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Arabian Heights

And yet, the essence of Dubai may be that it has thrown out all the rules of architectural taste. There is no shame about eclecticism. The idea that form and function should be in some little demure dance with each other simply isn't operative. Buildings are capped with spires and blossoms and funny hats. External "bracing" is added to structures for purely decorative effect. Whole villages that imitate foreign or historic styles are built and branded and sold, with nary a murmur about authenticity. They haven't just learned from Las Vegas, they've transcended it.

Which can leave an outsider feeling as if the whole trajectory of Western architecture, indeed, the project of Western civilization, is so yesterday. Dubai presents itself as a new crossroads of civilization and an unrepentant borrower and collector of the best. The dissonance is the aesthetic.

Welcome to International City

Wahid al-Heloo, a young architect with progressive impulses who works for the Dubai government, talks about the need to preserve the local architecture, now pretty much limited to a few small blocks of mud-walled houses built by the Iranian trading population about a hundred years ago. He stresses improvements being made on all fronts, from green architecture to the regulation of the size and layout of servants quarters (a window is required) and the building of a new metro and light rail system. He also points to projects such as International City, a mixed-used development that includes "themed" villages of different international and historical architectural styles, including a 240,000-square-foot replica of Beijing's Forbidden City.

"The younger generation doesn't have to travel anymore to learn about architecture," says al-Heloo. "International City gathers all the foreign culture."

Which hints at a deeper politics underneath the architectural eclecticism. Like the vast investment in shopping malls, the celebration of materialism, the encouragement of unashamedly conspicuous consumption, architectural eclecticism is another way of reassuring people that you have everything you need here. The state has provided. The government doesn't just build mega-projects as investment, but to demonstrate competence, power and problem-solving. The striking thing about the hundreds of concrete support pillars that have sprung up in recent months along Sheik Zayed highway -- which will support a new light rail system -- is how quickly they're going up. The delays, the disputes, the litigation, the whole messy business of "Not in My Back Yard" simply doesn't exist in the country.

"Dubai is the achievement of a certain fantasy or utopia, of a society in which the corporations, private ownership and the state are all collapsed into one another," says Mike Davis, who has written about Dubai in the recently published "Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism." The book, definitely in the left-wing tradition, surveys urban planning, social justice, environmental destruction and other issues in emergent and rapidly developing cities around the world. Whereas people in the Emirates argue that they are blazing a progressive path forward relative to other Arab and regional nations, Davis writes that Dubai is pointing the rest of the world back to "a nightmare of the past: Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby."

In Abu Dhabi, the agility and competence of the state is perhaps nowhere better seen than in a new urban plan for the city -- which is certainly a response to the problems of Dubai, though there is an unwritten code that one emirate doesn't speak ill of another. The document is almost an inch thick. And it only took eight months to produce.

"In other places, in the U.S. or Canada, they must go through public hearings," says Falah al-Ahbabi, the associate director for urban planning in the Abu Dhabi government. Not in Abu Dhabi. Asked what would happen if someone decided not to abide by the plan, al-Ahbabi doesn't find the question relevant. The plan, he says, was prepared with all the important stakeholders in the room. The sheik supports it; why would anyone flout its directives?

A Place for Everything

The Abu Dhabi plan encompasses the new cultural complex of A-list architecture planned for a patch of sand known as Saadiyat Island, and a new "federal" district that will include ceremonial spaces for displays of state power (Abu Dhabi is the capital of the Emirates). The Saadiyat Island plans feel like a swift, certain and bold corporate solution to one of the country's more glaring problems: Cultural life in this deracinated land of immigrants from East and West is limited. So, with the usual oversize U.A.E. ambition and boldness, the government of Abu Dhabi announced it had engaged Hadid, Gehry, Nouvel and Ando. Hadid will design an opera house and performing arts complex, Gehry will design a new extension of the worldwide Guggenheim Museum brand, Nouvel will build an Abu Dhabi outpost for France's Louvre museum, and Ando will design a maritime museum.

The designs for these new palaces (or pyramids) of culture can be seen in an exhibition set up at the Emirates Palace, an Arabian Nights monstrosity in Abu Dhabi. Some of the ideas are intellectually dazzling, intelligent and graceful and worked out on Pharaonic scale -- and yet it's hard not to be haunted by a sense of emptiness in even the best of these designs. They will all be built by a vast army of impoverished men from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and other desperately poor countries (see sidebar), men who will likely never enjoy the wealth -- material or cultural -- that will be on display at Saadiyat Island. And there is something weird and troubling about this coming together of major architects -- who are respected for their radicality or idealism or spirituality -- and a cultural complex that will bring the fruits of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the intellectual adventures of modernity into a land where materialism and exploitation are rampant and democracy nonexistent.

Perhaps because these are designs for cultural institutions, one shouldn't just admire them for their occasional brilliance, their clever programs and sometimes inspiring form. Perhaps one should ask what agenda they will advance, whether they will bring values that help the Emirates advance to the kind of open society that many architects, over the past century, thought they were building in the West. Or are they just more advertisement for the Emirates model, empty husks that won't serve culture, but hold it captive for the amusement of world's luckiest and richest citizens?

One can't accuse any of them of not understanding, and encapsulating, the fantasies of their clients.

Hadid plays to the Emirates' fantasies of speed and technological sophistication, cleverly encasing multiple theaters of different sizes into a spaceship portal built out into the water. Nouvel has designed a museum made of a warren of irregular spaces, like the rooms one might find in an ancient ruin, then covered them with a huge, disk-shaped roof that will filter the sun and cast shadows. Abstract arabesques of light will fall on to what Nouvel says is an imaginary vision of an archaic city -- capturing the longing in this hyper-modern city-from-scratch for something ancient, and something distinctly Arab. Ando has used water and a simple, curving arched form to create a paradoxical sense of serenity and dazzling blankness.

Even Gehry's self-plagiarism says more than he may intend. His huge Guggenheim project is an utterly mindless application of the Gehry brand to the local brand. Instead of torqued shapes of metal, he has taken wind towers -- a distinctive, short, square tower that was used to help cool and ventilate homes in the traditional architecture of the Emirates -- and arrayed them in a Gehry-esque jumble of irregular spaces. The large size of the museum (a 320,000 square feet building, with exhibition space that will rival that of the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall) makes this pile of conical and towerlike pieces feel like a mountain of incoherence. This is the branding principle taken to its last, vitiated, exhausted extreme: You want a Frank Gehry and wind towers? Done. You've got a Gehry-Guggenhiem-Bilbao-wind towers thing -- and it's big.

Saadiyat Island is the big "if" of the Emirates, where the fundamental question is whether anything will develop that isn't an extension of the most crass, exploitative, fast-paced and globalized capitalism the world has ever known. Will freedom grow, or is freedom irrelevant? Will culture peek out from the interstices of concrete and glass and asphalt, or is culture being reinvented as thematized, branded, mass entertainment? Will this place look like New York in a hundred years, when the wealthy have laundered their money into art collections and opera houses and all the best that money can buy? Or will it be the dystopian nightmare hinted at in the title of books such as "Evil Paradises"?

The United Arab Emirates has been a dreamland for architects, providing them steady work, big fees, bold possibilities and in many cases, a canvas that is larger and blanker than any they might find on their home turf. As architecture, three of these projects are visionary. But they are visions of a purely architectural sophistication, beautiful gems destined for delivery to the super rich, with little of humanity stirring in their bold and beautiful spaces.

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