If one could imagine Gotham City in the Arabian Gulf, they would undoubtedly think of Dubai, the once quiet fishing and trading port in the United Arab Emirates. Until its financial debacle in 2009, it soaked in the global limelight as the fastest growing metropolis in the world. It is certainly a city of dreams, the kind that spring from a certain vanity that drives passive cultures into exhibiting suicidal maneuvers to garner respect and attention while striving to become a dominant force.
Dubai is well known for its many escapades into the fairyland of skyscrapers, plush hotels, beaches, and unimaginable resorts that bring Nordic artifacts into a desert climate to satisfy the whimsical cravings of a wealthy elite, pampered European expatriates and celebrities from the subcontinent. Rich Asians and underworld tycoons also favor the city as an investment hideout. For a vast majority of others,Dubaiis the inevitable paradise promised to them by visa agents who eventually consign them to virtual slavery in blue-collar sales and construction jobs in the Emirate. Construction is perhaps the most obvious activity inDubai, following rapid and delirious investments in the import of icons, tectonic and otherwise from all corners of the globe. The process of bringing Dubaito the world stage has included impractical ventures such as artificial islands, underwater hotels, manmade icebergs, bridges, a huge international airport, and high rise towers that straddle theDubaiskyline. Beyond this strip along the beach, the vast hinterland remains a desert.
Banks, resorts and trade centers top the list among new buildings. Most of Dubai’s prominent buildings are commissioned by the ruling elite. Dubai’s rulers have envisioned it as a modern business and tourist attraction as well as a global financial giant to be reckoned with. Hence, they wield a lot of power with regard to the iconoclastic images that these centers portray. Coupled with the mobility of contemporary architectural firms and ideas, it is little wonder then, that architecture in Dubai tends to be imported, whimsical, lavishly arrogant, and contrary to regional context.
Modernity in the architecture of Dubaiis evident but highly questionable. As an artifact of use, architecture usually responds to culture and geography, and when culture enters transitional states, architecture does the same. Yet, if culture is superficial, that aspect translates to its artifacts.
Climate, on the other hand, is a natural factor. It becomes the progenitor of form. InDubai, as inLas Vegas, form appears to be the antithesis of climatic response. It is driven more by fiscal ideology aided by expensive technology rather than regional expression that defines a sense of place. That’s what I learned, if anything, fromLas Vegas. Vegas is an established stage show for most visitors, an adult’s version ofDisneyland. Ironically, though it was not intended to be so,Dubai has become quite the same in a jocular way.
Lately, the skyscraper has gained prominence as a conspicuous building prototype in Dubai’s skyline. Dubainow boasts of being home to the world’s tallest building besides being straddled by many other high-rises. Let us examine the case of the tall building in a nutshell. The skyscraper was made possible by two prominent inventions – the elevator and the intercom. While structural improvements definitely affected the rise of the vertical building, what really promulgated its prominence was the ability to communicate easily between floors.This suited both, corporate culture and pride. With the advent of steel, and of better fire suppression, plumbing and mechanical systems, the skyscraper rose further. In Dubai, it rose to meet the ego of the elite. Phallic symbols like the Rose Hotel continue to crop up in Dubai.
Dubai’s most recent architectural escapade is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It remains but a phallic symbol in Dubai’s quest for financial reckoning. The architects’ claim an inspirational relationship of the form to a desert flower, but I fail to see the connection. If architectural form must be interpreted, it must recall primordial images. Implied images are not easily recognized. Interestingly both, the Bank of Dubai and Burj al-Arab, the world’s only 7 star Hotel, use the local dhow or fishing sailboat as the basis for formal expression. Yet, the latter succeeds at the formal expression due to its primordial approach and exclusive location, while the former gets confused with typologies of the Lever House in
New York. Likewise, other tall buildings appear to mimic American high-rises such as the Chicago Tribune,CiticorpTowers, and so on. This is due to the ease of superficial replication that modern architectural idiom lends itself to, and the irresponsible manner in which architects often use it.
The architecture of contemporary buildings inDubaibegs the question “Is Architecture an elitist profession or a socially relevant act?” It seems to me that no matter what an architect builds, it would be imperative to question the social relevance of their act. When it comes to symbolizing power and grandeur, where do we stop? Are we being relevant to purpose? And in practice, how are we going to evacuate people in case of a fire, with just stairs and elevators, even with intermediate fire-suppression systems. Physical challenges on the vertical plane are extant. Vertical travel distances impose great limitations during panic, as seen during the 9/11 disaster in New York. Likewise the egress principles for skyscrapers need to be reassessed at the grassroots level. I envisage emergency helicopter ports and docks at interstitial floors that may provide more meaningful rescue routes, but one that may have to assume many risks before it could be implemented.
However, the real question remains why? Why must tall buildings and whimsical fantasies pervade the cities of the desert, or for that matter anywhere? It makes absolutely no sense from a climatological or environmental perspective. Why can we not build cities that adopt higher densities, lower energy and better public transport instead? The recent stress on sustainable principles also poses the question – Is glass, no matter how refined and infused with hi-tech libido, indeed so desirable in desert climates? Can it not be used responsibly and sensitively? What about the issue of culture? Should we not expect a change when we travel to a new place? Does culture in transition have to mimic others to apologize for its perceived “inferiority complex” or must it spring from a conscious blend of choices? Is modernism utopia imagined or can it be tamed to comply with the norms of a self-conscious culture seeking relevance in a modern world? I am not saying that all that is fantasized in architecture is necessarily bad, nor isDubaidevoid of creative architecture. What I am identifying is an attitude that springs from a quest for dominance and stretches so far as to negate reality. After all a city is not a circus that you have fun at for a few hours.
So what must contemporary architecture as a visible art form inDubaioffer? The answer is not simple, but I strongly favor the ideals that lay emphasis on a modernism that springs from timeless geographic, socio-cultural and, where applicable, religious roots rather than superficial images of dhows, geometries, and desert flowers.
Ayub Patel, May 2011, Narrative originally posted on ILLUME http://www.illumemag.com/zine/articleDetail.php?Bigger-Taller-Better-Architecture-and-Modernity-in-Contemporary-Dubai-13607
Sources of photographs:
Figure 1 – Flickr Creative Commons – Author Tarif Kapadi http://www.flickr.com/photos/tarifkapadi/5463078686
Figure 2 – Flickr Creative Commons – Author Philby http://www.flickr.com/photos/philby/91969719
Figure 3 – Flickr Creative Commons – Author potomo http://www.flickr.com/photos/potomo/4369921715
Figure 4 – Flickr Creative Commons – Author blacknell http://www.flickr.com/photos/blacknell/96954159
Figure 5 – Flickr Creative Commons – Author joi http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/4068036426
Figure 6 – Flickr Creative Commons – Author pjf@cspan http://www.flickr.com/photos/pfenwick/3655667825
Figure 7 – Flickr Creative Commons – Author jodastephen http://www.flickr.com/photos/jodastephen/5697599514
Figure 8 – Flickr Creative Commons – Author Tarif Kapadi http://www.flickr.com/photos/tarifkapadi/5462479861