Fueled by one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Dubai has never been a city troubled by humility. Long crowded with construction cranes, the desert city boasts a dizzying collection of ultramodern and hyper-tall skyscrapers, unreal manmade islands, and massive fountains. The effect is an atmosphere of pure, unrestrained ostentation.

Dubai is a city that isn’t shy of attention. Here, you can ski indoors. You can enjoy giant upscale waterparks in the middle of the desert. And you can shop at a world-class mall that features its very own dinosaur. Subtlety isn’t always essential in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2009, when a design competition, cosponsored by Dubai and ThyssenKrupp Elevators, sought to establish an architectural icon to promote “the new face of Dubai;’ there were more than 900 entrants. The winning entry couldn’t have been more fitting. Because Fernando Donis, a Mexican architect based in the Netherlands, delivered a colossal, free-standing, portrait-style frame.

Intended to both contribute to Dubai’s architectural landscape and to highlight it, the postmodern structure features two towers connected by a perpendicular observation deck. When it’s completed, the Frame will stand 492 feet tall and will serve as a dividing line and a window between historical Dubai to the north and more recent development to the south.

“The purpose of this project is to build a void;’ explains a statement from Donis, calling it an “anti-icon” that is the “maximization of the post-and-lintel principle:’ If architects are often striving for simplicity, the Dubai Frame certainly succeeds on that score. Less building than not, the Frame is a triumph of empty space, a simple rectangle towering above Zabeel Park.

However, while the design is straightforward and elegant, the history of the project has been anything but. After awarding Donis $100,000 in prize money, the Municipality of Dubai cut ties with the architect in the midst of the contract phase. When Donis objected to the terms of the proposed agreement that limited his copyright, negotiations came to an end.

Dubai proceeded to handle construction without the architect’s involvement, failing to properly compensate him properly for his design, in violation of the terms of the contest. In a city known for dubious building practices and human rights abuses, the structure has had the perhaps-unintended effect of framing a deeply troubled industry and drawing global negative publicity in the press.

The controversy has also raised thorny questions about intellectual property, ownership, and international copyright law. The Municipality of Dubai maintains that Donis’s copyright only covers “conceptual design;’ giving the Municipality the power to proceed without him. Most intellectual property experts, however, side with the architect, whose protected work was well-documented (the contest was even overseen by UNESCO”s International Union of Architects).

The similarity of the in-construction Frame and Donis’s submission is undeniable. They are conceptually identical. In fact, the height of the structure matches the proposed design down to the meter. However, Dubai has embellished the structure beyond Donis’s unadorned, simple proposal. They’ve added a flourish in-line with the character of the city: ornate gold stainless steel cladding. The overall effect is almost chintzy, more roadside attraction than architectural triumph.

At a cost of $43 million, Dubai is hoping the Frame, with its multimedia exhibits on the history of Dubai and its observation deck ( complete with a glass floor for thrill-seekers) will become a major tourist attraction, drawing an estimated two million visitors a year. Construction delays have plagued the project, but the Frame is expected to open before the end of 2017, as a lawsuit concerning the Frame continues.

While the Dubai Frame is a clear-cut case of a bad faith transaction, copycat buildings have become more and more common, especially in fast­developing regions like Dubai and many cities in China (where jurisdiction isn’t always clear). Zaha Hadid’s buildings were the subject of multiple plagiarism controversies, including a major stadium in Tokyo and a knockoff in Chongqing. As high­profile buildings continue to be associated closely with their creators, the problem of intellectual influence architectural copyright may only become more complicated.

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / SEPTEMBER 2017 – Amazing Buildings