Built for Speed
Beauty comes in the strangest places in the United Arab Emirates. After the Burj Khalifa (see my previous posts), my vote for the most stunning—and most weird—building would be the Yas Hotel: two ovoid structures straddling a Formula One track on Yas Island, a 25-square-kilometer development zone on Abu Dhabi’s southern edge. Designed by New York’s Asymptote Architecture, Yas is the largest structure to present that firm’s principals'—Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture—principles.
The big move here is a grid shell structure comprising 5,800 (count ’em) “pivoting diamond-shaped glass panels.” It is essentially a veil the designers threw over the two structures to unify the 500-room twin. The raging racers pull the building apart, the crystalline veil pulls it back together. The structure has some environmental benefits but, given the fact that these are glass panels, each a different size and at a different angle, this insanely expensive invention is mainly there to be gorgeous. Oh, yes, it also lights up, making it the world's largest LED screen.
Given the other fact that Asymptote like to make sculptures that combine forms they scanned into a computer from cars, bodies, and buildings (two of them are on display in the hotel lobby), it is not too far-fetched to say that the undulating shell refers to the shells draped over the compacted bodies of the Formula 1 machines, the decorative sunscreens that give recessive desert structures an alluring sense of human-made identity, and the equally seductive burqas worn by the emirate women.
Below this lifted-up dress or transparent cowl, the building is a stack of thin concrete plates painted white and separated by floor-to-ceiling, continuous glass, resting on an undulating plinth containing services and parking. A bridge with a stretched oculus connects the two structures. The architects scooped a rooftop pool out of the mass and crammed the base full with eight restaurants and the usual convention facilities. There is not a right angle to be found, either on the outside or in the elongated passageways that turn into lobbies and gathering spaces to form the public interiors.
I had to wonder what happens there when there is not a race going on. When I visited, the hotel seemed sparsely populated, but then again the whole Yas Island complex, which includes the racetrack, a Warner Brothers theme park, office and residential neighborhoods, and the world’s largest indoor theme park, Ferrari World—a hideous, bright-red undulating stain designed by Benoy Architects of London—was still very much under construction. Even so, the hotel seems built for speed, in particular of the machines cruising by and under it, justifying both its forms (including the odd split solved by the grid structure) and its very existence.
No matter. If that is what it takes to give these architects an excuse to create this veil over this pile of curves, showing us how sensuous technology can be while fusing space into the kind of coherence the computer has been promising us for more than a decade, then perhaps it is worth it. In the emirates, the Yas Hotel remains an oasis of continuous curves in a desert of frenetic form and bland boxes.