words Justin McGuirk
Dubai has a design scene, but it’s in London, Chicago, Hamburg, Rotterdam and other hothouses of corporate architecture. This is a city that imports everything.
The emirate’s paradoxes – Arab but Western, derivative but unique – may have become cliches, but that doesn’t make the place any easier to come to terms with. However, that’s what a group of frequent-flyer architects, designers, curators, professors and mayors was trying to do in late May at the city’s International Design Forum. The conference was an attempt to anchor a major design event in the region, and although the topics of debate were as broad as “green design” and “the future of design”, the real subject was always Dubai.
A few moments stand out – Rem Koolhaas arguing with Karim Rashid, Oliviero Toscani railing about how his work has always been censored here – but the conference was best defined by the bemusement most of the participants felt about where they were. For many, this was their first visit, and so they were desperately trying to look past their preconceptions – the fact that they were staying in a resort that was a cross between Venice and the backdrop to Disney’s Aladdin didn’t help. But in Dubai, inauthenticity is a kind of manifesto. With its artificial Palm and World islands, indoor ski slopes and fake souks manned by Filipinos, the city exists in a state of perpetual irony that is amusing to experience but perhaps depressing to live with. It is also built on the back of an immigrant labour force set apart by a uniform of blue boiler suits. So, in the lavishly gilded, mirrored and cushioned interiors, amid the freeloading and the guilt, there was a lot of chin-stroking going on.
Dubai is one of the great vanity projects of history. It is an act of monumental ambition but also unusual foresight. The tiny emirate, which sits on less oil than its Middle Eastern neighbours, has been much smarter than them in creating a future beyond that limited resource. Long before the surrounding oil wells dry up or become redundant, Dubai will have forged its role as the business, tourism and entertainment centre of the region.
The imagination with which that idea is being realised, however, is more limited, and might be summed up as maximalism. This is a city of superlatives – everything is the highest, the biggest or the most expensive. There’s even a supermarket here called Safestway.
Looking past its gaudy skyscrapers and theme park kitsch, Dubai is an unprecedented urban experiment: a city based on supply rather than demand. It’s not clear yet who will inhabit all these towers and luxury villas, but there is every confidence that someone will. In China, where, as eco-developer Lawrence Bloom pointed out, 400 million people are expected to move from the country to cities in the next 25 years, cities will have to be built in expectation. In that sense, Dubai is the test case of a new paradigm.
For that reason, the city has attracted various evangelists and apologists who are so taken with the place as an idea that they refuse to be drawn on its physical reality. To damn Dubai on the grounds of taste, for instance, is to be blinkered by European snobbery – instead, we are supposed to take it as an exceptional and (geographically) isolated expression of free market capitalism. “[Dubai’s] entrepreneurs are reaching places that modernity has not reached before,” writes Koolhaas in Al Manakh, a book launched at IDF. Is that really true? Everything here is derivative, from the skyscrapers and malls to the theme parks. This is a one-stop shop of all the mistakes made in the development of the modern city, except that it’s even more desperately unsustainable – Dubai has the highest ratio of cars to residents in the world.
Yet why would Dubai be anything new, and how could it really have an indigenous culture? It is being built by Western architects. “If you have an Arab name they won’t ask you – unless you’re Zaha Hadid, but she proved herself in the West,” says Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury. The excuse is speed. Dubai is the fastest growing city in the world, and apparently it just doesn’t have time to wait for local architects to get up to skyscraper velocity. Likewise, no one will slow down the rate of construction to decide how they want to plan the city. Dubai’s momentum is its catch-22: speed breeds confidence and vice versa – a slackening of either one could be disastrous.
Dubai is so fascinating because it is such an extreme variant of the city. But, by definition, it is in the nature of the place that the problems it might face in the future – economic, social and above all ecological – will also be extreme. The real test of a city is whether it can weather a crisis. If not, then Dubai’s non-native natives will go home and all that will be left is a desolate urban curiosity.