Interviews

The jewel in Abu Dhabi’s crown

British designer Kevin Dean has illustrated books, walls and restaurants. Here he tells Melanie Mingas about one of his biggest design projects; the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’s 18,000m2 Sahan

When artist Kevin Dean first arrived at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi in 2003, it was “just a dark, huge, concrete building”.

“It was difficult to imagine it beyond that. When I arrived, the courtyard was just sand,” Dean recalls.

However, in four years, a team of 38 companies and 3000 workers transformed the site into one of the most recognisable buildings in the world; featuring 80 domes, 1000 columns, 24-carat gold-plated chandeliers, a 35-ton hand-woven carpet, and of course the 18,000m2 marble courtyard, known as the Sahan.

A “truly international project”, according to Dean, the mosque has a maximum capacity of 40,000 worshippers, making it the largest in the United Arab Emirates and the eighth largest in the world.

“The contractors only had about a year to build the Sahan; at one point there were 400 men involved in that one element,” he explains.

The mosque opened in December 2007 and has since received a number of royal visitors; most recently Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth”

“I hadn’t worked on a development of this scale before; I had worked on ceramic projects involving murals, but not with marble.”

Dean was originally commissioned to design the Sahan, based on “a few scribbles on a piece of paper”, which had been given to him by Sheikh Sultan, the son of the late Sheikh Zayed.

He submitted his portfolio, which caught the client’s eye. After a phone call in 2003 from then architect Salma Damluji, he began liaising with HH Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to finalise his design.

“Sheikh Sultan had some ideas about what he would like the decoration to be like; it was fairly basic, but it did show that he wanted something that wasn’t traditionally Islamic in terms of geometrics, but more of a free flow in the design, which I was happy to do. It was very similar to the work I do in textiles.”

After completing the Sahan design, Dean began work on relief patterns for four external marble archways, which he describes only as “huge”.

Inside the mosque, Dean also designed the main entrance, floor, walls, side and north entrances.

“I thought I was just designing the Sahan, which was a big job, but to be asked to do the entrances as well was quite exciting.”

Drawing on a portfolio of illustration and floral textile designs, Dean also gained inspiration from previous designs he had created for ceramic murals.

“It was just a natural progression. I like illustration, but it’s very fashion-led; you either have a very strong style or you keep adopting new styles to get work.”

World-Class Design

Praised in the media for its “blend of architectural cultures”, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) says the building is “a construction to unite the world”, using designers, materials, architects and artists from Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, Turkey, Iran, China, Greece and the UAE.

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PROFILE

Kevin Dean graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1982. After graduating he worked as a freelance artist in London before accepting a position with a textile studio. Following this job he began working on ceramic murals. Today, Dean also works as a lecturer.

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Originally commissioned by Abu Dhabi’s then ruler Sheikh Zayed in the 1980s, the actual construction was led by the Abu Dhabi Municipality and British consulting engineers Halcrow Group, along with Hill International.

Speirs and Major, who also worked on the Burj Khalifa, were responsible for the design of architectural lighting and the internal doors and walls were designed and engineered by Spatium Architects.

“It was a very international building team and there were a few individuals like me just doing part-based projects.”

Saying he had to be “practical as well as beautiful”, Dean’s greatest consideration was the scale of the project.

“The design process wasn’t too different to other designs I had created in the past, but for example, if I draw a flower that is two inches squared, that would become two metres. Some of the flowers are more than four metres in diameter, so I had to keep reminding myself of the proportions.”

Another consideration was working with and preserving the marble.

Supplied by the Abu Dhabi arm of Milan-based Fantini Mosaici, Dean was sent to Italy to source the stone for the Sahan, selecting the final material from a choice of 37 colours. His design was processed on CAD software, which was then used to carefully cut the marble using a special water jet.

The next stage was to mount the different sized, cut pieces on a steel and concrete panel, which was shipped to Abu Dhabi for locally-based construction labourers to surround with white mosaic.

The contractors only had about a year to build the Sahan; at one point there were 400 men involved in that one element”

To create a cohesive, finished space, Dean says he “worked with the shapes that exist”, for example matching the centre of the designs with the centre of the building, particularly the main dome.

“All the designs for the internal floors emanate from the centre. It’s rather like a spider’s web where everything projects from one single flower in the middle.”

Design aside, the most pressing concern was how the marble would react once exposed to the desert sun. With temperatures frequently soaring above 40°C during the summer months and little shading around the Sahan, the stone had to be tested extensively to prove to the rest of the team, and Sheikh Sultan, that it could withstand the harsh conditions.

Royal Approval

The mosque opened for worship for Eid-al-Adha in December 2007 and has since received a number of royal visitors; most recently Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth. Since 2008, guided tours have enabled tourists of all faiths to follow in their footsteps and it was estimated that the mosque received 100,000 visitors during last year’s Eid-al-Adha.

Modestly, Dean admits the people he speaks to praise his work; as a result his profile is rising in tandem with that of the mosque.

“I have been selling some of my prints and artwork to galleries and a couple of them have said they would be interested in hosting an exhibition, which is something I am hoping to do in the New Year.”

He has also begun producing ‘digital printed murals’, for UK-based projects in restaurants and shops and has also privately commissioned work for a family in Dubai.

Calling the process “quite exciting”, he creates the mural before it is wall mounted by blowing up small-scale drawings, using digital print methods to a point where they “take on another aspect”.

Not ruling out further religious projects, Dean names hotels and restaurants as his ideal drawing boards in the Middle East, saying that the city skylines and local flora and fauna are inspiring his next range of wallpaper and personal watercolour paintings.

Speaking of the opportunities in the Middle East and his experience of working in the region, Dean comments: “People here are more willing to take risks and be adventurous and open to new ideas.

“It’s good for someone like me because I have had many years of experience and training in the UK and I can bring that here where there is a very exciting market emerging.”

CONSTRUCTION TRIVIA

Capacity: 40,000 worshippers

Domes: 80

Columns: 1000

Marble Sahan: 18,000m2

A 35-ton, hand-woven carpet was made in Iran and shipped to Abu Dhabi in parts. Up to 38 companies were involved in the construction, design and delivery of the mosque. Furthermore, as many as 3000 workers were employed. Around 100,000 visited the mosque during Eid-al-Adha in 2010.

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