Flamingo watch: winning designs for Al Wathba wetlands

The winning designs for the competition to design a flamingo observation platform and connecting boardwalk for Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba Wetland Reserve have been published.

The platform is intended as a new architectural landmark for the wetlands, just south of Abu Dhabi city. It would also supplement the reserve’s existing visitor experience centre, a network of trails through the scrub, and a bird hide.

We liked this competition, basically because it asked for small-scale architecture rather than the more dramatic statements more often associated with the UAE. The brief said the bird observation platform should be limited to a floor area of 400 m² and no more than 12m in height; it should be durable, easy to maintain, and handicapped-accessible; modular assembly was recommended; and it should cost less than $200,000 to build.

In the event there was an entertaining range of submissions (see the shortlisted projects here). Some embraced the topological constraints, some went for more dramatic solutions, and several missed one or two of the key practical issues (like shade from the unforgiving Abu Dhabi sun, or relief from the extremely whiffy environs: while the brief didn’t mention the smell, a mass of flamingos flocking on to a pretty still and shallow lake can produce a mighty pong from which an open observation area would provide no escape).

The overall winner was Flamingo Dreams, a design by Bryan Fan and Shelley Xu, a pair of young graduate architects working in a major Australian practice. They have reinvented the usual boardwalk as an experiential promenade, a metal grill walkway set on a forest of thin vertical members and covered by a shell of palm leaves that leads up to an open-air walkway from which visitors can watch the flamingos.

From outside, the result resembles a bird’s nest; when you’re inside, it will be more like looking through a thicket of grass.

It seems to us to have a few practical issues, not least the absence of any shading for the birdwatchers. There’s also very little attempt to hide the people from the birds; the current observation cabin has the usual slit-like window to avoid spooking the flamingos with too much movement and noise.

On top of that, the use of steel throughout (including some purpose made connectors to tie the palm on to the structure) seems slightly perverse when natural materials would seem a better fit for the role. Why couldn’t the structure be made from bamboo, or at least laminated wood?

The Al Wathba Birdwalk project placed second, by a team from the hip London architecture and design agency AIDIASTUDIO, is less dramatic but also less intrusive. It uses a minimally invasive construction system with more natural materials, has shading from a stretched semi-transparent fabric, and sits more naturally in the topography of the landscape. But maybe it was a little too quiet to impress the judges sufficiently …

Third place went to one of the more explicit designs, The Cube. This is a lattice structure by Rafail Gkaidatzis and Panagiotis Dimakidis, two Greek architects from the Netherlands. It provides multiple viewing platforms at various heights that would also hide visitors, or at least allow them to blend into the patterned background, and there should be enough shade.

The Cube is a modular timber structure that can be built away from the wetlands and bolted together easily on-site (minimum construction emissions, minimum disruption to the birds). That was a key consideration for the jury, which explicitly rated competition entries on “energy-efficient construction methods that considered minimal excavation and limited road access given the site’s remote location”.

We liked this one; even though it makes little attempt to blend in the landscape, it sends all the right eco-friendly messages and seems to have more than enough functionality. It also looks good, and it should weather nicely.

The competition was part of the design competition series run by Bee Breeders in partnership with the Environmental Agency – Abu Dhabi. There are no guarantees, but winning designs will apparently be considered for construction.

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