Defying Gravity: How Dubai’s Museum of the Future Was Built

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(CNN) — When it finally opened in February 2022, Dubai’s new Museum of the Future was already one of the city’s most popular buildings. And how could it not be? For six years, residents and visitors alike have watched every step of the construction process of this shimmering silver landmark on Dubai’s main highway, Sheikh Zayed Road.

The geometric skeleton really took shape when the metal plates covered in calligraphy were added. Once in place, a team of workers rappeled down the curved sides daily, drawing stares and phone cameras, and everyone wondering exactly what they were doing.

At the opening, Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum declared the 77-meter-tall stainless steel torus “the most beautiful building in the world,” while Architectural Digest called it “an instant (and highly Instagrammable) icon.”

It’s another superlative for the city and a piece of architecture light years ahead of anything Dubai and the world has seen before.

The future we know and the future we don’t yet know

Most museums feature exhibits from the past or present, so what exactly is a museum of the future?

“Each of the floors represents the future of healthcare, transport, aviation, smart cities, government services, space, you name it,” explains Shaun Killa, design partner at Dubai-based Killa Design, the architecture studio behind the building. “But it’s the future as we understand it, for maybe the next two to three years.”

The green hill on which the Museum of the Future stands represents the earth, with the main building symbolizing humanity. But the emptiness in the middle represents what we don’t yet know about the future. In other words, the unknown.

“The people who seek the unknown are the people who invent and discover things,” says Killa. “These people will keep populating the museum over time, so there’s a perpetual continuum because of the unknown. That’s why the emptiness is there – you have our understanding of the future, and then you have something that’s not there.”

This is existential stuff.

What that currently means is a collection of interactive experiences that transports visitors into a vision of the near future.

In the cavernous lobby, a penguin-shaped drone floats through the air to a futuristic soundtrack of beeps and bloops. An elevator disguised as a spaceship with screens for windows whisks visitors on a four-minute flight to the OSS Hope space station, 600 kilometers above Earth and 50 years into the future.

There is a library of 4,500 animal DNA codes that can be “collected” on smart devices. The future tech space has a touch of “Black Mirror” to it, ranging from the frankly terrifying CyberDog, to payment chips lying under the skin, to virus-resistant clothing and a falcon-shaped robot designed to control real bird populations.

The spectacular, seven-story Museum of the Future “tries to make people feel like the future is theirs,” says its creative director.

But the real beauty is the space itself and the now instantly recognizable shape of the museum. “It had to be futuristic and have a sense of direction,” says Killa. “If it had been a perfect oval, it would have been stagnant.” The torus shape and off-center void give a sense of constant movement. “You feel like it’s constantly moving. The future is always in motion and you have to keep up with it.”

A window into the future

The Arabic calligraphy covering the building serves both as a window and as a decoration. Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej’s screenplay is based on three quotes from Sheikh Mohammed, the most famous of which is: “The future belongs to those who can imagine, design and execute, wait, but create.”

The calligraphy, in the classic Arabic Thuluth script, was first hand-sketched by Bin Lahej, who describes the museum not as a building but as “a work of art”. But the torus proved tricky. “The challenge was to mix up the three quotes on the building when it has no corners and it’s an oval going up and down,” he says.

That too was a challenge for Killa and the team. “It took us four and a half months to figure out how to stick something flat onto a building that’s designed parametrically, and they’re just curved arches with no ‘surface,'” he says. They finally settled on filmmaking software, “the kind you use when you have to put fur on a dinosaur,” says Killa. The team tricked the software by cutting the building into pieces and pretending it wasn’t a continuous surface by “removing” the top.

‘What is that? I do not understand.’

The latest iteration of the Museum of the Future was selected from designs submitted in a six-week competition.

Three weeks later, with sketches covering his dining table, Killa hit a snag. “I looked at them and just thought they’re not good enough. None of them. I didn’t think any of them matched Sheikh Mohammed’s vision and I didn’t think any of them were good enough to to win.” ” he says.

The next day, which was already the fourth week of competition, he was still not happy. “I put on great music and just sat there and took it all in. And then around 1am I drew the sketch that now hangs in a frame on the wall of our office. I drew her and I thought, this is it, this is exactly what it needs to be. So I took a picture, WhatsApped it to the guy doing the 3D modeling, thought my job was over and went to sleep.”

In the morning he had an answer on WhatsApp.

“What is that? I don’t understand.”

From aviation to submarine technology

It is one of the UAE’s most distinctive new buildings.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

This sketch, once explained, post-processed to scale and accurate to within a millimetre, became one of the drawings that ultimately won the competition.

The building is based on a diagonal structure, with the skeleton as the main support. Inside, the room is entirely column-free. Killa wanted it to be state of the art in terms of buildability.

On the building’s surface, the 1,024 plaques representing one kilobyte of data were cut using CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines. And every single one of these panels is different.

“We went to the aerospace industry to understand how they attach stainless steel to the front of aircraft wings and around engines, and chemically and mechanically bond it to carbon fibers,” says Killa. “That’s essentially what we did.”

For the spiral staircase in the lobby, the tallest double spiral staircase in the world, they looked for inspiration under water. “The contractor told us that this was impossible and that we had designed something too difficult. We said that because it’s basically a feather, we’re sure there’s someone who can make it,” says Killa. The answer? Looking for a submarine nose maker that had the technology and equipment to bend the steel.

Was there ever a point where Killa thought it might not be possible to build what he had in mind?

“I knew it could be designed because it’s basically like an egg, and an egg is a very strong shape,” he says, adding that over the centuries, starting with the pyramids at Giza and the Pantheon In Rome, many of the world’s largest buildings were at the technological frontier of their time.

And with all the groundbreaking technological advances that Killa is using to bring the building to life, the Museum of the Future has brought the future of architecture to life in Dubai today.

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