Since its formation 20 years ago, New York–based architecture practice Asymptote has had a love affair with technology and light. In a number of conceptual projects and installations, co-founders Lise Anne Couture and Hani Rashid have played with these two elements to discover different ways to transform a building's skin into a living, breathing surface capable of mapping phenomena and projecting emotion. But they had been waiting for a project whose program and budget would allow them to undertake such a technological exploration. A recent commission to design a hotel at the Yas Marina Circuit—a Formula 1 (F1) racetrack on an exclusive island development in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates—offered the perfect opportunity to develop these ideas on a grand scale. “We salivated at the prospect of being able to build something that would have a relationship to the cars, but also a framework based in the atmosphere of the desert and the way the light is by the sea,” Rashid explains.

To harness the energy and excitement of F1 racing, the architects arranged the 499 rooms of the 850,000-square-foot hotel into two towers that straddle the racetrack. A two-story bridge housing a hotel bar connects the towers and provides a perfect perch from which to watch the races. Then Asymptote looked to the ways people in the Middle East traditionally have fended off the heat: tent structures, veils, and kaftans. “These beautiful, poetic forms culminated in a sensual and technologically advanced skin that we could drape over the building, sheltering the rooms from the light and producing some amazing events that would tie back to the race,” Rashid says. Collaborating with a team of lighting designers, engineers, modelers, and fabricators that included Arup Lighting, Schlaich Bergermann, Gehry Technologies, and Waagner-Biro, the architects realized this vision in a fluidly formed 183,000-square-foot grid shell structure of steel and glass. During the day, the shroud hovers protectively above and around the hotel guestroom buildings, creating a stack effect that draws hot air away from the building envelope. At night, the structure becomes a screen set in motion by thousands of custom LED fixtures.

Even with a relatively high budget (construction costs ran to $608 million), Asymptote's design threatened to break the bank. The fluid form that it originally envisioned for the grid shell required the construction of thousands of uniquely shaped panels. The most economical solution—a pair of domes joined in the middle—would have compromised the design. However, through parametric modeling, the team was able to arrive at a compromise that not only maintained the flowing geometry but organized the 5,800 panels into 180 standard shapes while meeting the budget requirements.

Another feature of the grid shell that needed to be re-evaluated because of its cost was the use of moving parts. “The original idea was that the motion of the cars would trigger movement in the panels, so the skin would seem to shiver and the whole thing would flicker,” Rashid says. Fortunately, a close semblance of this effect occurs without manipulating the panels. Instead, each lozenge-shaped panel of laminated low-E glass is positioned in its frame to produce a varied reflection, so that the light—natural and electric—glimmers across the surface as a viewer's perspective changes. Asymptote and Arup Lighting were careful to position the panels so as not to shine light into the eyes of the drivers below or into those of pilots passing overhead—a serious concern. A frit pattern in the glass helps to diffuse the light and reduce the glare, keeping the natural lighting comfortable in the hotel rooms while maintaining a shimmering aspect on the hotel's façade, much like a snake's skin or the scales of a fish.

The grid shell comes most to life, of course, at night, when 5,800 fixtures with RGBW LEDs, each targeted at a dedicated panel, fire up to transform the structure into a giant animated display. The choice of LEDs seemed an obvious one, but it did present a unique challenge. “Day one was: We're going to have this media façade; great LEDs!” says Brian Stacy, project director at Arup Lighting. “Day two was: Wait, what did we agree to? A desert is the antithesis of an ideal environment for LEDs.”

To a great extent, the performance of LEDs depends on the ambient temperature of the operating environment, and overdriving them in high temperatures—such as those found along the Persian Gulf—can result in the LEDs failing. Arup Lighting worked with a number of manufacturers to find a way over this hurdle, most of which involved designing custom fixtures with large heat sinks. The most elegant solution used a standard fixture outfitted with remote device management (RDM) DMX control. This system allows bi-directional communication between the fixtures and a central computer, which monitors their temperature and dims the entire display before overheating can occur.

The luminaires are positioned at a distance from the grid shell on posts atop the structural nodes, and they cast their light down onto the glass panels. “Because the panels come in different shapes and sizes, we had to come up with a design solution that provided variable beam adjustments and variable intensities,” Stacy says. “So when you have 100 percent on one panel it looks similar to 100 percent on another panel.” Arup Lighting developed software that adjusts levels to create a consistent look. They also based the frit pattern on an algorithm that varies the density of the ceramic dots to encourage an even diffusion of light across the glass surface. The fixtures are woven throughout the grid, terminating at the shell's structural nodes in steel globes that contain the electronics for the control system.

Asymptote and Arup Lighting then worked together to come up with a framework for the animated sequences. “We wanted the video feed to create these conceptual effects of breathing and undulating,” Rashid says. “But what it came down to were lighting effects that were suitable to the race.” Indeed, while watching the waves of color race across the surface of the grid shell the first sensation that comes to mind is speed—not just the speed of F1 cars, but also the speed of LED development, which each year extends the possibilities for designers to expand their means of expression.

Project Yas Hotel, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Design Team Asymptote Architecture, New York (lead architect); Arup Lighting, New York (lighting designer); Dewan Architects & Engineers, Abu Dhabi, and Tilke & Partners, Dubai (local architects); Dewan Architects & Engineers, Abu Dhabi, and Arup, New York (structural engineers); Schlaich Bergermann und Partner, Stuttgart, Germany, and Waagner-Biro, Vienna (grid-shell engineers); Front Inc., New York, and Taw & Partner, Hamburg (façade consultants); Gehry Technologies, Los Angeles and New York (grid shell BIM consultant)

Project Size 850,000 square feet (overall); 183,000 square feet (grid shell)

Project Cost $608 million

Manufacturers Cooper Lighting and Safety, e:cue Lighting Controls, Enfis