Architect’s ‘stolen building’ accusation overshadows opening of 50-storey portal almost a decade after it was first designed
“They took my project, changed the design and built it without me,” says Fernando Donis, the Mexican architect whose frame proposal won an international competition in 2008 for a “tall emblem structure to promote the new face of Dubai”.
Organised by the German elevator company Thyssen Krupp in collaboration with the International Union of Architects (UIA), a Unesco-affiliated organisation that ran the competitions for the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the contest received over 900 entries from across the globe.
Some questioned the need for another high-rise emblem, given that Dubai is famously home to a bristling thicket of mirrored-glass shafts, from the soaring Burj Khalifa, to a pair of golden doppelgängers of New York’s Chrysler building, to towers crowned with pyramids, spires and orbs. In this global capital of landmark buildings, the challenge was to make a new kind of landmark that would stand out from the crowd.
Donis was well placed to rise to the challenge. While working for Rem Koolhaas at OMA in Rotterdam, he had designed a number of “anti-iconic” projects for Dubai, including an unrealised scheme for a monolithic plain white rectangular block named the Renaissance, whose professed aim was “to end the current phase of architectural idolatry”.
For the 2008 competition, Donis took it a step further. “Instead of another massive structure,” he says, “I proposed a void. Something that would frame all the other landmarks.”
The architect received his $100,000 prize and was flown to Dubai to be feted at a dinner with the crown prince, but he says that shortly thereafter he received a contract from the Dubai municipality that limited his involvement to an advisory role. It demanded that he hand over his intellectual property, never visit the construction site and never promote the project as his own work, while the municipality could terminate the agreement at any point. Donis says he refused to sign it, so they hired Hyder Consulting, a branch of Dutch engineering giant Arcadis, and went ahead without him.
“It is an act of supreme arrogance,” says Edward Klaris, a New York-based lawyer who filed a lawsuit on behalf of the architect in the United States federal court last year, to no avail. “The United Arab Emirates puts itself out there as a country that respects intellectual property, yet it will blatantly infringe copyright. The Dubai legal system makes it impossible to sue the municipality unless the municipality gives you authority to sue them. They give themselves sovereign immunity against any lawsuit.”
The municipality has been contacted by the Guardian several times over the past year, but has so far declined to comment, nor allow access to the site. In a letter to Donis, Thyssen Krupp said the situation amounted to “a commercial disagreement” and that the company “does not have any possibility to interfere”. In a statement to the Guardian, the UIA said: “All UIA-endorsed competitions are required to adhere to the principles embodied in the Unesco regulations [which protect intellectual property]. Nevertheless, the UIA cannot legally intervene in the aftermath of a competition.”