Beacon of Light

I am someone who specialises in the creation of unique structures, with sculptural representations that address their environment through a poetic, visual language

Hadi Simaan is the architect behind the Aspire Tower in Doha’s Sports City. The 300-metre tower, the tallest in Qatar, is shaped like a colossal torch, and signifies the human spirit and its desire to achieve. And what better way to convey this message than with a tribute such as this to sporting excellence.

Not only did the building hold the symbolic Olympic flame of the 15th Asian Games in 2006, it was also designed to house luxurious hospitality facilities such as a five-star hotel and spa, and a revolving restaurant. At 215 metres, this restaurant is the highest eatery in the Middle East

It was with this vision of sport and leisure in mind, that Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the former Crown Prince, approached Simaan. The Lebanese architect is known for giving close attention to the conceptual and artistic side of ar­chitecture, and the Sheikh could not have made a better choice for Qatar’s landmark structure. “I am someone who specializes in the creation of unique structures, with sculptural represen­tations that address their environment through a poetic, visual language,” says Simaan.

The architect remembers being appreciative of the world around him at the age of four, and possibly may even have chosen his future pro­fession at the time.
“My dad used to take me for drives in his car and I would look out of the car window and see the world as it moved,” he says. “I used to like ob­ serving the clouds and how they changed form.” Today, that four-year old dreamer is one of the people contributing to the changing face of the Middle East.

Drawing inspiration from a variety of painters such as Van Gogh, Picasso and Cezanne, archi­tects Le Corbusier and Henry Moore, and even the ancient Greeks and modem day US, Simaan admits to having no particular style. One would probably describe it as futuristic, at best. Simaan graduated from the Architects Associa­tion in London in 1984 where he was tutored by some of the finest modern day architects, in­cluding Bernard Tschumi, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind.

Since then he has been involved in the design of public facilities, such as the King Fahad Public Library in Jeddah, Al Falah Bank, Abu Dhabi, the Hotel Lusail Towers and City Cent­ er Hotel in Qatar.

Out of all these projects, the Aspire Tower is his most iconic. The futuristic tower is located within Doha’s Sports City and nearby Khalifa International Stadium. The pattern on the structure displays a sense of order in the day. At night, however, it comes alive with energy from creative and col­ourful lighting. The main attraction still remains the top, where the Olympic torch was lit.

A structural concrete core acts as the building’s primary support, while the remainder is a steel structure that hangs and cantilevers out. “The outer perimeter steel structure has a double skin which creates a visual perspective, pulling the vi­sion from the centre of the structure and upwards towards the sky. It creates a celebration between the earth and the sky,” Simaan explains.

“The structural steel rings that surround the building change in diameter as they ascend the structure and resemble the rings of the Olym­pic spirit tied together to form the whole. They symbolize the brotherhood of man.” There is a separation between the forms as the eye is drawn upward, creating satellites of accommodation that hang in space. The impression this gives is of columns stacked upon each other, further instilling the concept representing the classical spirit of the game.

The core can also be seen as the handle of an Olympic torch as the movement of the steel structure’s silhouette, and the different levels of density and transparency, give the illusion of a hand holding the core, moving from left to right and vice versa.

“The classical look ends at the very top of the core,” says Simaan. “A modem, light-weight steel structure springs off into the uppermost part of the building and creates windows to the sky. This is further exaggerated by the taper of the structure at the top. It bears semblance to open hands holding the flame to the sky.”

The flame of the 15th Asian Games had been held within the lattice shell that forms the top- most section. It was lit by Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa AlThani, the Emir of Qatar on December 1, 2006, and had set a world record at 10 metres despite heavy rain.
Watched by 50,000 spectators inside the stadium, the opening ceremony included dignitaries such as the International Olympic Committee’s Jacques Rogge, Iranian President Mahmoud Amedinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Following the 2006 Asian Games, the flame was replaced by a laser beam.

Work on the interior was also resumed after games, and was completed the following year, The skyscraper now includes a panoramic observation deck and bar, a ballroom/banqueting suite, 126 hotel rooms, two levels of office space and two restaurants. A sports museum was also created to acknowledge the achievements of both national and international sportsmen.
The hotel rooms are housed in a cylindrical form at the base of the core, and have the outside glass and mesh structure peel away from the outside windows of the rooms.
They form a cathedral-type atrium filled with light penetrating through the various densi­ties of the mesh above the hotel lobby and restaurants.
“The overall composition of the building, as a sculpture, creates an energetic aesthetic with a rigor that enforces a sense of equilibrium,” says Simaan. “This sense of energy versus equilib­rium plays in the mind of the spectator. It’s a bit like watching the flame of a campfire under the night sky.”
The tower takes on a new life after sunset with a massive 1,087 square metre video screen wrapped all around, which illuminates the night sky. Added to this is the facade’s lighting system, which uses 200 kilometres of cable to connect the 4,000 LED fittings to the 405 pow­ er supplies. This whole system took more than 19,000 man hours to install.
“The spine and flesh of the structure represent the varied nature of this rapidly evolving coun­ try,” adds Simaan. “They show the solidity of the fibre, and the ability to change and develop as boundaries are stretched.”
When asked about his feelings designing the Aspire Tower, Simaan says that the visuals alone should be able to describe what he was trying to say.
“In a way, talking about each project makes one hang onto done ideas,” he says. “I like to leave these ideas in the past and look for new ones.” He pauses. “I do my best to look at each project as a new beginning.”
While this may sound a bit cryptic, he tries to explain his previous work by divulging his vi­sion.
“I believe that the Middle East now is the new Renaissance and the new ancient Greece. With just one big difference – we can now build any­ thing we dream of. Well… almost anything,” he adds.
Simaan believes that sport is one of the areas where human beings can excel, and this field needs all the encouragement it can get in the Middle East, including through structures like the Aspire Tower.

“Sport is a new religion that unites the youth of the world,” he says. “It’s in its infancy in the Middle East, and at these early stages, it will require a huge amount of sponsorship to get onto its feet.”

Simaan points out that he tried to improve the design of a stadium when he worked on the Sta­dium Hotel in Abu Dhabi. “I think it is a new approach to an old problem. In most traditional stadiums, when the event takes place, there is a flux of spectators to the event but the stadium has no life afterwards.

So with this approach, Simaan wanted the areas around the stadium to act as a village square remniscent of those found in Mediterranean countries. “People can meet and conduct daily activities, so the structural walls of the stadium are filled with apartments, hotels and office spaces where people can go about their daily lives with the added benefits of watching the game when there is an event taking place.,” explains Simaan. “The ground can change and adapt to other functions as well and the shopping remains when there is no event.”It is a successful concept where Simaan, once again, expresses his brilliance. How­ever, this talented architect hints that his best work is yet to come.

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