Arabian Heights

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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007; Page M01

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.

As money gushes into the United Arab Emirates, wild architectural forms spring up from the sands.
Dubai's Changing Landscape
As money gushes into the United Arab Emirates, wild architectural forms spring up from the sands.

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.

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