Designed to echo the shape of a dhow’s sail, the Burj al Arab forms a kind of maritime counterpart to the adjacent Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s “breaking wave”. Its sail-like shape offers a modern tribute to Dubai’s historic seafaring traditions, enhanced (as is its very exclusive aura) by its location on a specially reclaimed island some 300m offshore. The building was constructed between 1993 and 1999 by UK engineering and architectural firm W.S. Atkins under lead designer Tom Wright. The statistics alone are impressive. At 321m, the Burj is the third-tallest dedicated hotel in the world. The spire-like superstructure alone, incredibly, is taller than the entire Jumeirah Beach Hotel, while the atrium (180m) is capacious enough to swallow up the entire Statue of Liberty – or, for that matter, the 38-storey Dubai World Trade Centre tower.
The sheer scale of the Burj is overwhelming, and only really appreciated in the flesh, since photographs of the building, perhaps inevitably, always seem to diminish it to the size of an expensive toy. The Burj’s scale is tempered by its extraordinary grace and the sinuous simplicity of its basic design, broken only by the celebrated cantilevered helipad and (on the building’s sea-facing side) the projecting strut housing Al Muntaha (“The Highest”) restaurant and the Skyview Bar. The hotel’s shore-facing side mainly comprises a huge sheet of white Teflon-coated fibreglass cloth – a symbolic sail which is spectacularly illuminated from within by night, turning the entire building into a magically glowing beacon. Less universally admired is the building’s rear elevation, in the shape of a huge cross, a feature that caused considerable controversy among Muslims at the time of construction, though it’s only visible from the sea.
Most of the interior is actually hollow, comprising an enormous atrium vibrantly coloured in great swathes of red, blue, green and gold. The original design comprised a far more restrained composition of whites and soft blues, but was significantly altered at the insistence of Sheikh Mohammed, who called in interior designer Khuan Chew (responsible for the colourful lobby at the adjacent Jumeirah Beach Hotel) to jazz things up. The contrast with the classically simple exterior could hardly be greater, and the atrium and public areas look like something between a Vegas casino and a James Bond movie set, the casual extravagance of it all encapsulated by enormous fish tanks flanking the entrance staircase which are so deep that cleaners have to put on diving suits to scrub them out (a performance you can witness daily 2–4pm). For many visitors, the whole thing is simply a classic example of Middle Eastern bling gone mad (that’s not gold paint on the walls, incidentally, but genuine 22ct gold leaf). Still, there’s something undeniably impressive about both the sheer size of the thing and Chew’s slightly psychedelic decor, with huge expanses of vibrant primary colour and endless balconied floors rising far overhead, supported by massive bulbous golden piers – like a “modern-day pirate galleon full of treasure”, as Tom Wright himself neatly described it.