The Al Bahr Towers: Shaped By The Past

Whether you’ve just found us (welcome, stranger!) or you’ve been following our blogs for a while now, we invite you to join us on a tour of glass architecture that we find captivating— and think you will, too. From modern marvels to antique architecture, this new series of blogs will shine a spotlight on the most unique glass buildings and structures across the globe. Whether it’s a feat of engineering, a breakthrough in energy efficiency, a visual treat, or all of the above, each building will bring something new to appreciate and, ideally, inspire you.

The first stop on our grand tour of glass architecture: the Al Bahr Towers in Abu Dhabi. Equipped with photo-responsive facades, AHR (formerly known as Aedas Architects) completed this pair of sun and heat-defying towers in 2012. The secret to their success? Well, it’s actually no secret at all. In fact, AHR took a very traditional, time-tested design element from Islamic architecture, “mashrabiya”, and applied it on a grand scale to their design. Dating back to at least the 12th century, Mashrabiyas are screens that utilize latticework to control air flow, temperature, and/or humidity, and they feature geometric patterns that run the gamut from simple to very complex. In Islamic architecture, they are also often cantilevered which allows them to provide additional shade to the first floor of a building, and additional square footage to the upper floors.

Untitled design (4)

In an interview with CNN, design architect for the project Abdulmajid Karanouh reflected that the mashrabiya design (combined with the principles of origami) granted a solution that would offer the much needed dimension, flexibility, and geometric shapes that could adjust to the sun’s movement. After intuiting the inspiration for the design, the next step was the integration of computer programming. AHR states on their website that they used “advanced computational design techniques and developed bespoke applications to simulate the movement of the facade in response to the sun’s path.” The final result: computer controlled geometric screens that change shape and move with the sun. The screens function much like umbrellas, unfolding when the sunlight hits them. Tallying it up, there are 2,098 dynamic units used across the facades of both towers. Having so many dynamic units takes away the need for heavily treated glass, which in turn requires less artificial lighting and air conditioning inside the towers.

Untitled design (5)

Of course, due to the desert climate in which the Al Bahr towers are located, the sun is a crucial environmental factor to consider— there’s no denying that. However, you might think the intense, relentless sunlight could at least be partially beneficial by way of helping power the buildings through the use of solar panels. But alas, on the contrary, the next most important environmental factor in a place like Abu Dhabi is the dust and sand, which can actually be quite a hindrance to solar panel usage. According to Karanouh, “Even the thinnest layer of dust can reduce the efficiency of solar panels by nearly half.” And on top of that, preventative maintenance of the panels to keep them free of said dust layer would require a LOT of fresh water, which is already scarce in Abu Dhabi. Not to mention that (at least at the time the towers were being designed) the energy required to adequately dispense the water would also rack up quickly, and likely equate to much more than what the solar panels could even produce in the first place. So, instead of opting for solar panels that are all the rage in this day and age, AHR looked to the past and found their solution within the traditions of the local architecture. 

Wanna know where we’re headed next on our tour of the finest glass architecture? Follow us on Facebook so you can know the moment we post the next installment of our series! In the meantime, we highly suggest you check out that CNN interview we mentioned earlier, where you can watch the facades of the towers in action. It’s pretty cool (literally!)