Sunday February 28, 2010
A course par excellence
By CHIN MUI YOON
Dubais latest masterpiece is an architectural, engineering and technological feat. And, the architect behind it is a Malaysian!
A FOGGY evening on Jan 28 marks the opening of the horseracing season at Meydan, the glorious new home of the Dubai World Cup. Dubais ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, strides through the grandstand to applause from an appreciative audience enjoying the inaugural race.
Suddenly, the Sheikh halts and beckons someone trailing behind his entourage. A tall, unassuming man emerges and grasps Sheikh Mohammeds outstretched hand.
For architect Teo A. Khing from Miri, Sarawak, that simple gesture of a public tribute marks the highlight of his career so far.
Only a twinkle in Teos eye shows his joy. Meydan is the realisation of Sheikh Mohammeds vision; all the work wed put in over the past three years had been worth it just seeing how happy he was that night, says Teo, 50, during an interview at his office in Dubai, after the event.
The sheer size of the Meydan Racecourse is staggering. It is the worlds biggest racecourse to host the Dubai World Cup, which has the worlds largest prize pot of US$10mil (RM34mil).
The US$2bil (RM6.8bil) state-of-the-art racing facility covering 76mil sq ft will include a five-star hotel, luxurious horse stables, a marina and a racing museum alongside a grandstand crowned by its distinctive crescent-shaped roof.
The grandstand stretches 1.6km thats as long as 22 Boeing 747 airlines lined up nose to tail. The mammoth structure has 20,000 seats, with standing room for 60,000. It offers an unobstructed view of five entire furlongs thats over 1,200m of viewing.
Resembling an airport terminal at first glance, Meydan overflows with adjectives: it has the worlds largest suspended roof, the worlds longest LED screen, and the first trackside hotel. National Geographic will be producing a documentary on the project for its Megastructures series.
Teo is behind the masterplan of Meydan City (Arabic for a place where people congregate), which is the first part of an integrated development. The other sections are The Metropolis (the business district), Horizons (which comprises offices, housing and a marina) and Godolphin Parks (a canal-styled district that includes the spectacular Godolphin Gateway Tower, a 40-storey building with an archway shaped like a thoroughbred).
Breaking new ground
Just how did a Malaysian architect win this prestigious project?
Meydan marks the first monumental project in Dubai designed by an Asian architect. It is also the first to have been completed on time, and within budget, despite the jitters of 2009 when the economic downturn hit even the oil-rich city.
Teo was working on the new Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi when a businessman invited him to undertake more projects in Dubai. His work had caught the attention of Meydan chairman Saeed Al Tayer in 2005, and he was invited to have a look at the Meydan project.
Meydan is the realisation of a grand ambition of the Sheikh, he explains. It was an opportunity to introduce our Asian values and principles. While we strive towards a new vision, we also remember those who have gone before us to pave the way. We honour our forefathers, their vision, spirit, perseverance and dedication to progress and excellence. This was the foundation of my idea for Meydan.
Fascinated by that concept, Al Tayer asked for a proposal. Several well-known architects had already submitted theirs and Teo presented an overview of the grandstand to the Sheikh in late 2005.
It was still unrefined at the time, but it captured his vision for Meydan, which will become a benchmark for horseracing. It has a futuristic design, yet includes an IMAX theatre and an interactive museum to educate and entertain visitors on the heritage of horseracing, he explains.
Teos firm, TAK Design Consultants, first had to demonstrate its ability to build a training track in one-and-a-half months. It delivered the project at half the estimated cost and the owners were delighted.
For Meydan, Teo worked with a team of 700 architects, 500 of whom were on his payroll. From the start, the project was scrutinised intensely.
We were entering a field previously dominated by the West, he says thoughtfully. We were under tremendous pressure to perform and deliver the project on time. Nobody knew us, or had even heard of us.
The other firms had three months to work on their proposals; we only had nine days. But when we are given an opportunity, we must seize it with all our hearts and not squander it.
I knew nothing about horseracing when we started! It required a complete submersion in the subject. We must be humble to learn, and quick to listen. Once we have that ability we can master anything. Often, its our ego that stifles growth.
Dubai is a fair playing field so its extremely competitive here. We are judged by our work and performance, not connections or knowing the right people. If you can make it in Dubai, its likely you can make it anywhere else.
The size of the project was daunting enough and then the deadline was brought forward by a year to Jan 28, 2010, to mark the 15th anniversary of the Dubai World Cup. The old Nad Al Sheba racecourse was demolished and Meydan took over its site and part of a nearby camel racetrack.
Work was carried out feverishly round-the-clock. Then, with just 12 months to go, a spanner was thrown in the works: the main contractor for the job, local firm Arabtec, and Malaysian firm WCT Bhd, were terminated as they reportedly had fallen behind schedule.
As a handover to a new contractor would require five months, Meydan scrambled to assemble its own team to complete the job.
Reaching the finish line
When we visited, workers were busy polishing, grinding, drilling and putting the finishing touches to Meydan. But already, the structure is stunning. The falcon is a natural theme in the project as falconry is an integral part of the culture of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The racecourses most distinctive feature is the dramatic cantilevered grandstand roof, clad in 9,000 tonnes of stainless steel, and 8,000 solar panels that generate 20% of the electricity needed for the project.
The falcon denotes speed and decisiveness, something integral to horseracing, Teo explains. The grandstand design symbolises the crescent, and is also an abstract of a falcon landing.
Its steel claws grip the Rooftop Bubble Lounge like a nest. There is also a distinctive Chinese symbolism to it because we believe that when a falcon comes to nest, it brings good fortune. Falcons have strong vision and its symbolic of a new future for horseracing. The Sheikhs vision will continue on here.
At the entrance, the falcons feathers shelter 10,000 parking bays. The trackside hotel marks a subtle and gentle shift in tradition. Local Arabic women are seldom seen on the grandstands, but with 95% of the hotel rooms facing the track directly, it means more families can catch the action in comfort.
A unique feature of Meydan is a series of tunnels that allows the horses to be led towards the track without distraction. They emerge from the tunnel with their jockeys like footballers at a stadium. Or, in Teos words, like Roman gladiators in the Coliseum!
Betting is illegal in the UAE and so the Emiratis pursue horseracing purely for sport. Meydan chairman Saeed Al Tayer explains that, Meydan is Sheikh Mohammeds gift to the world. Its a defining moment in the sports global history.
During a trial race early January, top jockeys from around the world gave the racecourse a thumbs-up.
It is awesome and I am gobsmacked! champion Italian jockey Frankie Dettori reportedly exclaimed.
Irish jocky Kieran Fallon said: I have always liked Santa Anita as a racecourse, but this place will be every bit as good, if not better.
American thoroughbred racehorse trainer John Kimmel added, Meydan raises the bar on any sports facility in the world.