Tom Wright designed a jaw-dropping hotel at Dubai's Jumeirah Beach. Now he's putting WS Atkins Architects on the map all around the world – even in the UK.
Tom Wright has just been on a date with Anthea Turner at the best resort hotel in the world (as voted by Condé Nast Traveller magazine last year). The destination? The opulent Jumeirah Beach Resort in Dubai, on which Wright was design director for five years. As for the liaison with Anthea, they were there to film an episode of How Did They Do That?, Granada Television’s technology magazine, to be screened on 20 March.

The television appearance will kick off a profile-raising campaign for WS Atkins’ architecture arm, which the dynamic architect director is to spearhead. The aim is to ride the wave of publicity from Jumeirah Beach Resort, including the startling Burj al-Arab (Arabian Tower) Hotel, to a stronger position in the UK.

This has involved Wright making a strategic move from the firm’s Oxford office to its Epsom headquarters. Here he will run design teams for resort commissions around the world. He will also field teams drawn from Atkins’ global pool of 240 architects for a “multidisciplinary attack on all fronts” on the lucrative London market.

The 42-year-old designer of one of the boldest and most spectacular architectural statements of recent years is far from flashy in person. Diffident and softly spoken, he comes across as a passionate and meticulous designer. “Jumeirah Beach took up every minute of my life for five years,” he says. “I only left once I had seen every single form of cladding panel and knew it was going to be as I wanted it.”

Wright joined Atkins in 1991 when it bought the architectural practice Lister Drew Haines Barrow, where he was a director. Eighteen months later, the government of Dubai commissioned it to design a landmark, super-luxury resort that would attract similar development all along its coast. Wright was sent out to be project director.

To an ambitious architect, the commission was almost too good to be true. He had more or less carte blanche to design an iconic building that would come to symbolise the developing Dubai, “like the Opera House in Sydney or the Eiffel Tower in Paris”, he says. The constraints of the site, situated between the desert and the sea, were minimal. And so, apparently, were the constraints of the budget. Even Turner could not wheedle a figure out of Wright (widely believed to be somewhere north of £300m). “She bounced the question at me in front of the camera and I had to say, ‘I can't tell you that.’”

Wright found the challenge daunting at first. "When I arrived in 1993 I was confronted with the architectural Wild West – buildings were being designed by architects from India and Europe in very funny styles. We had to design a building that would become a symbol not of Dubai’s past but of its future.”

He came up with the sail-shaped Burj al-Arab as “a symbol of luxury yachting of the future”. The decision to locate it 300 m out to sea on a man-made island was made to avoid casting a shadow on the Jumeirah settlement and the adjacent beach. “It also answered another part of that iconic brief – another bit of wow factor,” says Wright.

The Burj al-Arab has since won a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest hotel in the world. It was no doubt this distinction that brought it to the attention of Granada. Wright says the record was a fluke. “Before Burj al-Arab, the world’s tallest hotel was in Shanghai, at 320 m. But the chap doing the drawings didn’t like 320 and thought 321 was a better number.”

Since it opened last November, the Jumeirah Beach Resort has been showered with international accolades, and Atkins has already won a clutch of spin-off commissions in Saudi Arabia, China, Lebanon and Israel. “These commissions are a direct result of people going to Jumeirah Beach and saying: ‘Whoah! We want something just like that.’ Our job now is to come up with something even better.”

Wright acknowledges that Atkins has never achieved a similar impact in the UK. He attributes this to “historical” reasons. “Elsewhere in the world, we are known as designers, but in England, Atkins has always had this association with building motorways and bridges. That, combined with the fact that a lot of our design work traditionally comes in through the engineering disciplines, has meant that we've always had enough architecture work without going out to the private sector. But the private sector is where companies like SOM, HOK and BDP have made their mark.” At the same time, Wright says the firm’s huge design workload of small buildings such as schools and libraries is a strength, because it allows it to put more time and effort into the bigger and more exciting jobs.

The firm’s current strategy is to crack the London commercial market by offering itself as a one-stop multidisciplinary shop. Wright expects WS Atkins Architects to compete for jobs with firms like Arup Associates, BDP and HOK. “We have never tried to be a style house like Foster’s. We have demonstrated we can do a whole range of different buildings, from very exciting to very commercial. We just try to work out what the client wants and give it to him. Atkins is working with 70 of the FTSE top 100 quoted companies in various ways, so through internal cross-selling we can get in front of the right people very quickly,” he says. “Initially, we’ll get ourselves out there and see what comes along. Then if we find that it’s worth setting up a London office for architects, we’ll do it.”

On major new projects in London and elsewhere, Wright will co-ordinate with five regionally based directors on the firm’s architects board, set up last year to determine architectural strategy. “Since then, rather than having regionally based teams, we now put together the best teams for projects. For the resort I’m doing in Jeddah, I’ve flown people in from Bristol, Dubai and Glasgow to Epsom.”

Has he been tempted, on the back of the success and prestige of Jumeirah Beach, to start up on his own? He replies diplomatically: “You’re continually tempted to do that, but at the moment I see the potential of where I’m at in Atkins and what we can do. I feel that we are at the beginning of something that could really take off over the next few years.”

Personal effects

Where do you live? In a flat in Epsom with my girlfriend George and my daughter Lucy. In Dubai, I had first option on the villas and I decided to live in Satwah, the downtown Indian market quarter, rather than Jumeirah where all the expats live. What’s your favourite building? Ronchamps Convent Chapel in France by Le Corbusier. It’s just different and brilliant from whatever angle you look at it. What car do you drive? A BMW because they’re just nice cars, aren’t they? And a Triumph Daytona 955 motorcycle for scaring myself on sunny Sunday mornings. What’s your dream weekend? Sailing my 34-foot Westerley Storm yacht out of Gosport up the Solent in a strong wind. What would you be if you weren’t an architect? A starship commander. What would your dream project be? To take 10 years off and sail around the world, via the African Cape. The one thing I dread is lying on my deathbed not having done it. I’d hate that. That would be a failing in life.