The Sky Over Dubai. Redefining Architecture and Infrastructure of a Future Smart City Based on Vertical Mobility

by Jose A. Carrillo

American University in Dubai

With the industrial revolution cities started to move vertically. In that period, we had new materials like steel and new technologies like electricity and elevators that helped architects and engineers to look for a new way of expressing architecture, translated in towers and skyscrapers.

On the other hand, our infrastructure system, based on roadways, did not change because there were not technologies or new advancements that would allow architects, urban planners and engineers to think differently. So, cities kept expanding roadways horizontally until we reached the point that most of the land is taken by roads rather than buildings themselves. 

Nowadays Dubai is synonymous with skyscrapers and seeks to become a model for future global cities. However, when designing its infrastructures, urban planners looked back at large cities of highly motorized countries, such as the United States or Australia, mimicking their mobility models and eventually designing a car-oriented infrastructure. As expected, today Dubai suffers from a saturated mobility model. Building more infrastructures is not an efficient solution and destroys the social life of people. Today, however, technology is booming and new transportations are entering the market, including flying cars, drones and hyperloops. Dubai has already taken the initiative to implement new modes of transportation with the concept of autonomous cars and autonomous air taxis. It is therefore an opportune moment for architects, urban planners and engineers to change how they design the future infrastructure system, reuse the actual one and shape buildings to achieve a sustainable urban environment. One of the critical success points is to have a greener mobility system, that prioritizes transportation according to its efficiency. This efficiency goes beyond the overall cost and lays on the safety of our environment and of our individual health.

Redesigning the transportation systems within the framework of sustainability has become a pressing need in order to face current and future challenges and to limit carbon emissions associated with the global increase in the use of energy by the transport sector. The architect Aaron Knorr argues that giving less priority to privately owned cars is maybe a strategy that will not work in Dubai for the whole year due to the weather condition. However, it is believed that, even if for only six months per year,it would make a big difference in the wellbeing of the city and of its people. Dubai is known to be a leader in adopting technologies. It aims to «establish a global model of the city of the future» under the smart city project. Transportation has always been a significant matter for urban planners in Dubai. Indeed, a typical driver spends 27 hours in congestion at peak times across the UAE, without considering the problem of parking, that in Dubai is considered a significant issue, since 80% of the population uses cars. Those challenges are going to get even worse with the growing population in the coming decades. Expanding Dubai’s infrastructure is neither efficient nor sustainable to solve this problem. To address this issue, the project Autonomous Skies examines and takes advantages of the potential of the emerging mobility system.

Rethinking urbanization, together with elevating the future of mobility, is the key goal that can be reached through two strategies: reevaluating the system and networking it. So, the first solution that would have a huge impact is to eliminate more vehicles from Dubai’s roads, replacing them with flying cars – moving the traffic to the third dimension, that is into the air – and taking advantage of disruptive technologies such as data and artificial intelligence. At this point, some questions can be raised: how future mobility will impact our cities? What infrastructure requirements could be necessary for urban areas to accommodate the operation of drones, flying cars and begin to bring these into the cities of the future? Moreover, how might the advent of flying vehicles impact on how we address building rooftops as a critical design component? Are we still in need of more road infrastructures? Will parking be a problem anymore? The answers depend on whether we know how to take advantage of technologies and latest innovations. Maybe we will see the whole city as an airport, and this is an evolving scenario. Urban planners have always been targeting to have a vision of the futuristic city of tomorrow. The more fictional the world, the more likely they are featuring cars flying between high rise. In 1920, Le Corbusier, the father of modern architecture, drew his towers with biplanes weaving between them.

Even the Empire State Building was built with a mooring mast, which was used precisely once. What was considered as a science fiction trend in the last 100 years, today could be the solution of many urban issues faced in the cities. We see flying cars mainly in movies such as Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Judge Dredd and Minority Report. Rem Koolhaas, in his essay Whatever Happened to Urbanism, expressed his dissatisfaction with the situation of the contemporary cities. Koolhaas described the profession of urbanism as a failure, because modern urbanization does not express the realities of people and cities. During the 90s, the challenge was how to deal with quantity: almost thirty years later, the situation represents itself. Koolhaas suggests that «to survive, Urbanism will have to imagine a new newness».

The “new newness” for Autonomous Skies is the era of flying cars where mobility becomes the foundation of smart cities. Dubai highways make it impossible for people to connect, resulting in the loss of human scale fabric. To achieve a change in the lifestyle of its inhabitants, Dubai must rethink its organization and a vast portion of it has to do with mobility and the network system: travelling through the air is a much faster transportation than using the road. Speed was always associated with time, the faster the vehicle speeds, the more efficient it is in terms of time. According to a study made by Porsche Consulting, vertical mobility is estimated to be more dynamic when the distance exceeds 20 kilometers.

Autonomous Skies proposes an interconnectedmultimodal system where the aim is to have the current transportation and the new trend of mobility working hand to hand, in order to maximize the efficiency of travel time and the journey of the customer. It is a landmark building and a multipurpose building, targeting different users, from commuters to tourists. The project is characterized by its flexibility, scalability and adaptability. It aims to become a new destination for community residents, business commuters and tourists. Thereby it contributes to the neighborhood sense of wellness and fosters a new lifestyle for urban mobility. The project is developed through three different scenarios explained in three given proposals:

First scenario: short-term strategy, Intra-City and City to City: Hub-to-Hub

In the first stage of implementing vertical mobility with the other modes, it is crucial to rely on the strategy of Hub-to-Hub. The reason is that the infrastructure of the city is not prepared yet. Also, the regulations must be developed accordingly. The Hub will be the home of flying taxis, drones, hyperloops, self-driving vehicles and the other existing modes of transport (metro, buses, taxis, cars). Landing, taking off and charging will be happening only in this complex building.

Second scenario: medium-term strategy, Intra-City and City to City: Hub-to-Hub + Hub-to-Hotspot

In the second stage, the city infrastructure will be more prepared to host larger scale of vertical mobility in the city itself. In the same way, regulations will be further developed and companies producing flying cars or drones will be developing better solutions. Landing, taking off and charging will be happening not only in this complex building, but also in roofs of hotspot buildings and parking building podiums.

Third scenario: long-term strategy, Intra-City and City to City: to every point

In this stage, vertical mobility will be fully integrated. The city infrastructure will be entirely adapted, and new buildings will be designed according to the requirements of vertical mobility. Vertical mobility now is not limited only to Hub or to Hotspots, but it can ride to office buildings or even to apartment’s terraces. Safety regulations, data, artificial intelligence and the internet of things are the key to achieve an integrated multimodal system that networks every point of the city. The project intends to change how we shape our buildings, in order to get ready for drones and flying cars. The Voronoi Tower communicates with mobility and people by collecting and generating data. Every cell in the building relates to a digital network that analyses the movement of people and the activities performed.

The project seeks to use the waste land, or the dead zone left in the wake of massive highway junctions, typically an abandoned, wasted, unattractive space at the center of road crossings or intersections. The project is in the middle of Sheikh Zayed Road junction, between Down Town and DIFC. This location is typological, so the tower typology that also works as a node can be replicated in the different junctions of the city with similar infrastructure characteristics. These road infrastructures not only serve as transportation nodes but also as buffers, dividing the land into different zones. The project aims to break this division and to allow people to move freely through the branches or the roots of the building. The roots direct people into the project and enhance its walkability. The Voronoi Tower takes into consideration aspects of sustainability using greenery throughout all the skyscrapers, cleaning the air from any generated pollution and becoming the foundation of a new infrastructure known as green infrastructure. The project is elevated from the ground; it adapts itself to the existing roads and allows the cars to pass without causing any danger for the people accessing the building. So, the building has no ground floor, but rather an underground floor used as a square. The building has got roots that branch from the skyscraper to the different directions around Sheikh Zayed Road. Dubai’s massive highways divide the city into two different sides, where people are unable to walk, and the urban human fabric is lost. The roots or the bridges would be the connection unity between the two sides of Dubai, and they would revitalize all the surroundings.

The building design enhances and improves walkability, cycling and a closer connection with  nature. Hence, it would promote a healthy lifestyle for people. These roots could act as a magnet force that attracts people and brings them to the building, while the rest of the tower is a city link that connects and distributes people to the other part of Dubai or to other cities. The bottom is an urban connection, while the top is a city connection. Autonomous Skies is a multi-purpose building, and its aim is not to have a whole skyscraper just for flying cars landing and taking off, which will resemble the way we use parking lots today, but to have instead a building livable at any time. Therefore, different programs and activities are happening in the building, ranging from Science, Admin, Health, Retail, Culture and Leisure. The building is self-sustained and does not encourage people to use transportation. It is structured by four interconnected systems: Podium, Core, Cells and Pods. The Podium connects the neighborhood with an underground tunnel on floor -1 and with an elevated footbridge as a podium garden. The Core structurally supports the whole building and the cells, also providing internal circulation. The Cells accommodate programs, social spaces and activities within them and serve as landing spaces for the flying vehicles. Finally, the Pods, attached to the Core of the tower, are adaptable and functional units that serve the whole city and can be custom adapted.

The Voronoi pattern is the main generative form of the building. There are two central cores around which the Voronoi cells wrap. Their frame is made of steel connected to the cores, from which they cantilever. They start from the underground floor and reach the top; however, the typologies differ according to location and function within the tower. For the cladding, there are different options, such as carbon fiber, aluminum or lightweight concrete, all sustainable materials selected accordingly to several criteria, including structure, climate, sustainability and cost. Every cell in the Voronoi system has multiple faces that, using a digital system, direct the flying cars to a specific one that has an opening, in order to avoid any clashing or air traffic. For example, if one of the pods has five faces, only some of them will be open, allowing the flying object to go inside the building to pick up or drop a passenger, while the others will be closed using glass.

The faces of the other cells or pods surrounding it will be open from the opposite direction to avoid air traffic. Besides, the openings of the pods are based on orientation, smaller windows on the south to avoid excessive solar heat gain, while on the north the openings are plentiful. The skyscraper has greenery on every cell of the Voronoi. Also, the central cores of the building are wrapped within a metal mesh that habits climbing plants. The building uses kinetic hydroponics as the main method of growing plants without soil by using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. The water is continuously flowing, carrying nutrients for the plants with it. The water will be coming mainly from the greywater recycling system. Also, the prospect of using flying cars enhances sustainability, since most of the prototypes use electrical engines. The project is committed to integrate sustainability aspects in the global unity of the building. It offers the opportunity to rethink the building typologies, the urban fabric and the infrastructures of Dubai, its re-usability and adaptation to configure the mobility of the future. A utopian look at the sky over Dubai.

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