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    Dubai Frame: UAE’s latest surreal landmark frames a controversy

    Architect’s ‘stolen building’ accusation overshadows opening of 50-storey portal almost a decade after it was first designed.
    Home to the tallest skyscraper, the largest shopping mall and the longest driverless metro system in the world, Dubai adds another superlative to the list this week: it can now admire all its world record-breaking trophies through the biggest picture frame on the planet.
    Rising 150 metres above Zabeel Park, encrusted with swirling golden motifs that glisten in the desert sunshine, the Dubai Frame has finally opened almost a decade after it was first designed. 
    For 50 dirhams (£10), visitors are treated to an immersive exhibition of the emirate’s history, before taking an elevator to a 93-metre long viewing gallery at the top of the frame, where they can walk along a precipitous glass-floored walkway and enjoy views back to the old city of Deira to the north and the teetering towers of Sheikh Zayed Road to the south. 
    A neon-lit “vortex” tunnel then transports visitors to an interactive exhibition on the future of Dubai, with augmented reality displays offering glimpses of the UAE 50 years from now. It all has the feeling of an Expo pavilion, which is fitting given that the entire building is smothered with the patterned golden livery of Dubai’s Expo 2020 brand – making it a 50-storey billboard for the forthcoming extravaganza.
    The Frame is one of the more surreal silhouettes to have appeared on the city’s busy skyline in recent years, standing as a slender hollow rectangle visible for miles around, as an outline awaiting its content.
    Its pared-back rectangular form makes it difficult to discern its scale. From some angles it looks like an empty roadside hoarding stripped of its advertisement; from others like a gargantuan triumphal arch, pimped-up to the max. With the temporary air of a scaffolding structure, some locals have asked when it’s actually going to be finished and filled in with floors. It has already become a popular backdrop for selfies, providing a glitzy #nofilter border to countless couples’ romantic poses in Zabeel Park.
    But the building has proven controversial for other reasons. The 50-storey portal may be the tallest picture frame in the world, but its architect wants to add another title to the stats: for him, it is the biggest stolen building of all time.
    “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.”
    Conceived at the height of Dubai’s light-headed bubble, as islands in the shape of the world were being sold on the eve of the global financial crisis, his winning design was a stroke of minimalist brilliance. It was an impossibly slender white frame, standing apart from the surrounding cacophony of novelty silhouettes, yet containing them all. It had the stark clarity of a Sol LeWitt sculpture, a scaleless outline wrought in concrete and steel that would change its aspect from different vantage points around the city.
    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.