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A Desert Blooms: A Middle Eastern Park Plan Breaks the Mold

How do you design green space that can withstand Abu Dhabi’s heat? Thomas Heatherwick listened to the desert.
Heatherwick Studios designed this Abu Dhabi park to work with the challenging desert environment. Proposed structural features, such as a cracked canopy that mimics the landscape’s natural reaction to the blistering heat, are meant to provide shade and reduces evaporation. Image courtesy Heatherwick Studios.

When designer and architect Thomas Heatherwick tackled a commission from the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation to build a park in the center of Abu Dhabi, the notion of an outdoor recreational area in such an unforgiving climate seemed like a particular challenge. The 125,000-meter area in question was already designed and landscaped like a typical green space, which meant unsustainable irrigation and desalination systems were required to maintain the park. To overcome the environmental challenges—the setting sees average highs above 100-degrees Fahrenheit half the year—Heatherwick decided to work with it. Taking inspiration from shade-grown plants underneath palms trees and the tell-tale cracks in the desert landscape, he and his team designed a park that syncs with the sandy terrain.

The plans for Al Fayah, which means “shade,” advance the concept of a natural escape from the sun, and utilizes the local visual vernacular to create a very fitting piece of public architecture. Set for completion in 2017, the proposal calls for a main area sunk below the surface and covered with an irregular grid of 20-meter high canopy pieces that mimic the surrounding landscape. According to an interview with Gulf Times, Heatherwick wanted to create a raised platform so locals and visitors could see and appreciate the surrounding flat landscape, as well as city icons like the Grand Mosque, and a sheltered space that “creates an oasis and celebrates the desert.”

The respect for and adaptation of cultural history follows Heatherwick’s approach on other projects, such as the redesign of the double-decker bus in London, which reworked and extolled national character. As Heatherwick said in an official statement, “Instead of denying the presence of the desert that the city is built on, we set ourselves the task of making a park out of the desert itself.”

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