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Long before traveling to Dubai, visitors' imaginations are often captured by the city's modern architectural wonders. While many may not be familiar with Arabian wind towers or courtyard houses, most have heard about the enormous sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, the indoor snow resort Ski Dubai, and the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (formerly known as the Burj Dubai). When the World Trade Centre was erected in 1979, it stood as the sole skyscraper in a mostly empty desert. Many observers scratched their heads, wondering what the point was of a high-rise in the still sleepy town. Even as late as 1990, most of Sheikh Zayed Road remained an empty sandpit. But today, the World Trade Centre appears antiquated next to the sleek high-rises that stretch as far as the eye can see. Before the financial crisis of 2009, it was estimated that up to a quarter of the world's construction cranes were located here. While construction has slowed significantly, Dubai's skyline is now longer than that of Manhattan. This wealthy emirate played home to among the most innovative and ambitious architectural projects in the world, some of which were completed, and others of which have been canceled or placed on hold as a result of debt concerns.

Dubai's original architecture, dating from the late 19th century, was influenced by Iranian, Indian, and Islamic designs. The hot and humid climate, religious and social customs of the inhabitants, and available selection of construction materials were crucial considerations in building styles. The main features were simplicity, functionality, durability, and suitability for the climate. Early structures were made of stone, palm leaves, and palm tree trunks, with mud substituting for mortar. The majority of Dubai's first inhabitants lived in barastis, huts made with palm fronds. Later, the strongest available materials, coral stone from the sea and gypsum from the creek's salt marshes, were used for the emirate's four common structures - watchtowers, mosques, souks, and houses. Islamic emphasis on privacy and modesty factored into the design of courtyard homes, many of which were connected to wind towers for cooling in the summer months. Buildings were erected close together to create shaded and breezy pedestrian walkways.

With Dubai's oil discovery came an unplanned construction boom that created a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Construction often paid little attention to traditional Islamic architecture or to the environment, and Dubai was not yet courting the world's attention by building the biggest and the best. Many glass towers were erected requiring enormous amounts of electricity to keep cool.

In recent years, builders have become somewhat more conscientious about both the environment and Arabic heritage. Master planning overseen by Dubai's rulers is leading to more harmonious development. The most efficient heat-resistant materials are increasingly used in construction, and more architects are incorporating traditional designs into their work. Madinat Jumeirah is an excellent example of a thoroughly modern development that celebrates Arabian style. Dubai's leaders are also making a serious effort at last to protect the emirate's architectural past, reconstituting the Bastakiya old quarter near the creek and opening museums and cultural centers to commemorate the early days. For more information about Dubai's early architecture, visit the Architectural Heritage Society (tel. 04-353-9765) in Bastakiya. It's open Saturday to Wednesday from 8am to 1pm and again from 5pm to 8pm.

To get a sense of the diversity and innovation of Dubai's architectural projects, I've picked six of Dubai's most fascinating architectural sights:

  • Bastakiya: This architectural heritage site is a complete restoration of one of Dubai's original neighborhoods where wealthy Persian merchants settled in the late 1800s. The buildings are historic, but the pristine quarter looks brand-new. You can walk along meandering lanes, see traditional Gulf courtyard houses with hand-carved wooden doors, and marvel at the ornate wind towers that were used for cooling in the days before air-conditioning. The coral stone and cement wind towers, defined by double or triple wind openings, arched ends, and stepped recesses, once lined the Dubai Creek and cooled the residences using innovative air-current systems that passed from the wind towers to the floors below. Bastakiya also houses a museum, cultural center, restaurants, and a heritage hotel with an art gallery. The Al Fahidi Fort, which today is the Dubai Museum, was built in 1799, and is the city's oldest surviving structure.
  • Burj Al Arab: Created by architect Tom Wright to resemble the billowing sail of an Arabian dhow, the massive Burj Al Arab (which translates to "Arabian Tower") extends 321m (1,053 ft.) to the sky. The iconic structure, which rises from its own man-made island, dominates the Jumeirah Beach coastline, eclipsing the wavelike-shaped Jumeirah Beach Hotel just in front. The Burj is made of a steel frame exterior wrapped around a concrete tower, with white Teflon-coated fiberglass forming the building's white "sail." At night, the Burj is lit up in a spectacular show of changing colors. A helipad and glass-enclosed restaurant extend from the top. The expensive hotel features the world's largest atrium, and the opulent interior design includes 8,000 sq. meters (86,111 sq. ft.) of 22-carat gold leaf.
  • Burj Khalifa: Inaugurated in January 2010, the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa, dominates the skyline with its thin silver steel structure and can be seen for miles. Its height surpasses 800m (2,625 ft.), including 160 stories (the top floors are not much bigger than storage spaces, however). There's an observation deck - At The Top - on the 124th floor (for ticket information, visit www.burjkhalifa.ae). In designing the building, lead architect Adrian Smith, of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, drew inspiration from traditional Islamic architecture, which uses stepped ascending spirals. The building rises from a flower-shaped base - the flower is the hymenocallis, a white lily cultivated in the surrounding desert. The skyscraper, which is also the world's tallest freestanding structure, is estimated to have cost over $4 billion. In addition to luxury apartments and office spaces, it houses one of the first Armani hotels. The tower marks the centerpiece of the surrounding "Downtown Dubai" residential and entertainment complex, which houses the Dubai Mall, the Address hotel, and The Palace - Old Town. There are more than 1,200 stores here, 150 restaurants, the Dubai Fountains, an ice-skating rink, cinemas, an aquarium, and vast entertainment options for families and kids.
  • The Islands: The largest artificial islands in the world sit off the coast of Dubai in the Gulf. Collectively, the Palm Islands are considered by some to be an Eighth Wonder of the World. Developed by U.A.E.-based Nakheel Properties, this triad of islands includes the Palm Jumeirah, Palm Deira, and Palm Jebel Ali. However, only the Palm Jumeirah is complete, and the others have been delayed - some believe permanently - as a result of debt problems facing Nakheel. Made with hundreds of millions of cubic meters of reclaimed land from the bottom of the Gulf, the islands are each designed in the shape of a palm tree with a trunk, fronds, and crescent, adding a total of 520km (323 miles) of coastline to Dubai. The Palm Jumeirah includes a 2km-long (1 1/4-mile) "trunk," 17 fronds, and an 11km (7-mile) crescent that surrounds the island, creating a breakwater. Many residents have already moved into their luxury villas and apartments, and dozens of beachfront hotels are planned. The Atlantis Resort opened at the apex of the island's crescent in late 2008, and along with it Aquaventure, Dolphin Bay, and The Lost Chambers. A high-tech monorail runs from the base of the island to the crescent.
  • The Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira, which are planned to be much larger than the first island, are still under construction and will take at least another decade to complete. Bridges attach the islands to the mainland, and each is expected to house multimillion dollar villas, luxury condos, private marinas, and retail and entertainment centers. Environmentalists worry about damage to surrounding marine habitats, and there's no doubt the enormous Palm Island projects have altered the ecology.
  • The other major island project, "The World," has also been indefinitely postponed amidst financial troubles. It was intended to comprise a series of 300 man-made islands 4km (2 1/2 miles) off the coast of Dubai, protected by an oval breakwater and situated to form the shape of a map. It was designed by the same troubled U.A.E. developer Nakheel Properties, at a cost of roughly $14 billion. Each of the islands ranges in size from 23,000 to 84,000 sq. meters (247,569-904,168 sq. ft.), with 50 to 100m (164-328 ft.) of water between them. Much of the groundwork has already been laid.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.