An Image of Dubai

Dubai’s idealized past is instinctively reconstructed in “traditional” wind tower houses and indiscriminately reinterpreted in leisure projects such as the Madinat Jumeirah; meanwhile, shopping malls and towers compete for spots at the top of lists that carry titles like “world’s largest” or “world’s tallest.” The sheer size and arrangement of completed and proposed icons are intended to entertain and “enhance” life. Real estate developers seek to entice prospective buyers with pledges of “fine living” and a “high-quality lifestyle.” Accumulated capital can be translated into a chosen style of life represented by an image — a developer’s promise to capture “the very essence of Spanish ease” is translated into sterile renderings that feature red roof tiles, wrought iron railings, the requisite Mercedes in the garage, and no annoying neighbors. The world of the spectacle seeks to replace the real world of everyday life. We can now trade the dust and sweat of the market stalls for a shopping tour in Souk Madinat Jumeirah’s air-conditioned comfort, thus ensuring not only the continued growth of Dubai’s economy but also the maintenance of the UAE’s prominent position on lists ranking countries in terms of electricity consumption per capita. While other Gulf states and neighboring emirates also compete to impress, Dubai’s rapid success in constructing an image of desirability and orchestrating media campaigns that span from CNN to Newsweek continues to ensure dominance, at least in the short-term.

And what of architecture? Although certainly not restricted to the Gulf region, the transformation of purposeful elements from regional vernacular buildings into decorative devices is ubiquitous in Dubai. The most commonly used image is that of a barjeel (wind tower). The wind tower and the mashribiya (the wooden lattice screen employed to ensure privacy while providing sufficient airflow and views from private spaces) were key components of passive cooling strategies employed in the region prior to the prevalence of electricity. Ignoring the potential for adaptation and contemporary applications, designers have reduced these elements to embellishments that adorn high-rise office towers, museums, gas stations, and residences. This superficial approach is often claimed to make the building “regional.” A related tendency has been to conceive of the entire building as a representation of the “heritage” of the Gulf region. The UAE is populated with structures faintly suggestive of scale-less sails, waves, sand dunes, and bloated falcons.

The tendency to reduce architecture to a collection of fragmented images is evident across a broad spectrum of building types. Those who wish to claim that David Beckham is their neighbor on the touted Palm Island Jumeirah can choose from a number of pre-designed/pre-themed plans and elevations that can be combined to create a dream home (for example an Italianate floor plan combined with American Ranch-style facade, or perhaps a floor plan inspired by Southeast Asia that is corseted in Victorian gabled elevations). Those with citizenship but without the financial means to reside on an island that can be seen from space can also approach an engineer or builder and have much the same experience, and perhaps an even greater choice. No longer restricted by the Palm Island–approved palate, the homeowner can choose one of the stock plans that can be dressed to accommodate any desire. Each morning’s newspapers bring full-page advertisements announcing new and ever more glorious projects: a high-rise residential tower seemingly situated on an open site with uninterrupted views and no neighbors to peer into the bedroom or a lakefront office development surrounded by green lawns populated by kite-flying children. Looking around at the current property market in Dubai, one realizes that these are indeed unique investment opportunities as there are currently few existing projects offering uninterrupted views from an affordable sixth-floor flat or offices that are adjacent to a park.

The extreme rate of development and the particular nature of the situation in Dubai make it difficult to formulate a reasoned critique of the built environment. Criticism that remains at the level of lamentation and focuses on the loss of a supposed “identity” is overly reductive. Conversely, criticism that seeks to make sense out of Dubai’s mythical development and the potential consequences is a challenge due to the policies related to land ownership and development practices. Unfortunately no venues for sustained critique of the built environment exist at a local or regional level. Newspapers have no sections devoted to debates focused on architecture and planning and magazines designed to pose as serious journals offer little more than press releases printed as articles.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of discussing the consequences of the current situation is the relative age of Dubai’s urban cores, which are still quite young and underdeveloped. If population projections prove accurate, then there is the promise of much greater density and the demand for more comprehensive planning strategies. Of course, this will bring about the need to deal with challenges such as increased traffic, increased demand on utilities and services, and appropriate housing options for all inhabitants regardless of socioeconomic standing. While architects devote time and energy to high-profile projects, the lack of attention to the problems associated with providing space for a large, low income workforce results in overcrowding and substandard conditions. If Dubai is able to move beyond the current fascination with the image of architecture and confront the real challenges of building an urban center in an arid region, then there may be the possibility of being ranked at the top of lists that focus on quality rather than quantity.