Architecture and Power

‘Instant City: The Rise of Dubai’ was the title of the first lecture at the Berlage Institute on Tuesday March 13 in a series that focuses on the relation between architecture, power and political correctness. The announcement promised that the evening would mostly be about social and economic inequalities in this rapidly growing desert city in the Persian Gulf. But alas this wasn’t the case, either in the introductions by Kees Christiaanse and George Katodrytis or in the succeeding discussion.

Roemer van Toorn introduced Dubai with a quote from the American writer Mike Davis. In his article ‘Fear and Money in Dubai’ (New Left Review, 2006), Davis writes that Dubai is one big gated community, a neo-liberal dream turned real into which the wealthy can safely retreat into unusual luxury.

Dubai is the capital of the same name of one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). More and more Western investors are concentrating on the UAE because of the favourable tax climate. Developments have gained considerable momentum since Arab investors pulled out of North America after 9-11 and redirected their money into projects in the Gust States. Oil is no longer an important source of revenue for Dubai. Instead, the future is said to lie in mass tourism, services and industry. For the last two of these, a special tax-free economic zone has been set up. The Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZ) boasts a large container port and hundreds of towers are going up rapidly. Like a fata morgana, the 1000-year-old settlement has exploded in less than a decade into a city of world stature. An archipelago of artificial islands off the coast covers an area twice the size of Manhattan and is 100% private property. Gigantic shopping malls and theme parks have sprung up around the desert to satisfy for demanding tourists. The border between fantasy and reality is unclear. In 2003, 12% more tourists visited the fake pyramids in Dubai than the real ones in Gizeh.

Dubai often hits the headlines in the West on account of human rights issues and the exploitation of temporary migrants, particularly construction workers from India. According to the latest statistics, more than 80% of the population are immigrants, less than 10% of whom come from the West.

Those islands aren’t even finished and work has started on new large-scale developments such as Dubai Marina and the Madinat al Arab, a new city centre set to overshadow, literally, the old historic city. Belgian contractor Besix is working at a rate of one floor every seven days in this new centre on what will be the world’s tallest structure. Various human rights organisations have accused the company of exploitation. In terms of form and ambition, the Burj Dubai designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. The well-known painting of the Biblical story by Pieter Breughel de Oude was shown by both speakers. The Arabic word Burj literally means 'tower' or 'walled city'. Another meaning associated with this word is 'bourgeoisie'. According to George Katodrytis, they couldn’t have chosen a more suitable name for this structure.

Living and working in Dubai, Katodrytis is an architect and professor at the American University of Sharjah. As such he was the only one present who can speak from experience. He explained that the city is made up of three parts: the old traditional city, the new gated community of the world, and the temporary settlements for construction workers. Katodrytis compared Dubai to an airport lounge: a community made up of spectators instead of residents. The only form of community is to be found on the Internet. Katodrytis called this satellite urbanism: people have visual contact with the neighbours through Google Earth. He then showed some projects by his students, among them a museum of replicas and a destruction machine that bites chunks out of buildings and then recycles them. Criticism of the ruthless construction rage is also voiced within Dubai.

In imitation of celebrities like Daniel Libeskind, Michael Graves, OMA, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel, KCAP has also worked on a Dubai project through the Internet. The lack of a spatial context makes designing an isolated activity, and the result could be anywhere. Kees Christiaanse admitted he’d never been to Dubai and that disappointing experiences meant he wasn’t planning a visit any time soon. He offered four labels to describe developments there: sameness, gatedness, fakeness and mailness. Dubai no longer needs the rest of the world, he argued. It boasts an indoor ski paradise whose indoor temperature is 50 degrees Celsius lower than outdoors (they don’t pay much attention to energy consumption in Dubai). A ski dome containing 'real' mountains is planned next to it soon.

Katodrytis tore apart these four labels offered by Christiaanse one by one. Every city, after all, has its share of fakeness. Even modernism can be termed a fake. Katodrytis explained that the inhabitants are not the only ones proud of their young city. The positive image of Dubai extends throughout the entire Gulf region and even deep into Iran on the other side of the gulf. Rather than taking a paternalist stance, the West would do better to look at itself in the mirror and show more respect for other cultures.

The central question of the evening, which wasn’t satisfactorily answered, was how architects can influence the 'dubious' political agenda of totalitarian political systems. A design submitted by KCAP for a competition for a 300-metre-tall tower in St Petersburg (Russia) didn’t win – luckily, said Christiaanse. He added that he was happy to have lost because, on reflection, building in such a vulnerable place for a crooked client could turn out wrong. Christiaanse suggested that life in gated communities is the future for globalised cities and cited the example of a gated community outside Istanbul where an informal economy has developed next to the gate. Snacks are sold and clothes repairs carried out in this squatter settlement to compensate for the deficiency within the walls. Just like Coney Island near New York, both theme parks and gated communities function as incubators.

No doubt that is even stronger when it comes to cultural developments. An entire cultural district is being built in the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi. Christie’s auction house has a branch there, and an auxiliary branch of the Louvre is under construction. Calatrava is working on a museum of photography and, just like in Las Vegas, a Guggenheim is planned to a design by Frank Gehry. In answer to the question whether building a museum for a ‘dictator’ is okay,  Christiaanse admitted he’d certainly like to build a museum ‘even if no tits are allowed on the walls’. The influence of architects on regimes shouldn’t be exaggerated. History will teach us whether surfing along is a better option.

The answer to the question from a critical Indian woman in the audience about the fate of construction workers – the forgotten heroes as Katodrytis had called them earlier – was skilled parried (for political reasons?) and the issue wasn’t raised again on what was an optimistic but, metaphorically speaking, distant evening. Despite the imaginary global village in which we live, we don’t seem to be all that bothered by things that happen far away.