the architect who imagined the design of Dubai’s Museum of the Future

With just three weeks to go, Shaun Killa set aside the sketches piled on his dining room table.

The South African architect was aiming to win a fierce six-week international design competition for a new building in Dubai.

It was an unusual file and Killa knew the sketches needed more.

“I just felt they weren’t good enough,” Killa says of the designs. “Not good enough to win.”

As the clock passed past midnight, he continued to draw, using only tracing paper and a pen.

“I really searched deep,” he says. In the end, it only lasted a few minutes. Hand-drawn at 1am on his dining table, the design became a building that energized and reshaped the Dubai skyline.

“I like buildings with shapes that seem to move,” he says, pointing to the original sketch he drew in the early morning and which now hangs on the wall.

“The building looks like it wants to move to Sheikh Zayed Road. And look at the calligraphy. It was there from the start.”

Killa then used WhatsApp to send a photo of the sketch to a colleague who was doing computer modeling. “The next morning he said, ‘I don’t understand,’ Killa said with a smile.

A new symbol of the future

More than six months after the opening of the Museum of the Future, the star architect reflects on his achievement in his offices in Dubai. He created Killa Design in 2015, and from the windows you can see the Dubai World Trade Centre. It was once a building that represented the future, but now Killa’s design for the Museum of the Future has taken over on the road to tomorrow.

For a story about the future, it begins in the past at a time when Dubai was going through one of the most transformative periods in its young history. Killa moved to the city from Cape Town in the 1990s after a friend said “interesting things” were happening. Nothing more than Burj Al Arab, a glitzy new hotel rising on an artificial island off the coast.

“I also saw Emirates Towers under construction,” Killa says. “There was an energy in the city. There was optimism. »

He joined design firm Atkins in 1998 to work on the Burj, just a year before the famous hotel opened. It was totally unlike anything he had done in South Africa.

“The Burj has increased my perspective,” he says. “It’s that change of scale and original thinking. But I also had my own engine.

This motivation led him to become director of architecture at Atkins and a succession of projects followed that redefined architecture in the United Arab Emirates and the Middle East, such as the famous Bahrain World Trade Center which used wind turbines to generate some of the building’s electricity. Killa was also behind the Dubai Opera in 2016 and the curves of the building serve as a landmark for his designs today.

But Killa wanted to chart his own path and left Atkins. In 2015, shortly before founding Killa Design, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announced that a museum of the future was to be built and the Dubai Future Foundation was given the responsibility of the project. One requirement was that he had to sit somewhere on the Emirates Towers site.

Basically, Killa in his proposal decided not to use a site at the rear of the Emirates Towers and instead identified a small space next to Sheikh Zayed Road which at the time was a car park surrounded by trees as having the most potential.

“If I put the museum behind Emirates Towers, 2% of people would know it’s there,” he says. “But if I put it on Sheikh Zayed Road, then 100% of people will know it’s there. And I can link Dubai metro to the museum and the museum to the Emirates Towers.

Because the space was quite small, Killa knew the building had to be vertical. He describes the early designs as organic, meaning they were all flowing lines and shapes. Killa, an admirer of abstract art, explains how the oval and the void ― the hole in the middle ― were drawn at the same time.

Construction of the Museum of the Future.  The building is a steel frame and has no traditional support columns.  Photo: Killa Design

“Throughout my career, I haven’t been afraid of progressive forms,” ​​Killa says.

Pointing to the sketch of the void, he says it presses the oval to one side to elongate the building and give it a sense of dynamism. “Otherwise he would feel motionless,” he says. “He has a sense of speed. It has a sense of direction as opposed to a sphere. It’s also very natural. But what I like is this sense of direction.

The void, says Killa, represents what we don’t know about the future. It was envisioned as a place where the museum could stage visual exhibits, but its role goes beyond practicality.

“It’s the most powerful point in the whole building,” he says. “The people who seek out the unknown are the people through the ages who have discovered new things and invented new things. This will replenish the museum and keep it up to date.

Killa was asked to present his designs for the Museum of the Future at the Prime Minister’s Office before realizing he had won. Then he was informed that he had to start the very next day. “Come back here tomorrow morning,” Killa recalls the instruction with a smile.

A “complex and delicate” process

The Museum of the Future is 77 meters high and covers an area of ​​30,548 square meters. It has seven floors of exhibition space, a 420-seat auditorium, restaurant, cafe, and lobby. The oval shape aims to represent humanity; the green mound on which it sits represents Earth; and the void represents the unknown future.

The engineering process ― carried out by Buro Happold ― was complex and delicate. The museum of the future has no traditional support columns, but rather a steel diagrid―a framework of beams―and was developed using algorithms and a software system known as Building Information Modeling. The facade is just as complex. It consists of 1,024 pieces and was designed using techniques from the aviation industry in the way they applied it like a skin to the building.

Window designs, in the form of Arabic calligraphy by Emirati artist Mattar bin Lahej and based on quotes from Sheikh Mohammed, are also mapped onto this curved skin. The citations also function as windows into the museum and are illuminated at night by LEDs. The double staircase in the lobby used bent steel so large that underwater contractors accustomed to bending huge steel nose cones were called in to do it. Sustainability is also important and the building uses solar energy.

The Museum of the Future opened on February 22, 2022. Photo: Dubai Future Foundation

“The building is like a staff that pays homage to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s father and then to his vision in his own words and [then] pass it on to future generations. This is what the building symbolizes.

The museum was named one of the 14 most beautiful museums on the planet in a list compiled by National geographic magazine months before it opened. But it wasn’t until the scaffolding came down and people first walked through its doors in February that Killa was able to really enjoy it.

“I walked into the reception, sat down and had a coffee,” he says of that first day. “Nobody knew who I was. I saw hundreds and hundreds of people in that hall with kids, adults smiling, taking pictures and having fun.

“At that time, I realized that the building was for visitors and residents of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. We create experiences about…how the incredible can become believable and how the impossible can become possible It’s almost a fancy building.Now it belongs to the people.

Updated: September 04, 2022, 07:12

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Rozella J. Cook