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The Constellation at The Founder’s Memorial, United Arab Emirates

Engineering an artwork to celebrate the founding father of the United Arab Emirates

In Abu Dhabi, Aurecon engineered an unconventional public artwork to celebrate the life, legacy and values of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

To commemorate Sheikh Zayed’s 100th birthday, the UAE unveiled The Founder’s Memorial to honour the founding father in 2018, thus creating a space where future generations can gain a deeper understanding of his legacy.

Global engineering and infrastructure advisory company, Aurecon, was appointed to help bring the Memorial and the Memorial’s monumental centrepiece – The Constellation – to life.

Designed by American renowned artist Ralph Helmick, The Constellation is a 3-D portrait of Sheikh Zayed, framed within a 30-metre tall prism-like pavilion that is open on two sides. The Sheikh’s well-known likeness was respectfully recreated with a pointillist array of 1327 “floating” geometric elements anchored to 1,110 strands of 30 m long cables. These elements comprise varying sizes of the five complex polyhedrons known as “Platonic solids”. As Sheikh Zayed is much beloved, every single solid had to be placed perfectly.

This is the first time Helmick has designed a public art sculpture of this scale. In fact, this icon counts among one of the world’s largest public art installations. Aurecon’s design goal was to design a buildable solution and engineer the structure, cables and materials to allow Helmick to articulate his masterpiece.

According to Steve Daniels, Aurecon’s Global Facades Leader, the challenge was in creating an overall design solution which could continue in parallel with the artist’s sculpture work.  This resulted in a set of rules allowing structural design of The Constellation’s “frame” and cables to continue while still providing the artist with a ‘blank canvas’ upon which to work.

Star gazing

In Abu Dhabi, daytime temperatures can rise above 50°C during summer and the region is subjected to high wind speeds throughout the year.

Imagine the prevailing winds blowing across an array of thin cables placed closely together in a structure that is located near to the sea. Under normal circumstances, the wind might funnel across the cables and create a humming sound (known as ‘aeolian tones’). The challenge was to design to minimise the potential of this sound occurring, so as not to disrupt the visitor experience.

Another challenge was the potential for these weighted cables to become entangled, thus ruining the likeness being portrayed.

To overcome these challenges, Aurecon’s engineers studied how the complex interaction of wind, moisture, salinity, and heat would affect the performance of the cables and spheres. The objective was to minimise sound, vibration, corrosion, wire fatigue and stresses on the roof structure and foundations. Solutions were also found for the pre-tension required for the cables to counteract thermal changes.

Aurecon’s engineers also conducted numerous wind studies for the optimum cable material and diameter for design wind speeds up to 40 m/s (about 140 km/h). More work was put into researching the ideal material for the solids to ensure The Constellation would continue to maintain its appearance while transforming the Sheikh’s portrait into a celestial display.

Despite the many challenges, the team from Aurecon enjoyed the research, model building and analysis to ensure the design would assimilate into Abu Dhabi’s hot, windy, and hazy environment – resulting in an outstanding piece of art reflecting the people’s reverential feelings for Sheikh Zayed.

Celestial celebration

The Constellation is one of the largest art installations of its kind in the world and is unique in its use of abstract portraiture on this scale. To accommodate evening viewing, 753 downlights and 1,203 uplights were custom made to illuminate the sculpture from above and below.

The Constellation is the centrepiece of the 3.3-hectare development called The Founder’s Memorial, which includes a Welcome Centre, Sanctuary Garden, Heritage Garden and an elevated walkway. Through art, nature, words, stories and multimedia experiences, The Founder’s Memorial offers visitors the chance to learn about Sheikh Zayed’s life, values, and accomplishments.

After more than six years of design, planning and construction, The Founder’s Memorial opened to the public on 22 April 2018, in time to celebrate the centennial of the late Sheikh Zayed’s birth.

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