and suites. The building was designed by architect John Elliott, the Senior Vice President at Wimberly, Allison, Tong and Goo, an international firm specializing in luxury hotels. It was opened in March 2005, has hosted international superstars including Christina Aguilera, and cost a three billion dollars to build – making it the second most expensive hotel ever.
Designed by Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, two prominent figures of New York-based Asymptote Architecture, Yas Viceroy was the first hotel ever to be built over an F1 race circuit. It consists of two 12-story hotel towers, one set within the race circuit, and another within the Marina, linked together by both a monocoque steel and glass bridge, and an enthralling feature known as the Grid Shell structure. This is a 217-meter expanse of sweeping, curvilinear glass and steel, with an LED lighting system incorporating video feeds which are transmitted over pivoting diamond-shaped, color-changing panes. This is not only a feat of architectural and engineering significance, but it also creates a dynamic appearance at night, lighting up the Abu Dhabi skyline beautifully.
Constructed by the Sheikh Suroor Projects Department (S.S.P.D) via an international architectural design competition, DBI Design in 2011 created the Etihad Towers, a complex of stunning buildings located opposite the Emirates Palace hotel. And although they look similar from the outside, the five towers are by no means identical. Three are residential apartments, one is an office tower, and the other is the hotel which featured in our “Best Bars of Abu Dhabi” article. They are an Aladdin’s cave of delights, offering 14 restaurants, 6500 m2 of international boutique brand shops, and an 1800m2 ballroom fit for 1000-1400 guests. There is even a double level observation deck on top of the tallest tower, where visitors can enjoy great views of Saadiyat Island and the Emirates Palace. The towers were used as a filming location for the 2015 film Fast and Furious 7, where two main characters steal a Lykan Hyperport and drive it spectacularly through three of the towers.
Set within a majestic and beautifully manicured landscape, a highlight of any trip to Abu Dhabi is a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the hub of worship for the country, and a scene of much prayer and spirituality. The final resting place of the first president of the United Arab Emirates, the mosque is an inspirational masterpiece of contemporary design, with a dome layout and floorplan inspired by the Badshahi Mosque and by Persian, Mughal and Moorish styles. More than 3,000 workers and 38 contracting companies took part in the construction of the venue, and much of its interior is made from natural materials including marble, stone, gold, crystals and ceramics. It is one of the most revered monuments of Islam, and is the third largest mosque in the world. Make sure you plan your trip to include a free 90-minute tour (every day but Fridays).
Top Tip: Free tours in English begin at 10:00, 11:00 and 17:00 from Sunday to Thursday. Wear loose fitting, long ankle-length trousers or skirts, and women must wear headscarves.
In a land of deft-defying skyscrapers and nouveau architecture, buildings like Qasr Al Hosn are rare. Located along Sheikh Zayed, the First Street of Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Hosn sits as the oldest stone building in the city, also known as the Old Fort or the White Tower. It serves as a subject of immense historical and archaeological importance in the area, as it is one of the few historical buildings to have remained tied to its Bedouin roots whilst modernity took a grip on the surrounding city. Built in 1761, it originally served as a watchtower for what was Abu Dhabi’s only well, and in 1793 it became a small fort under the command of Shakhbut Dhiyab Al Nahyan. It then underwent a major expansion in the late 1930s, and was part of the emir’s palace and seat of government until 1966. There is a festival held annually in honor of the fort which continues for 11 days, one of the last remaining celebrations of authentic music, dancing, culture and tradition of the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi.
Similar to Qasr Al Hosn, Al Jahili is one of the most historic buildings in the United Arab Emirates. Built in 1891 in order to defend Abu Dhabi’s precious palm groves, the fort was also used to protect the mountain passes and enforce peace in the area at the time. Now a revered Al Ain landmark, the fort has undergone a substantial amount of renovation with the aim of making it a cultural center. With this in mind there was a permanent exhibition installed here, the interesting work of British traveler Sir Wilfred Thesiger, which showcases old photographs and maps of the area, and displays travel trinkets used by the explorer. There are beautifully landscaped gardens here too, providing a picturesque setting in which to explore authentic Arab architecture.
Designed by pioneering architect Zaha Hadid as a symbol of grandeur for the capital city, the stunning Sheikh Zayed Bridge is 842 meters long, and is said to be the most intricate bridge ever constructed. Hadid is one of the most prominent architects of our time, and she designed the bridge incorporating traditional Islamic and Arab art styles, with the aim of making it the jewel in the crown of the nation. The bridge’s curved arches evoke the undulating sand dunes of the desert surrounding Abu Dhabi, and the best time to see the bridge is at dusk, when its rhythmic form is illuminated with subtle colors which radiate over the Maqtah Channel.
The Aldar Headquarters was named as the world’s first circular skyscraper, and is the first building of its kind in the Middle East. Nicknamed “the coin” because of its shiny, spherical shape, it was also voted the building with the “Best Futuristic Design” by the Building Exchange Conference in 2014. The structure includes 12 passenger elevators and a circular hydraulic lift, and is set upon an elevated peninsula affording spectacular views of the city, canal and sea.
A design of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, the modern architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a sister museum to the Louvre Paris, is inspired by both Islamic and Arabic designs. With the expected opening date of the museum to be the end of 2017, the finished result is intended to be a “seemingly floating dome structure,” its web-patterned dome allowing the sun to filter through. Artwork from around the globe with be showcased at the museum, with a particular focus placed on bridging the gap between Eastern and Western art. It is to be located in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, and will be approximately 24,000 square meters in capacity. Note: check their website for exact opening date.
Named one of the strangest buildings of the year, Abu Dhabi’s Capital Gate pushes the boundaries of conventional skyscrapers. The brainchild of RMJM, Architects took inspiration from The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy to create this structure, the world’s furthest leaning manmade tower, and broke the Guinness World Record in doing so. It leans four times as far as the tower in Pisa, but simultaneously boasts much more stability, as it is built upon a foundation of dense mesh and reinforced steel. At 160 m and with 35 stories, it is one of the tallest buildings in the city, and inclines 18° to the west.