Arabian Heights
Oil-Rich Dubai Raises Its International Profile With Towers Meant to Be Icons -- but Icons of What?

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Architecture follows money and the money is gushing in the United Arab Emirates. In September, a slender tower rising from the sands of Dubai (the most dynamic of the small fiefdoms that make up the country) became the tallest free-standing structure in the world. Every three days another floor is laid, and though no one will say how high it is going, it will rise at least a half-mile from the earth. From its heights, the super wealthy who have bought one of the project's luxury condominiums will survey the boomtown of boomtowns, a city-state so rich and ambitious that it is remaking its geography, building man-made islands and peninsulas, and a 46-mile, $11 billion canal (to give waterfront access to new real estate developments).

In Abu Dhabi, another emirate less than a 100-mile drive from Dubai across a flat, torrid desert, the Sheik Zayed Mosque, a massive white-domed structure that will be the third-largest in the world, is reaching completion. And preparations are already underway for a new cultural complex and residential community, on a sandy island near Abu Dhabi. The estimated cost is $27 billion (though no one wants to commit to a final figure) and will include new "landmark" buildings from four of the most famous architects working today: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando.

But merely listing projects, or marveling at the architectural gigantism, doesn't get at what is unique about the emirates, which are emerging as the world's great post-democratic cities. They are rising at a time when American power seems to be in remission, when democracy has, in many parts of the world, lost its luster as an ideal, or necessary endpoint of social and political development. Material splendor and authoritarian government can, it turns out, go together. And architecturally, despite all the dissonance, the strange juxtapositions of the vulgar and the sleek, the blue-chip buildings next to the shabby high-rise clad in garishly colored glass and surmounted by a pagoda folly, the emirates are essentially an advertisement to an increasingly wowed world: Look at what enlightened, corporate, efficient and non-democratic government can do.

Instantly Iconic

Pass down the traffic-snarled main highway of Dubai, and the mushroom fields of new skyscrapers seem like a jumble of perfume bottles. There is a chaotic competition among the buildings to stand out from one another, as if the architects are appealing to the most fickle gaze, the bored passage of the consumer's eye from Chanel to Bulgari to Fendi. The designs seem intended to fall somewhere between categories, squarish ovals, rounded squares, curvaceous pyramids. Weird hybrids are everywhere, globes atop boxes, teardrops mounted on pillars, bent slabs fastened to concrete goal posts.

"Iconic," says Daniel Hajjar, repeating the word his architectural firm, the global giant HOK, hears most in meetings with clients. In Dubai, architecture must be iconic, and the word is a kind of mantra, rising above other adjectives you see (elite, luxury, prestige) that define the endless discussion and selling of real estate. Buildings are deemed successful if their shape is instantly recognizable, different, reproducible and memorable. But the iconmaking business makes each new icon seem a little more meaningless than the last, a visual counterpart to the jazzy nonsense names of designer drug marketing (Levaquin! Celebrex! Topamax!).

If you want to know what is meant by "iconic," people in Dubai point to two buildings in particular: the Burj Al Arab, a hotel built with a giant, balloonlike sail on one side, and the Emirates Towers, two elegantly proportioned, space-age skyscrapers that face each other like mirror images. In a city where a third of the buildings have the shabby, glitzy, frock-of-many-colors feel of New Delhi or Jakarta, another third look like the tattier parts of an old Soviet suburb, and yet another third could be found anywhere global corporations build branch offices, the Burj Al Arab and the Emirates Towers are deemed exemplars of local architecture. They are found on postcards and are reproduced as key chains. Elegant stencils of their shapes appear in the elevators of the government building where one goes for permits and other construction documents.

There is indeed a certain pregnancy of meaning in both of these icons. The Burj Al Arab, a luxury five-star hotel with rooms in the $5,000-a-night neighborhood, is not just shaped like a ship, but a ship with a stout wind in its sails heading into Dubai. Which is a handy description of the larger Dubai economy, a place where ideas, people and energy flow in, rather than out, a destination even if it often feels like the world capital of "no there, there." And the doubleness, the self-duplication of the Emirates Towers captures the essence of a city that runs on brands and branding, the reliable sameness of high-end goods and restaurants and hotels that the wealthy have come to expect in Paris, Singapore and Manhattan. Seen through your Prada glasses, or sketched with your Mont Blanc pen, the Emirates Towers look like one building has stamped out its own twin, and thus captures something iconic about the iconic nature of Dubai architecture: Buildings feel so much like logos that there is something strangely insubstantial about them.

In part, it is the need for speed. Buildings are planned, marketed, sold and built as fast as possible. "Build it and they will come" gives way to "propose it and they will buy." When the developers building the Burj Dubai offered 900 residential units for sale in July 2004, they sold out in two evenings, according to Eric Tomich, an architect overseeing the project for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. With that much appetite on the buyer's side, and with so much new stock being built, every building has to announce itself quickly and forcefully. Tomich says the developers of the Burj Dubai, a gigantic firm called Emaar, had basically one design idea: Make it the tallest. An instant icon.

"To get the energy and excitement off of Sheik Zayed Road, you need something iconic to draw people here," says Greg Sang, a project manager for Emaar. Sheik Zayed Road is the main artery of the emirate, and is dotted for miles with mini-cities of new high-rise construction. It is an untenable traffic nightmare, and now developers are luring people off the clogged "spine" of the city to new developments on crossroads.

The Burj Dubai is rising in the middle of a much larger Emaar development, complete with man-made lake and a faux "old town" with fake fortress walls that look like the stage set for a desert epic. Developers are moving toward mini-cities, crowned by something "iconic" that becomes a centerpiece and selling point. The new developments often feel very Southern California, gated communities with planned town squares and lots of water features. They are bland, but they also underscore the degree to which the old skyscraper farms along Sheik Zayed Road have been an aesthetic failure. There is an absence of anything meaningfully local about the style.

Efforts to scale up the distinctive filigree and patterning of Arabic drawing into something that can give shape or form to 40-story towers have been in vain. Grillwork fastened on to high-rises feels obviously superficial and an afterthought. Pointed arches, a standard of architecture in the Arab world, are just silly when slapped on a building such as "The Tower," a 54-floor residential structure that looks like bad art deco. And an effort to borrow the saillike bend of the "iconic" Burj Al Arab -- seen in curving spines or bow-shaped slabs stuck on buildings like so many gewgaws -- only underscores the poverty of ideas in a city that is building capacity far faster than it can develop an aesthetic.

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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