Permanent Vacation

The making of someplace out of no-place

Dubai Waterfront

Change has been divorced from the idea of improvement. There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways.
—Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace

In the early 1960s, while the rest of the world was busy incubating hippies, fighting with their neighbors, and declaring independence, the small trading post of Dubai was hard at work dredging its Creek to expand its already substantial, albeit largely shady, import/export trade. Then a few years later the small city discovered that they were on top of four billion barrels of oil. By late 1969, production was underway. While this was nothing compared to the neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, which sits on the fourth largest reserve in the world, it provided enough capital to set in motion a thirty-year explosion of tax-free growth. A major metropolis was and is being constructed by a nouveau riche tribal village whose goal is to establish Dubai as a world-class city.

But what exactly is a “world-class city”? Naturally, it is a modern city that is the regional anchor with its share of superlatives — biggest flower garden, tallest building, highest population growth — and diversified zones of business, housing, shopping, and a fat pillar of tourism supporting it. One of the consequences of Dubai’s rapid rise is that everything is new. Postmodernism was the classical age of Dubai. Unlike the layered cities in Europe whose cores are medieval or American cities where the Industrial Age or Beaux Arts informed planning, Dubai’s early conventional wisdom was drawn from the font of postmodernism — not really in a doctrinal sort of way, just by virtue of the currents of contemporary building practice and the technology that was available. With these tools they laid the easiest path to accommodating financial growth and advanced the city toward its primary goal, namely, and establishing Dubai’s credibility as a “modern city.” Air conditioned glass boxes were the accepted/expected vessel of commerce so that is what was built despite the fact that they are hardly suited for the desert environment.

The city was more postmodern in spirit than in style in a period when dozens of generic skyscrapers sprouted with superficial nods to Middle Eastern symbolism, malls were huge but discrete and housing sprawled unit by unit. Emirates Towers, which opened in 2000, can be seen as a turning point that initiated a mixed program. It combines the most desirable office address with a five star hotel, luxury shopping, and restaurants in iconic twin towers. And today, Dubai has passed into its latest phase of mega development; a phase that is difficult to pin down with one label but that might find its home within “supermodernism.” It may be even better served by Rem Koolhaas’ latest trademarked word-child “Junkspace.” Koolhaas points out that “we have built more than all of our previous generations together, but somehow we don’t seem to register on the same scales. We do not leave pyramids.”

So from its classical, Postmodern Age, Dubai has arguably entered into its high classic Junkspace Age, which is marked by a spree of large-scale planning and development. In an effort to give birth to a city fully formed, government-financed developers are carving out huge portions of land and converting them from open desert to complete themed communities. These mini urban centers are comprised of integrated housing, business, shopping, and hotels, and peppered with generous doses of touristic draw. The developments include Festival City, where Dubai’s famous orgy of consumption, Shopping Festival, will find a year-round home; and International City which sponsors Chinese businesses in its Dragon Mart (because every major city needs a Chinatown); a Design Centre; and a central Forbidden City, walled off and touted as a “must-see tourist attraction.” And who could forget the Palm Islands and World Islands? The park-like atmosphere of these themed areas means that living in itself becomes a form of recreation. Leisure, work, shopping, residence, sightseeing are all collapsed into one experience. Increasingly, people live as tourists in their own city.

The New Authenticity

Another consequence of this thirty-year building boom is that the historic, traditional building techniques of the local people of Dubai could not possibly be sustained or adapted. There are several threads of historical continuity connecting the new Dubai to the old: its accommodating economic polices, the government of hereditary dictatorship, and the longstanding status as a duty-free port. Maintaining an architectural identity is not one of them, in fact there seems to have been little interest in attempting this. Instead there is an emphasis on the waterfront and, more recently, the airport, as spaces that move people and trade through the region. Given a strong disregard for things local, Dubai’s desire to be a conduit, and the fact that most of the city was built in the service of investment and consumption, much of the city’s architecture seems to fall into the category of non-place. That is a building or a site that is so generalized — so much a product of a global trend — that it offers no local context and can disorient someone into thinking that they are in no place or in any place.

Non-place is a problematic way to talk about the city, or cities, in general. It implies that they are counterparts to “places” which deserve to be seen as distinctive. It validates historical precedents, assigning value to past forms of city planning and architecture. It is touchy since it is instantly taken as a pejorative term intended as a stab at a city that lacks authenticity and is marked by a bland characterlessness. But it goes deeper than that because in fact the non-place has established a new sort of authenticity especially evident in Dubai. It is a city that is unencumbered by vernacular architecture or traditional design practices that might have been deployed to mediate the inhospitable climate or make reference to the locality beyond the most general assertion of a port city. The new authenticity is at once controlled and irrepressible, scripted and disorientating, unique and derivative, amusing and depressing.

It is a city that is dependent on the port yet completely freed from the landscape by the brute force of wealth that can even buy out nature with air conditioning, terraforming, and by sustaining a massive system of desalinization and irrigation. The result is that it can repel most of the impulse criticisms that have their basis in a loss or degradation of some sort of underlying authenticity. Mall culture, airports, Starbucks, the Gap and so on, may seem strange and vacuous in New York, Paris or Cairo but in Dubai these types of non-places and Junkspaces are all that there appears to be.

One might attempt to criticize the barrage of surface appearances, turning perhaps to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle to find strategies to understand and resist this hyper-consumerism. The notion of spectacle implies a hierarchy: There is the show that distracts us and there is the world of genuine experience that the spectacle obscures. The spectacle is a constructed reality of staged experiences and scripted events which we resist because of its inauthentic feel. Debord gives us hope that we can find a different path through this landscape and maybe catch a glimpse of “real life” — of the world that has been synthesized into images. But in Dubai, where everything has been newly constructed and “shopping is the only activity,” Debord’s game of breaking through appearances fails to produce the desired results. The search for deviation and unpredictability leads us through the gritty neighborhoods across the river, to the gold souk and the camel market, through nightclubs and hotel bars, past prostitutes and Eurotrash. The problem is less about finding new ways to circumvent the spectacle and more about the failure of the concept of “spectacle” to characterize the emerging contemporary city. Susan Sontag has pointed out the “breathtaking provincialism” of deeming reality spectacle, but in Dubai we run the risk of the doing the opposite. We cannot allege that the plastic world of Dubai is any less real than the “gritty” or “historic” even as it destabilizes our understanding of authenticity.

Airport as Model

One of the most wonderful things about Dubai is that all of the developments are so literal and self-explanatory. One can understand the entire logic of a place from its title: Dubai Internet City, Media City, Knowledge Village — the latter if for research and innovation. This approach takes the logic of the penultimate non-place, the airport, and applies it to the slippery sectors of idea industries. The concept of airport immediately encompasses all of its uses, this we generally take for granted. It is a zone that, in addition to the air traffic bringing people and cargo into the country, is the centralized location for a whole range of related activities including security, customs, border control, airline services and sales, innumerable restaurants and vast expanses of duty-free shopping.

Places like Dubai Media City mimic this logic by creating one site of infrastructure for all media business, TV, radio, print to be housed in one “free zone.” These free zones have their own media laws and subject to nominal censorship. They permit one hundred percent foreign ownership (elsewhere businesses are required to be fifty-one percent owned by a UAE national) and offer a simplified process to apply for licenses, visas and work permits. These infrastructural free zones manifest themselves not only as Junkspace architecture but also create a political Junkspace where the freedom of commerce even outranks many established laws, from ownership to immigration.

New Experiences

Even when the oil well runs dry — in ten years according to the Economist — Dubai would like to maintain its strong and tax-free economy. One strategy is to attract hordes of tourists by establishing Dubai as a major destination. Unfortunately, the trend of the non-place is not conducive to tourism, so Dubai has begun countering with places overwrought with experience.

“Experience” is the calling card for American architecture and planning firm the Jerde Partnership. They have made a name for themselves by orchestrating condensed urban experiences within the fabric of the city. These sterilized environments include the “Universal City Walk” in Los Angeles and the “Fremont Street Experience” in Las Vegas. Their philosophy is “to make places that provide people with memorable experiences.” They have branded themselves “Experience Architects” who do not engage simply in architecture; no, no, “We call it placemaking.”

It is not difficult to discern that Jerde’s main priority is profitability. They are actually kind of defensive about it in their PR: “Often dismissed by critics as ‘commercial,’ Jerde places are widely embraced by the public and ultimately transform the economic and social landscape of neighborhoods, cities and regions.” Their plans typically create a concentrated zone of street life that encourages pedestrian traffic, density, and interaction by planting commercial activity. Of course, it would be naïve to ask for anything more than a tertiary respect for urban experience with no profit; instead we are asked to celebrate the safe bustle that is spawned by the bastard child of a downtown and a mall. The City Walk in LA, for instance, recreates many of LA’s landmarks as storefronts condensed onto one street. The street is brightly lit and well patrolled and many shoppers claim that they prefer it to the “real thing.” What begins as a surrogate, condensing the experience of past architecture, over time establishes itself as a new and distinct form. It is an architecture that creates an urban environment for cities that have become alienated from traditional urban experience — a safe and controlled petri dish for cultivating street life.

Dubai worked briefly with Jerde to plan Dubai Festival City, a project that seems to have been moved to the back burner in light of newer more robust planned cities like the Dubai Waterfront, the Lost City, and International City. Jerde is now relegated to second to last on a long list of architects. Yet the project still conveys their message. Speaking of its “essence” the PR material claims: “Respectful of the past and derived from the present, Dubai Festival City represents the vision of the future and aims to create a ‘sense of place’ for the emirate’s residents and visitors.”

In America, Jerde was bent on creating the idealized American condition. But Dubai constructs cities that are based on the fantastic, the foreign and the exotic. The difference is that the “experiences” that are being created in Dubai are not only for tourists but include large-scale accommodations for residents. Unlike the projects of Jerde, Dubai’s developments are not attractions subsumed into the larger urban fabric — they are the fabric.

In its compulsion to urgently and conspicuously manifest itself, Dubai is challenging the notions of what a city is. It teaches us about growth and planning mutated by hyper-consumption. Is among cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing all of which show us the new parameters for the global city. It redefines authenticity by short-circuiting attacks on its proposed reality. We watch as the city sprouts up and the only criticism that can be attempted is one that questions to what degree Dubai has exploited its freedom from history and culture. Did they go as far as they could?