I feel so emotional, baby.
Every time I think of you.
But. Who is this “you”?
You is Dubai, where I went for the first time a decade ago.
You is Bidoun.
The two yous became intimately entwined with my life in ways impossible to entirely explicate. But let me try.
In September 2005, just three months before I set virgin feet in Dubai, I chanced upon a magazine in a friend’s Brooklyn apartment. The cover showed the cropped back of a white Lexus; on the windscreen, two laminated Gulf Sheikhs beamed at each other. They were obviously wealthy. They had great teeth. They enjoyed the privileges of their Sheikh-ness. Was this pulp racism? In any other context, it would have been standard issue Orientalism-lite. And yet, somehow, not here.
The issue was titled Emirates Now. (I exclaimed internally, “Emirates whaaa?”)
All of this anticipated what future Bidoun Contributing Editor Sophia Al-Maria would come to characterize as “Gulf Futurism,” and her delineation of such phenomena would influence sci-fi legends such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Not bad going.
If I hadn’t found Bidoun, my first visit to Dubai would likely have followed the same lame narrative as most visitors from (The Region Still Known As) the West. I’d have sneered at the crazy Valhalla of big bad taste, then felt smug plus superior, thankful to have been bred in the birthplace of authenticity, Joy Division, and The Enlightenment. Instead, I was able to X-ray my way past the obvious, divining the geo-historical depths beneath Dubai’s shiny surfaces. And then, too, a history of shininess.
Looking back at the Bidoun back catalogue in all its digitized heft, I’d like to call your attention, dear reader, to the magazine’s long-standing, loving, and lascivious interest in questions of taste. Especially, questions of questionable taste. It’s easy to convene one’s overeducated, debt-laden sensibilities around Said and Spivak, Fanon and Fairouz. We can do it in our sleep. We do it, sleeping through conferences. But to be able to locate a history of disaporic invention in a contested space of… the potato chip? That’s Bidouni.
The best taste is never good or bad or even taste at all. Tastes are ideas in contrarian camouflage. They may come in the guise of a city, a wrestler, or a camel-milk chocolate. The simple lesson I continue to take from Bidoun is: your vigilance will pay off.
It’s for you to decide whether this corpus of eccentric essays and cheap puns will provide the same kind of navigational function it did for me this last decade. Ten years ago, none of us could have predicated Instagram, which in its own weird way led to Daesh; nor could we have foreseen that the most popular “adult” actress in 2015 America would turn out to be Lebanese (take a bow, Mia Khalifa). The future’s mean like that.
So please, I entreat you — revisit Bidoun’s newly omnipresent history. You’ll feel so emotional, baby. Every time you think of us?
“Darling, I’ve bought you some crack,” purrs Loreta, striding in my front door. “From Satwa.” The crack in question is actually Krack, an antiseptic cream for sore heels, purchased from an area of Dubai known for its bargain basement outlets full of Burberry and Tods, besides the odd illegal substance. To our next meeting, the six-foot-something artist and sometime catwalk model brought a box of Forever Rosemary, the well known “ambassador’s chocolates.”
Born in Lithuania, Loreta Bilinskaite-Burke began learning English at the age of nineteen; with the ear of the polyglot, she delights in the creative use of the language by the South Asian traders that rule deluxe Dubai’s reality-check neighborhoods. In a land not known for its developed sense of irony, Loreta’s inventive, tongue-in-cheek art practice is refreshing. (In another persona, she fronts a weekly style program on Dubai’s national radio, discussing the delights of Obscurity perfume, Your Boss and Polite aftershaves, Manly Man from Titanic eau de cologne and so on. Her latest series of work, in part commissioned by Bidoun, sees the artist direct and model for a series of “advertisements,” with all clothes and accessories sourced from Satwa, in a wink at the branding of desire.) She plucks her influences from the most unlikely sources — this in a place where most artists turn their backs on the urban experience, preferring nostalgic pastoral scenes of the desert and imagined times gone by.
For Dubai’s first public art project — a parade of camels that mimicked similar ventures with cows in New York, London, and elsewhere — Loreta collaborated with mosaic artist Jenjira Prasertsin to produce Dubai Dream. Amid a herd of illustrated models, it rose above the cheesiness of the project to actually say something about the city. Covered entirely in a mosaic of rough-cut “diamonds,” Loreta’s sculpture is seductive; sold for 250,000 dirhams (68,500 US Dollars), it is a particularly well-appointed camel, and no doubt broke some world records. Yet we know that the sculpture is fake — created in mirrored glass rather than diamonds. It represents the Dubai dream — from the coveted jewels that fed the trade port’s rise to power to today’s celebration of corporate capitalism. But on closer inspection, the mosaic simply reflects viewers back at themselves. The mirror image is fractured, distorted. Is this the ultimate in kitsch or a thing of great allure? Once again, the Dubai dream has you foxed. Loreta has plans to continue her exploration of the city’s predilection for flash; a current project involves covering a sports car in tiny mirror tiles.
Loreta moved to Dubai only two years ago, yet her practice is arguably representative of the transient city. She takes a sharp yet not wholly cynical eye to Arabia’s land of dreams. Her work dwells on her adopted home’s service culture: Playing with the futuristic city’s reliance on imported labor, she commissions South Asian garment factory workers to produce art for her. One such “manufactured painting” features a white canvas patterned with a concentric eddy of black sequins. “I asked them for a beginning and an explosion,” explains Loreta. “It’s their interpretation. At first, they didn’t want to work off-pattern. But this ‘Madam,’ ‘Sir’ culture is new for me, and I wanted to test it out — in a reverse of the Dubai dream, I’m paying people to have an opinion.” She riffs on a favorite subject: the similarities in practical terms between communism, as she experienced it in Lithuania, and capitalism, as manifested in extreme form in the UAE. “In the end, everyone wears the same, expresses themselves through the same possessions, and is paid not to think.”
Atelier Loreta is a flat overlooking a featureless, inner-city landscape of square towers broken by intermittent scrubby patches of sand. The walls currently feature a series of land- and seascapes on canvas. Inspired in part by the UAE censorship department’s habit of shading or scribbling over offending words, phone numbers, and images in imported magazines and newspapers, she has blocked out notes written along the horizon with simple rectangles of red hand-rolled glass.
Before moving to Dubai, Loreta lived in London and worked predominantly in embroidery and installation, although her interest in needlework lies more in her Lithuanian roots than any Tracey Emin–esque affectation. “At home, everyone can sew,” she assures me. Supporting herself through art college by working as an international catwalk model, she spent hours each week at various embassies, queuing for visas. As an Eastern European, she had to renew her UK visa each month. Every visa became “like an award.” Appropriately, she began silk-screen-printing the badges of admittance onto prized Lithuanian tablecloths — “something you reserve for special guests” — and embroidering letters and symbols in gold and silver thread. “Indefinite period,” “Leave to remain,” “Marriage Single Entry,” are picked out in ironically reverential and lovingly sewed threads.
She professes to be more interested in the process of making rather than the show of exhibiting, as illustrated by video works that she shows alongside major projects. Words (2003) is a collection of rosettes, each carrying an embroidered word, taken randomly from tabloid front-page headlines. Contrasting her life in London with the “medialess existence” of some of her rural relatives in Lithuania, she has created a series of trophy-like tapestries. The “fifteen minutes” of each subject, each headline conjured up by subeditors working to deadline, is painstakingly created in the most time-consuming method. In the accompanying video, Loreta sews everywhere: in London, on the bus, the tube and shuffling along on a protest march against the war in Iraq; at catwalk shows, in makeup; as a “flower pot” (decorative guest) at a fluffy corporate function; dressed as an airhostess for an Emirates airline shoot, sitting in a crowded square in Marrakech. “Kylie,” “Bin Laden,” “clone,” “ripper,” gradually take shape, created in a kind of performance. As an installation, the work plays with the viewer’s perceptions: Anxiously, the mind’s eye tries to connect the arbitrary words, to create sensational sentences.
Loreta’s work in embroidery came to a head with Worship, a vast tapestry featuring footballer David Beckham in a pose that mirrors icons of saints in her local church in Lithuania. Made with the same stitch used in the Bayeaux Tapestry, using gold and silver thread, the work was completed over three months, mostly in Lithuania one long summer. From that season’s spiky haircut, to his gold Adidas shoes, Becks was created in minute accuracy. It was, says Loreta, an explicit effort to immortalize his universal yet disposable fame in infinitesimal, laborious detail — in effect, to materialize time. His fame, following the 2002 FIFA World Cup, was all-consuming; his persona alternately glorified and vilified by a media well-versed in Bushist polarities of “good” and “evil.”
Once again, “the Beckham,” as Loreta likes to refer to it, was a peripatetic work: The accompanying video shows the British icon taking shape at picnics, by the beach, in the family’s summer house, in a concrete landscape in Vilnius. It became, as she documents, a social event, with friends and relatives coming from afar to spend a day stitching and chatting. In a way, Loreta’s documentation of the summer of Beckham is a paean to changing times. Harkening back to her own childhood, she captures Russian cartoons on television. The older generation — those who still live a simple country life, fetching water from the well, living on dry bread in the winter — had no idea who they were creating, but the post-post-Gorbachev youth act all “homeboy” for her camera, lip-synching perfectly to rap and talking knowledgeably about Becks’s latest performance.
Her portrayal of her family is warm, but not purely innocent. Shown alongside Worship at Central St Martin’s College and then (ironically enough) at Victoria House in London, the video prompted gallery visitors to ask Loreta questions such as “Where did you get these people from?” This perhaps says as much about the service culture of contemporary art practice as it does ignorance within Europe.
Loreta’s relationship with her home country is complex, yet she has no truck with the anguish of displacement as expressed through traditional identity politics. A documentary style series of portraits of old women, taken each summer on her return, is a bald attempt to capture slipping time. “I am a part of it, every time I go back. But equally I’m at home elsewhere in the world.” One moment in the Beckham video captures her relationship with her home country: Relatives and friends, all staying at the family summer house in an idyllic, Hansel-and-Gretel forest, dress up in their oldest “country clothes” and mug as models, prancing down the catwalk of the garden path, with Loreta forced to sit in the “front row.” “They do this every year,” she sighs. “It’s kind of taking the piss.”
Fantasy embraces all forms of dreaming. In architecture, it implies a composed, projected environment that is surprising to the eye — a deliberate exercise that tests reality and triggers possibilities for the future. In a sense, all architecture is fantasy. Architectural design is always speculative, since it attempts to specify the future.
Recent progressive architectural projects have generated new forms and expressions in response to new global realities, cultural fascinations, and technological advances. Like their predecessors, the new architectural fantasists move beyond the mundane to transfigure, distort, and extend, and therefore bring new meanings to architecture.
The digital interface: new ways of imaging and imagining
Contemporary culture is led and powered by digital imaging technology, which has transformed the way we visualize and see the world. Architects are now equipped with enhanced tools of dreaming. And as these imaging tools become more sophisticated, the line between the imaginary and the real is increasingly blurred.
In this hyper-consumerist culture, digital/synthetic landscapes are increasingly depicted as “total lifestyle experiences,” ready to be consumed. Be that as it may, digital spaces reveal and/or visualize the unconscious desires of urban spaces, in the sense that imaginary architectural space can be modeled, rendered, animated, and experienced. It brings forth a new set of dreamscapes, mysterious and surreal. This implies a Freudian spatial unconscious, which can be subjected to analysis and interpretation. The tools of digital dreaming, meanwhile, have opened up a window that looks onto the “urban unconscious.”
The tourist city
Historically, the origin of modern vacation time can be traced back to the 1930s, when workers in France, for the first time, were given the right to twelve paid vacation days. Today, tourism has become a “total lifestyle experience.”
The modern tourist resort is by definition a constructed one. The tourist’s perception seems to have shifted away from the pictorial 18th century: There is no longer the desire for the panoramic view. The excessively visual contemporary culture has made everything look familiar. Contemporary tourists are looking for familiarity: They want to feel at home in a strange place.
This has lead to concentrated tourist infrastructures and mega-structure complexes (containing hotel + apartments + mall + cinema + expo + anything goes), which are clustered very close together.
In Dubai there is little difference between holiday accommodation and housing. Architectural programs are becoming fused and undifferentiated. The morphology of the landscape and seascape is becoming fabricated to the point that it may soon be difficult to differentiate between the natural and the constructed. Dubai’s natural beachfront is 45 kilometers long. Artificial islands will add another 1,500 kilometers of beachfront, turning the coastline and the city into an inexhaustible holiday resort. This constructed landscape, like a stage set, provides edited scenes of adventure and entertainment.
The city as non-place
The visual voyage through any contemporary cityscape operates like a continuous shift between eye and mind, as though differences no longer existed between the two. Without a doubt, the city has ceased to be an entity, a place with a specific identity.
Rem Koolhaas, in his well-known essay “The Generic City” published in the Italian magazine Domus in 1994 contemplates the following observations, which pertain so well to Dubai:
Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport — all the same?
01.6 It is big enough for everybody. It is easy. It does not need maintenance. If it gets too small it just expands. If it gets old it just self-destructs and renews. It is “superficial” — like a Hollywood studio lot, it can produce a new identity every Monday morning.
06.3 The Street is dead.
09.2 The Generic City had a past, once?
10.2 The only activity is shopping…
11.5 Because the Generic City is largely Asian, its architecture is generally air-conditioned.
11.8 The apparently solid substance of the Generic City is misleading. 51% of its volume consists of atrium.
The city has definitely ceased to be a site: Instead, it has become a condition. Perhaps the city has even lost its site: It tends to be everywhere and nowhere. The growing proportion of space lacks meaning because nobody feels any attachment to it.
What used to be the “thrill” of the urban voyage is quickly giving way to banality and exhaustion: One has nothing more to discover, nothing other than immense, general, and nondescript spaces.
Dubai — Twenty-first century visionary architecture/hybrid urbanism
Dubai is an extreme example of urbanism. One of the fastest growing cities in the world today, it represents the epitome of sprawling, post-industrial, and car-oriented urban culture. Within it, large numbers of transient populations are constantly in flux.
The explosion of mega-scale structures and satellite cities provides opportunities for the study of new typologies of building programs and forms. Within the urban grid, and the monotonous and predictable urban condition, the generation of prosthetic geometries and new morphologies acts as a catalyst for innovation. Maybe this is the right time, in the evolution of twenty-first century architecture, to study and adopt new forms and technologies. The aura of optimism and the apparent financial success of the new building boom seem to require fresh, daring architects and designers.
Over the last twenty years, at a remarkable pace, Dubai has developed into a global crossroads. This urban mirage continues to spread out vertically and horizontally without any signs of slowing down. It takes in/purports a vertical urbanism — giant atriums and spidery passages among the towers — curiously set against a background of a sprawling “nothingness,” the desert.
To the visitor, this cosmopolitan city might seem peculiar and hyperactive, with no layering or apparent hierarchy. Its allure lies in its ability to adjust rapidly, in its complexity, in its contradictions.
The city tends to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time, because it has no urban center or core. Dubai thrives on newness and bigness, in an act of ongoing self-stylization and fantasy. Hence architecture is crucial, for it defines these elements. Little more than a grand-scale shopping mall, the city is comprised of “mind-zone” spaces, and of airport-like lobbies. In this theme park orientated cityscape, there is no differentiation between old and new. Everything is recent. Yet everything seems to point to the twin towers of consumerism and tourism.
Here, architecture and interiors act as interfaces to consumerism, to the act of purchasing, to the ephemeral experience. Interior shopping spaces are ever larger, more luxurious and seductive. The advent of air conditioning liberated the architectural form and gave rise to a new set of formal possibilities.
Dubai is a prototype of the new post-global city, which creates appetites rather than solves problems. It is represented as consumable, replaceable, disposable, and short-lived. Dubai is addicted to the promise of the new: It gives rise to an ephemeral quality, a culture of the “instantaneous.” Relying on strong media campaigns, new satellite cities and mega-projects are planned and announced almost weekly. This approach to building is focused exclusively on marketing and selling.
As the visionary architect Cedric Price noted in an interview in 2001, “The actual consuming of ideas and images exists in time, so the value of doing the show betrayed an immediacy, an awareness of time that does not exist somewhere like London or indeed Manhattan. A city that does not change and reinvent itself is a dead city…”
Dubai’s recent development has put it on the map of iconic projects, of real estate prospecting and holiday dream destinations. Yet what is missing is the visionary realization of its architecture. Now is the time for architectural projects to be innovative and original. Now is the time to initiate a much-desired discourse about the face of the city.
A historical perspective: a desert waterfront
Dubai began life as a small port and collection of barasti (palm frond) houses clustered around the Creek. Not endowed with abundant fertile land, early twentieth century settlers set about making their living from the sea, concentrating on fishing, pearling and trading. Commercial success coupled with the liberal attitudes of its rulers made the emirate attractive to traders from India and Iran, who began to settle in the growing town. This gave the city an early start before the explosion of wealth brought on by oil production in the late 1960s.
The trajectory of the development of Dubai is reflected in its population, which has grown fifteen-fold since 1969: from 60,000 then to well over one million today. It is projected that, by 2010, Dubai’s tourist trade will accommodate around fifteen million tourists per annum, serviced by more than 400 hotels. Comparisons are telling: in 2002, Egypt, for example, had 4.7 million visitors, and Dubai 4.2 million. (The former, of course, hosts “real history,” against the latter’s Las Vegas version — including, in the next few years, the construction of a set of Pyramids in the vast theme park Dubailand.)
The emirate’s expansion has followed the Los Angeles model: New developments sprout in the desert, beyond the older cores of Deira and Bur Dubai, linked by freeways and ring roads. The open spaces left in between are gradually filled with a lower-intensity, car-dependent form of urban sprawl.
Since Dubai has no real urban history, it has had to invent a variety of new urban conditions. Using its transitory oil wealth, the emirate has built “free zone” areas, promoted as clusters defined by economic liberalization, technological innovation, and political transparency. Jebel Ali Free Zone, an industrial and trading hub, was followed in the late 1990s by three sprawling industrial parks: Internet City, a bid to make Dubai the Arab world’s IT hub; Media City, which aspires to replace Cairo as the Middle East’s media capital while broadcasting the emirate’s vision of openness; and Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), a stock market headquarters meant to match those of Hong Kong, London, and New York.
While the desert is usually considered barren and worthless, Dubai’s “empty quarter” has unique real estate value, thanks largely to two companies: Emaar Properties (founded 1997) and government-owned Nakheel. Among many residential projects, Emaar is currently developing the 3.5 kilometer–long Dubai Marina behind the existing Jumeirah beachfront hotels. A high-rise city-within-a-city and home to more than 40,000 residents, it is set to become the focus of the New Dubai. Nakheel has become synonymous with The Palm, Jumeirah, a 5 kilometer–long, reclaimed island. Other Palms and islands are currently being “planted,” in the massive undertaking of transplanting the desert into the sea. The latest project, Dubai Waterfront, will not only add 375 kilometers of new beachfront but will include the largest man-made canal carved out of the desert. By 2002, when freehold property rights were established in Dubai, allowing foreigners to buy property for the first time, the stage had been set for a real estate boom.
If Rome was the “Eternal City” and New York’s Manhattan the apotheosis of twentieth-century congested urbanism, then Dubai may be considered the emerging prototype for the twenty-first century: prosthetic and nomadic oases presented as isolated cities that extend out over the land and the sea.
Yet, while Dubai is perhaps becoming architecturally the ultimate fantasy city, it has not provided many opportunities to innovative architects. Most of the new projects do not push the boundaries of design innovation. They stay within a safe range of design styles that are palatable to the masses.
Bidoun invited a group of international architects to project their architectural vision onto the city of Dubai, to elaborate on possible scenarios, fictional narratives and forecasts. Their respective visions are found on the following pages.
Terminal City: A project proposal for superlative architecture in Dubai
L.E.FT, New York
Modern Dubai is littered with architectural monuments that can be labeled as superlative architecture: an architecture that breeds on the next big thing — from the shock of the new by comparison to, and referential scale with what has just become old.
In Dubai everything will soon be outdone, a taller, bigger, and larger structure will quickly be erected. What is here today is almost immediately to be irrelevant, insignificant, not worth mentioning tomorrow.
With superlative architecture, “what if?” — a present state of possibility — is replaced by “now what?” — an afterward state of wonder in doubt. There is no more aspiration, no more imagination.
Our proposal, Terminal City, collapses the “city” experience into one building. There is no more city fabric, no more blocks, no more street, no more lots, no more center, and consequently no more suburban spread and peripheries. This new city, caught vertically between two airport terminals, is the last structure that modern Dubai will ever need.
Based on Dubai’s business and demographic models (catering to less then twenty percent nationals), it is a transient city wedged between constant arrivals and departures; with airports on the roof and the ground the city becomes groundless, non-contextual, and a continuous duty-free experience, capitalism at its best, or worst.
Once checking out of the terminal, one can only be on the way to checking in again, that is, on the way out. In between, a vertical city stretches, with all living working and entertainment amenities a city holds. Terminal city even has a cemetery, which, located at the center of the structure, is the furthest point away from any gates.
Terminal City structure is shaped by the overlapping geometry of the airplanes trajectories from Dubai to the rest of the world (using the Emirates Airlines as our model). Resisting any iconographic connotation the structure can only be read as the seminal symbol of what Dubai should ultimately represent: the first true global metropolis in the desert.
L.E.FT is a design collaborative dedicated to examining the intersections of cultural and political productions as they relate to the built environment, established in 2001 by Makram el Kadi, Ziad Jamaleddine, and Naji Moujaes in New York. With an interest in diverse programs, a focus on unconventional interpretations of the ordinary is posited as a design onset. L.E.FT has had exhibitions at Parsons School of Design, Rhode Island School of Design, Storefront for Art and Architecture, and Artists Space, and collaborated with Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis and OMA on competitions. L.E.FT received an honorable mention for Surround Datahome in the 2001 Japan Architect Shinkenchiku competition, and is a recipient of the 2002 Young Architects Forum Award from the Architectural League of New York.
Why are we still learning from Las Vegas?
WORKac, New York
At the turn of the century, Dubai counted 1600 inhabitants. Today it has almost one million. The growth in population is rivaled only by its growth in garbage: Dubai’s domestic refuse increases annually by ten percent with an expected two million metric tons in 2008. As Dubai has developed, its strategy has been to “x” its buildable surface, “y” its population and “z” its trash, to parts unknown.
This incredible boom is said to have come as a result of running the young emirate like a corporation. To attract businesses, Dubai conceptualizes islands of work it calls “cities,” “villages,” and “zones,” immediately linking its business ambitions to urban ideas. Like an archipelago of emirates themselves, these working hubs — Media City, Internet City, DAFZ, DUCAMZ, Knowledge Village — are all designed to perform at the highest competitive level possible. Each island provides everything from cutting-edge technologies to plug-in office spaces, move-in apartments, and financial breaks. Foreign ownership is encouraged — at least of businesses. Attracted by such promise, a young ambitious and smart work force moves to Dubai and by 2003, there were 203 different nationalities living and working in Dubai — constituting eighty percent of the overall population.
At first glance, these “cities” are more akin to American suburban office parks: generic oases of corporate boxes loosely organized around central parking lots and the occasional green lawn. Yet stepping out of the car, it is only a matter of seconds before this first impression is dissipated by the scale of the enterprise and its success. From MSNBC to Reuters, Sony, Zen TV, Middle East Business News, CNN, UNI TV and others, it seems everyone is here and working together. The energy is high and the rhythm upbeat; far from the nonchalant Middle Eastern tempo. While infinite possibilities crowd the imagination, the excess of life witnessed renders the architecture once again irrelevant. Whereas Las Vegas attracts gamblers, Dubai attracts entrepreneurs, and their needs are solely virtual.
Firmly grounding its image as a modern working city for the young and the bold, Dubai generates new typologies for itself. A hybrid between the Champs Elysées and a Manhattan Avenue, Sheikh Zayed Road is a single majestic gesture flanked by skyscrapers on either side. Like a trail in the snow, there is nothing behind the skyscrapers but more desert. This is Dubai at its best, where pure vision and the desire for density yield a fantastic urban moment in the midst of nothingness.
With the advent of the Palm Islands — I, II, and soon III — Dubai reveals its weakness. While proving once again the breadth of its vision at an urban level, it fails to provide the same invention at the architectural. In plan, and from the moon, the Palms are the result of a simple yet genius observation: If a coast line of length ‘l’ is artificially rippled into ‘x’ number of fingers, the length of beach front within a given area is multiplied by ‘x.’ This rippling in turn offers an evolution of the “front yard–back yard” suburban dream: “beach yards” for everyone. Once at the level of the Palm’s streets, however, the inventiveness is stifled. The Palm’s extruded buildings are an ode to “Lifestyle” where theming takes over living in a cacophony of staged styles. From the Asian, to the Tuscan and back to Venice, the Palm is but an architectural Epcot Center where all is fiction written by developers, even one’s life.
Today, in the battle between real life and its theming, it seems the latter is taking the lead. No longer satisfied with being the destination of choice for an incredible work force, Dubai is already launching its next big thing: Tourism — the same next big thing as for so many other cities. After building islands of work, and islands of living, the time has come for islands of leisure: entertainment for all and the creation of fantasy worlds ensuring consumption ad nausea. Disney has finally landed in Dubai.
In October 2003, Dubailand is announced: a five-billion-dollar mixed-use theme park, whose area will equal the current built surface of Dubai. The three-billion-square-foot project is expected to attract fifteen million tourists annually. Amongst the most extravagant projects of Dubailand is the creation of Eco-Tourism World — a green haven of sixteen different gardens, outdoor amphitheater, health spa and resort and academy for 1,000 students. The project’s centerpiece is Al Barari — an oasis of green that will extend over 14.6 million square feet. “Surrounded by, and bordering a protected wild-life sanctuary [it] will truly be an inspirational setting reminding one of the Thousand and One Nights stories.”
If ecotourism was invented to encourage developing countries to preserve their natural wealth, to promote sustainable growth and to support local businesses and education, how are bottomless “thirsty” projects like Dubailand and fifteen million new tourists expected to preserve Dubai’s desert and improve the life of its inhabitants? Why should the Middle East need its own Disneyland and why are we still learning from Las Vegas?
Shouldn’t Dubai — with all the intelligence and imagination and money it has already put forth — continue to become an example by developing new models for it and for the world instead of adopting already failed ones? Shouldn’t these new concepts grow from the dryness, heat, humidity and beauty of its desert?
Moving from the desert of Las Vegas to that of Arcosanti, Dubai could develop a new “zero sprawl” model and out-new the new urbanists. Dubai’s obsession with skyscrapers would finally be put to good use, building vertical density everywhere. Its suburbs would implode. Learning form the Palm’s ripples, entire neighborhoods would be compressed vertically, minimizing their impact on the ground while maximizing the effectiveness of their shared services.
The concept of islands would be transformed from “working,” “living,” or “playing” to “sustainable” and “self sufficient,” each one collecting its own water and treating its own trash. Dubai’s snubbing of infrastructure could lead it to drop infrastructure altogether. Going wireless in this new era, it could go carless as well — no more traffic, highways or pollution, only public blimps and private carpets powered by wind engines moving from one independent living hub to another. Building on its tradition of wind towers, Dubai would thicken the skins of its tower facades to become deep pockets of shadow and cool. It would abandon its love of bland horizontal lawns and adopt the wild organisms of living machines to constantly recycle the waters of its towers.
The new Dubai would concentrate on the “real” as an expression of what is in Dubai perhaps the ultimate fantasy. You live in a desert but with hundreds of thousands of urbanites; you have shrinking oil supplies but inexhaustible sunlight and wind; the focus on density in a small area has given you a city that can be completely traversed by bicycle in less than an hour. What if reality was more interesting than fantasy? Isn’t that what reality TV is proving? To move forward, Dubai should embrace the desert with skyscrapers of adobe, celebrate modernity through advances in sustainability and instead of pretending that the wavy glass of the glorified office parks and the thin-skinned plastic towers that line Sheikh Zayed Road are actually models of anything that can last, celebrate the fact that there is a pleasure in building Babelesque edifices but this time building them right: In Dubai you can always Google a translation…
Work Architecture Company (WORKac) was founded in 2003 by Dan Wood and Amale Andraos. Dan Wood is originally from Rhode Island and has lived and worked in Paris and the Netherlands. He received his BA at the University of Pennsylvania and his Masters from Columbia University. Prior to forming WORKac, Mr. Wood established an international reputation as Rem Koolhaas’s partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Amale Andraos was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She has lived in Saudi Arabia, Paris, the Netherlands and Canada, where she received her B. Arch at McGill University. After completing her Masters at Harvard University, Ms. Andraos moved to the Netherlands in 1999 to work as a principal designer with OMA and then to OMA’s New York office in 2002. Both partners currently teach at Princeton University School of Architecture. WORKac’s projects have been featured in exhibitions at the New York AIA Architecture Center, Princeton University’s School of Architecture gallery, the University of Texas’ Goldsmith Hall Gallery and McGill University in Montreal. WORKac has presented their projects in lectures at Columbia and Harvard, and in Copenhagen, Paris, Beirut, Providence, Montreal, and Austin. WORKac’s projects have been published in the New York Times, the New York Sun, Interior Design, Architecture Magazine, A+U Architecture and Urbanism, the AIA Oculus, and 30-60-90.
In Conversation with Farshid Moussavi
Foreign Office Architects, London
Antonia Carver: FOA came to mind immediately when we were planning this feature, partly because of the innovative nature of your work, and partly because of your concept of “foreignness.” I’ve heard you previously describe your practice as “based in foreignness” and “alienation” as a “creative moment.” For me, this chimes well with both Bidoun and Dubai. Could you explain how these concepts affect the way you work?
Farshid Moussavi: The way we mean “foreignness” is less to do with where we’re from, although we both happen to be working outside our home countries, and more to do with a theoretical idea about exteriority as a condition — a proposition for an attitude towards practice that you could adopt even if you were working in your homeland. We think that when faced with a problem, if you stand outside the problem, you see possibilities that you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. It’s possible to release yourself from the local constraints — although you do have to meet those local constraints for the project to be realized. At the level of strategy, the proposition says “let’s stand back and take a broader perspective.” It’s about creating a certain critical distance.
AC: So it’s about balancing internal (practice-led) and external (local) agendas? I feel that in Dubai, partly because the city is so new, the desert seen as so “limitless,” and there’s a supposed lack of a definitive architectural history or style, many architects have allowed their internal agenda to dominate, rather than attempting to embed themselves locally. I’m interested in the way you’ve spoken about contextualizing yourself as an architect, about attempting to “become local.”
FM: We try to think uniquely for every project, because we want to use practice in new locations as a way of constructing identity in our own practice. How is it possible to construct identity for a practice that works internationally? What is consistent and how do you develop consistency when faced with very different conditions, and when you don’t want to become repetitious in your practice? So we use different locations to develop our own practice. Dubai is very new but every site has its own specifics: Some require top-down strategy, in which the architect can impose their vision, others require the architect to generate a concept out of the interiority of the project.
AC: Could we talk a little about the Florence highspeed railway complex? We’re including the project here as an example of the kind of development that could be envisioned for Dubai. I’m interested in the way you’ve taken the station underground and created a park space above, yet connected the station to the city via the eye-shaped viewing holes. Would designing for a rapidly urbanized city like Dubai require different thinking than a European center like Florence?
FM: The way we relate to the idea of travel is common to all of us, so there are some aspects of a contemporary railway station that would be common, whether building in Dubai or Florence. Travel is part of everyday life — yet it’s become something symbolic, something disconnected from everyday life. Most European cities are digging underground and thus liberating ground above, creating new relationships between the city and the railway station. There’s a possibility in Dubai to create real contextual, physical relationships between the railway and the city — after all, a project like this is a huge structure that can radically affect the city.
In Florence, the competition was won by Norman Foster and while I have great respect for his work, it does seem to be a lost opportunity. The glass vaulted roof they are building has lost the project the opportunity of constructing public space on the ground. There’s no point in recreating a Victorian-type shed. Embarking on a new station or railway is about building efficient ways to conduct flows and taking the opportunity to reconnect areas of the city that have been disconnected for years.
AC: As we discussed before, Dubai is in desperate need of a public cultural center, hence us including renderings of your design for the new Centre Pompidou Metz, France [unbuilt]. What was the thinking behind the project and how might it relate to a city like Dubai?
FM: Our design for Metz was a response to the previous Pompidou, where the rooms are hyper-specialized, and initiated in some ways by the brief. We needed to tailor the new museum to different kinds of art, to have it as flexible as possible, and compose different room conditions. The Pompidou in Paris is an icon but works of art are exhibited, rather than interacting with the city. For Metz, we designed a building that had the city as a backdrop from every room. Every space frames the city, and there’s a constant filtering in of views and natural light — so the building brings in public circulation. The inspiration was the [free] museums of London, which are so incredibly public. In the US, museums are very much a commercial experience, but if you take a building like Tate Modern, on weekends it is like a European piazza! This condition was the inspiration for turning the museum into a public space.
AC: It seems to be a project that particularly relates to Dubai: The flexibility, the way it pays homage to the city, and attempts to draw people in — and also the openness and the way escalators are used to transport people between floors gives it some relationship to the shopping mall tradition…
FM: Yes, the escalators and other aspects of the building could be related to a shopping mall — after all, are people in the mall to shop, or to interact with other people? Escalators between the floors offer an extended length of time to interact visually and physically with other people, to create public exchange.
AC: I know you haven’t been to Dubai yet, but could you tell me about your impressions of the city from afar, and from its status and reputation in the international architectural community?
FM: I do admire Dubai — after all, the city has managed to use architecture to give itself a huge presence, not only in the Arab world but internationally. I heard the other day for example that Switzerland’s largest export is architecture. There’s a parallel case in Dubai where architecture has played such a fundamental role in creating an identity for a place. It’s visionary. But at the same time, there comes a time when various visions need to be brought together to create consistency within the urban structure. It’s not dissimilar to China and Korea, where there was an initial, uncontrolled rapid growth, but these places do slow down and realize that they have a mass of building but that they now need to take care in what they do next. From our discussion, it seems that Dubai is maybe now at this stage and that this project is part of the process of taking stock and reflecting on where it’s at.
No one sees the world quite like Foreign Office Architects. Their architecture lifts flaps of skin from the ground and mutates them in contorted twists, like plastic surgery for the earth’s surface.
—Design Museum, London
Established in 1993 by Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera Polo, Foreign Office Architects (FOA) is a London based international practice with a branch in Barcelona. While their work is highly sculptural and evocative, their designs emerge from a rigorous analysis of the brief and functional program.
FOA is best known for its award winning Yokohama Ferry Terminal in Japan, which combines landscaped public areas, conference and cruise liner facilities. Other built projects include the Bluemoon Hotel in Groningen, a Police Headquarters in La Villajoyosa, Spain and a park with outdoor auditoriums in Barcelona. The practice is also working on a number of recent major commissions, including large-scale office developments in Spain and the Netherlands; a Technology Transfer Centre and Social Housing in Spain; the master plan design for the Lower Lea Valley and the London 2012 Olympics Bid; and a new music center for the BBC in London.
The practice was shortlisted for the design of the new World Trade Centre in New York as well as the design of a new Pompidou Centre in France.
FOA represented Britain at the 8th Venice Architecture Biennale (2002) and a retrospective of their work was held at the ICA, London in 2003. Zaera Polo is dean of the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, while Moussavi heads the Institute of Architecture and is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
Dubai Culture Hubs
George Katodrytis and Khalid Al Najjar, Dubai
Transformation is a crucial element of contemporary urban culture. To cope with the demands of society, cities are constantly in flux. They grow both vertically and horizontally, increasing in density and intensity. They require restructuring and transformation on almost every level. Our proposal focuses on the manipulation of the urban fabric by inserting structures that trigger change, provoke and demand response.
The proposal is for a series of cultural hubs, which will act as focal points and public foyers where cultural programs can be plugged in: art galleries, museums, libraries, performance stages, poetry reading salons, music recital spaces, art auction facilities, etc. The main lobby of the buildings is to be as public and accessible as possible, like a typical Dubai shopping center, with escalators and ramps leading to the upper levels, and to special rooms for additional cultural events. All events and items will be consumable: the aim is to convert the culture of shopping into shopping for culture. The external skin structure and glazing is designed using algorithmic weaving scripts.
George Katodrytis is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the American University of Sharjah, UAE, and a consulting architect in Dubai. Previously, he taught at the Architectural Association and the Bartlett in London, and has lectured and exhibited worldwide. He has built offices, residences and residential conversions, corporate interiors and exhibitions in the UK and Cyprus, as well as contributing proposals for developments in the UAE.
Khalid Al Najjar studied at Columbia University, New York, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture, before moving back to his hometown, Dubai, and setting up dxbLAB in 2000. The firm has since been recognized as one of the most innovative in the region, recently winning the Best Design award in the Mohammad Bin Rashid Awards for Young Business Leaders.
Recognizing a common aesthetic, George and Khalid began working together on invited competitions and other proposals in Dubai in 2003. Projects are developed from a strong initial concept to a complete exploration of program and form, characterized by innovation.
Founded in 2000, Group8 is an architectural practice composed of nine partners, 16 employees, and two permanent consultants. They have recently won two important competitions: The “Maison Verte” that will house the regional administrative offices for sustainable development and the International competition for the extension of the WTO. They are research oriented with four of the partners involved in teaching at the architectural Institute of Geneva (IAUG), at the polytechnic school of Lausanne (EPFL) and as invited professor in the School of Applied Arts in Geneva. Group8 is not concerned with style or recognition through style. Group8 believes that architecture a never-ending work in progress.
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.
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?
Dubai’s ubiquitous advertising billboards are stage sets that promote the desired personality of an enviable promised land, a place of opportunities where dreams can come true. The embodiment of Guy Debord’s seminal study, The Society of the Spectacle, the city is defined by fantastic dreamscapes that rise from the shifting sands of the desert and are continually remodeled in line with the visions of its chief architects. Its visual communications media — fascinating case studies in cultural production or construction — scream their messages to the city’s residents in superlative slogans. They instill in the people’s psyche an emotional impulse, a brand that goes beyond the product — the city and the lifestyle it promises. Through their individual designs (using symbols, colors, typography, and visual messages), they collectively define the city’s global sense of place, its investment in its perceived image. Dubai boasts about its future creating greater and greater distance from its past. It responds to its changing demographics and, therefore, to its need to align itself with the global community of affluent societies. The Dubai brand becomes the means to create a coherent culture that unifies, and defines, the city’s residents — people with otherwise little common cultural or linguistic heritage.
That Dubai has chosen this straightforward, American-style marketing strategy for its image development comes as no surprise for a city with global aspirations. The Dubai brand is built upon a simple narrative and a universal, emotional concept. Its value system is one that can be appropriated with ease. Dubai today is the Middle East’s most successful and liberal business model. The city prides itself on being a shopping destination — even hosting an annual Shopping Festival — and is developing ever-larger theme parks that transform entertainment into a commodity, sedating its growing population of young, affluent professionals.
What defines Dubai’s character? Is the city simply ruthless, extravagant, and full of the entrepreneurial ambition of youth? Or does it strike a balance between progression and tradition?
A critical examination of Dubai’s environmental graphics and its monumental advertising billboards offers a telling picture of visual landmarks that define and promote the city’s image. Dubai is usually presented as a concentration of architectural developments and myriad construction sites. But for me, the landscape — and the population’s collective consciousness — is defined by its peculiar penchant for megalomaniac graphics and quirky typographic messages.
A long parade of logo — symbols representing individual corporate tribes — declare their allegiance to the king of the pack, the government-owned umbrella “company,” Dubai Holding. One billboard extends for about a kilometer, stating its motto, in bold red: “For the good of tomorrow.” The “tribes” belonging to this mega multinational company are an unlikely mix of entertainment, technology, media, health, charity, education, business, and real estate developers. Dubai Holding’s logo is loaded with optimism, and portrays the ruthless and adventurous city at its best. The logo’s ability to blend into and subvert pre-existing identities can be interpreted as a fair representation of the city’s character and its political aspiration to assimilate itself into the world of tomorrow. The swoosh that dots the “i” of Dubai is a universal mark, here standing for “good” and “go ahead” and “the right choice.” Its red color is energetic and memorable; its tick-like angularity resembles the sharpness and hardness of diamonds; and its placement over the word “Dubai” gives the impression of a gem’s sparkle under the light. Dubai Inc is branded as a commercial “gem” proudly shining under the blazing sun of the Arabian Gulf.
Other government-sanctioned projects, advertising and PR companies — of which Dubai boasts a plentiful supply — have relied on a convincing mix of minimalist, international, and business-like visual styles, and the sober colors of navy blue and silver, and diamond-shaped symbols alluding to the Islamic art tradition. Dubai Properties’ logo, for example, references wealth and success (diamonds), as well as Arabic calligraphy (the oblong-shaped dot often placed on top or below some of the letters of the Arabic alphabet). The Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) branding, meanwhile, is a strange mix of Wall Street aesthetics and an arabesque motif, constructed within yet another diamond-shaped symbol.
Humongous billboards, spread all along Sheikh Zayed Road, promote Dubai’s ambitious building projects and compound the image of a city obsessed with grandeur and wealth. The billboard for Burj Dubai, predicted to be the tallest development in the world, defiantly declares the project “the most prestigious square kilometer on the planet,” where “history” is re-invented and “rising,” as if by sheer miracle, from the flat, desert floor. The billboard announces an idealized business dreamscape of the third millennium, in all its glory and fanfare, its skyscrapers reaching towards the sun, like steel-and-glass plant-forms of a futuristic world. Slogans occupy more than half of the billboard’s space, taking a pronounced precedence over the image, and allowing only a small and thin tip of the highest tower to break out of its physical confines.
This “gem” of the desert, however, has not totally abandoned its historical origins: just as desert dwellers obsessed over water and greenery, Dubai’s new identity is tied to the sea and futuristic, artificial lakes and rivers. The branding of Business Bay — a business park located along the waterfront of a man-made creek — can be read as an expression of cultural heritage. The archetypal Islamic architectural element of bringing water (pools and fountains) inside the home or palace is the ultimate manifestation of luxury in the arid desert environment. In the new, grandiose Dubai, the traditional pool becomes a whole bay or creek.
Dubai’s projects are a never-ending reinvention of reality; land is replaced by water and water by land. The city’s fixation on the forestation of the desert has gone beyond the usual planting and diligent maintenance of trees and plants. Employing that hackneyed Arabian emblem, the palm tree, the emirate has created tree-shaped islands, large enough to be seen from outer space. The logo employed by development company Nakheel for the projects is elegant and natural: Its choice of color invokes the pleasant calming colors of nature (blue for the expansive sea and green for the fresh and clean air and flora); its shape of waves and leaves are those of the Arabian garden. These islands represent the poetic luxury of seclusion, the escape from the straining reality of modern life; they are protected from the sea by a ring of “water homes” arranged to form the shape of a line of calligraphic poetry written by the emirate’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The three Palm Islands — plus The World, a fourth group of islands fashioned in the shape of the continents — physically and metaphorically do, as the slogan goes, “put Dubai on the map.”
Dubai Inc’s defiant, proud posturing and its extravagant impulses are expressed through its plethora of shopping malls as well as its architectural follies. Brimming with youth and vitality, and in daring pink, a celebratory image of Burjuman mall promises consumers “luxurious shopping and incredible rewards;” whole skyscrapers along Sheikh Zayed Road announce the juicy, sexy messages of cosmetic product advertising.
This reference to luxury is taken to an even higher level of sophistication, craft, and attention-to-detail in the Disney-like new “shopping city,” Madinat Jumeirah. A pastiche of traditional architecture, at (of course) a much larger and grander scale than those of the existing souks and modest Arabian houses of the “old” Dubai, Madinat Jumeirah announces itself with glittering gold and blue mosaics of fancy Arabic calligraphy. An intimidating fortress gate with symmetrical decorative towers reminds consumers of the privilege of admittance to this ultimate shopping and entertainment paradise. Madinat Jumeirah’s logo is a playful dance of letters that twirl in a circular disk, like a delicious meal offered on a golden plate rimmed with diamonds, representing the complex’s luxurious retail experience. Meanwhile, the geometrical logo of the Souk Madinat Jumeirah conveys the opposite: a structured order resembling an architectural map of the Arabian house, arranged around an inner “secret” courtyard. The two logos stand as testimony to the nature of the visitor’s experience of this “city” where one is lost among shops and goods of all kinds, where luxury is expressed through every retail outlet’s brand identity, and where the diversity is held together only by the overall feel of well-crafted design. Even the most mundane traffic and parking signs are mounted onto elaborately carved, painted and branded wooden poles. After all, the alleys and inner courtyards of this contemporary souk are defined by an organized chaos and curbed sensuality.
Every aspect of visual representation in Dubai has a claim on luxury, richness, and abundance; the emirate’s brand identity is a strange medley of Wall Street and Disneyland, of American and Arabian symbolism. Dubai represents itself as the ambassador of the future Arabian umma, making its daring and bold steps towards a self-conscious new world order, defined as much by marketing as by reality.
Even when you don’t see me smile, in fact I am smiling.
When journalist Paul William Roberts interviewed Saddam Hussein in his Baghdad office back in the mid 90s, he went out of his way to comment on the furniture. Saddam, he explains, was “sitting behind the kind of gilt-shanked baroque desk that looks like it will start cantering about the room whinnying at any moment. It looked less like an office than an exhibit. The Baroque Room: You will notice the Gothic touches coming in during this period, but the overall effect is still one of appalling vulgarity and parvenu ostentation. If you want people to think you’re working, pal, I thought, then put something on the desk. There was the kind of telephone Mae West would have favored: big, white, lots of gold.”1
Strange as it seems, Roberts had decided to drop a tab of ecstasy before walking into the palace to interview the head of state. Usually, I would term such a gesture a worthy experiment in political journalism, but in the case of Paul William Roberts, the action does little more than underline the sense of playground exhilaration that the Arab world induces in him. As demonstrated in his book as a whole, Roberts is the kind of writer who believes that criticizing western foreign policy gives him carte blanche to portray any Arab male as a cultural clone of Saddam himself, as some self-centered, uncultured buffoon. More precisely, what characterizes Roberts’s Saddam, whether in terms of the office furniture or his tastes in cinema (“I like vrr much Gudfadder moofy”), is his childlike willingness to ape the West. Baroque furniture becomes a sign of that pure stream of culture — good or bad, high or low — that is supposedly emanating from the West to the rest, much like “Gudfadder moofy,” or junk food and conceptual art.
Seeing as the baroque is always a case of generosity gone mad, crème brûlée with extra sugar and cream, it functions all too well as a sign of cultural corruption or degeneration. Baroque furniture, even more than jewelry or flowers, is something that symbolizes ornamentation in and of itself, and the overwhelming, syrupy profusion of bright color seems to discourage any sober or impartial reading and leads instead to all sorts of exercises in cheap, sneering snobbery.
Baroque has no qualms with the functional: Although you do find the odd gratuitous pillar and quasi-Hellenic portal and such, what is striking about the baroque is its easy combination with the serviceable and everyday. Notice, for example, the dashboard coverings for Kleenex boxes, equipped with tubby little cherubs blowing slender golden trumpets. Pompous and preposterous if you’re not acquainted well enough, in point of fact the baroque never shies away from the most profane of purposes.
In rhetorics, for example, a “baroquisme” is someone making a simple point in an elaborate way, using superfluous ornaments that dazzle — typically kicking off with a starting point that is simple enough, then culminating in a fireworks of confusingly seductive analogies. According to my Gradus “dictionary of literary procedures,” a baroquisme is akin to an “asianisme,” an “underdeveloped and hardly rational literary method” dependent on “gratuitous hypotheses,” widely used in “Arab literature.”
When Saddam’s gothic showroom was bombed, raided, and looted by marines in crew cuts and muesli camouflage some six years after Roberts’s experiment in psychedelic news narrative, the BBC was just as eager to pounce on the Hussein family furniture. “Large bedrooms with hotel-style beds and imitation French baroque furniture lie empty, covered with a film of dust. Other articles and bloggers equally referred not only to the furniture style itself, but to the dust covering the furnishings. Portentous omens peering at us through the billowing sands of history.
And this is the third point of baroque: Aside from being ornamental and embarrassing, it is always allegorical in that pretentious, ominous, biblical bedrock sort of way. For Walter Benjamin, the baroque reflected a mode of fabled, prehistoric understanding of divine communication. Because the earliest rude world was too crude and uncivilized and people could not therefore correctly grasp and understand the teachings of wisdom and heavenly things, wise men had to conceal and bury what they had discovered in order to cultivate the fear of God, morality, and good conduct, in rhymes and fables to which the common people are disposed to listen. And for Benjamin, it was indeed a common practice of the literature of the baroque to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and to take the repetition of stereotypes for a process of intensification, in the unremitting expectation of a miracle.
Initially, the baroque was a public relations campaign on behalf of the pope, designed to woo the masses in a context of religious tensions within Christianity, in the wake of the division between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In the 1550s, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on the Counter-Reformation, a program of renewal which resorted to an art of magnificent display that was both doctrinally correct and visually and emotionally appealing. As the century progressed, the style did make inroads into the Protestant countries, but was simply appropriated by the adversary for his own ends and under his own aesthetic premises.
Today, it seems that what we generically call an international appearance of “baroque furniture” is actually a blend of Louis XIV, rococo, American colonial, Queen Anne, gothic — and an occasional smattering of Ming dynasty. Aside from the actual trappings and design, the very choreography, the mise-en-scène of such furniture is equally hybrid and unpredictable, blending interior traditions that are hard to pinpoint. In Tehran, one important feature is the placing of a generous number of chairs in a circle, one that is used almost exclusively to host ones family and friends, which lends the effect of a painstakingly arranged furniture showroom, particularly when the chairs still sport the original plastic wrapping. So the guests — sipping hot tea and discussing the merits of Isfahan over Shiraz, and slandering the government, and wondering aloud when Hamid is finally going to rehab — can convene in a pleasant circular setting of golden loops and crimson curves.
Iran aside, the striking predominance of baroque furniture is noticeable in parts of Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Indian Subcontinent and the Arab world. The style has made such impressive inroads into even the most culturally conservative milieux that I personally know of several Mideast individuals who think baroque is a Syrian invention.
And indeed, at what point is a cultural phenomenon delocalized and entirely appropriated? To take a rather underestimated example, beer was invented by Egyptians during the Pharaonic era, along with the very material — glass — from which it is now consumed. This obviously does not mean Bavarians have to learn Pharaonic drinking songs for the annual Oktoberfest to avoid accusations of cultural alienation. But when it comes to the baroque outside the West (as is the case with art biennials, blue jeans, designer footwear and more), the original, colonial point of reference, and the notion of non-Westerners being endearing lowlifes imitating something that will never be theirs, is tenacious indeed.
Around the time Paul William Roberts was busy with Saddam Hussein and his Mae West telephone, Indian writer and architect Gautam Bhatia published the book Punjabi Baroque in which the new schools of architecture in Indian cities are referred to with terms such as “Chandni Chowk Chippendale,” “Tamil Tiffany,” “Marwari mannerism,” “Bania gothic,” and “Anglo-Indian rococo.” Despite offering an approach that is ostensibly more meticulous, comprehensive and subtle than comparable studies that came before, the bottom line of Gautam Bhatia’s argument, from what I gather, is that Subcontinental baroque is a top-down architecture of resilience preserving the lifestyle of the wealthy against the poor, in a desperate attempt to preserve an illusion of colonial grandeur.
But Punjabi baroque, to borrow Bhatia’s term, can hardly be reduced to an exclusivist mark of social standing. To stick to the Tehrani example, if there are many common denominators that cut across social class, but also gender and ethnicity — like, for example, classical poetry and any type of junk food soaked in sweet ketchup — even these are subject to styles, interpretations, and modes of consumption that differ from one another. One of the few phenomena that truly do unite the city as a whole is indeed the fascination for rococo armchairs with crimson padding and gold trimmings shaped into teeny-tiny crests and purls. The majority of villas, apartments, and even slum dwellings I’ve visited are a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Louis XIV. Interestingly, the one Tehran apartment I know that is absolutely and perfectly free of any baroquisms whatsoever is that of Farhad Moshiri, an artist whose favored subject matter, as it happens, is the way in which the baroque has made its way into so many spheres of everyday life.
Class lines aside, even political boundaries are forgotten under the sheltering radiance of petite leaves and feathers of plaster and gold. Hossein Rahati, a baroque furniture dealer who started his career in the 1970s (and a close friend of my family ever since), claims he never once reconsidered his Elahie furniture assortment. He now sells precisely the same style of furniture to millionaire clergymen that he was selling to the pre-revolutionary royal family. For the Pahlavi monarchists and their entourage, the porno-aesthetic overkill of rococo signified modernization and westernization at all costs. While for the elite that followed, intent as it was on homegrown authenticity, I would imagine the very same French furniture signifies, quite simply, upward mobility, professionalism, and quite possibly, a touch of Emirati glamour. As a friend of mine would put it, a postmodern context spawns postmodern furniture; accept the expected.
To claim that baroque is nothing more than a sign of westernization, or of nouveau riche ostentation, is like saying that gangster hip-hop is arrogant (they’re worse than whites), that Monopoly turns kids into capitalists, or that Dubai is ugly and faceless. On the one hand, the problem here is sweeping and dramatic and, dare I say, global; a problem of language in general, of the dearth of shared criteria, seeing that the trilogy of the good, the beautiful, and the true has become as questionable in cultural analysis as it is in urban studies or art history. But on the other hand, the promise of the baroque is a simple one. Speaking as a former academic, I can say that baroque embodies the advantage of snakeskin boots and a Beckham Mohican over a black turtleneck and a pair of corduroys. To go without any sort of high modernist codex that translates into clear-cut professional command means you’re perpetually underestimated. It gives you a terrific sense of freedom: Nothing to lose, everything to gain.
1. Paul William Roberts, The Demonic Comedy: The Baghdad of Saddam Hussein (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997)
This question bugged me as I read and reread an essay by the eminent urban chronicler Mike Davis, published in New Left Review, titled “Fear and Money in Dubai.” One of the fiercest and most consistent critics wedded to the plight of the political Left, Davis has authored a number of books that stake out his position, including City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. Wherever there has been social injustice played out as urban drama, Davis has been swift to criticize the insidious powerlessness of the most impoverished and underrepresented — the so-called “silent majority.”
In his New Left Review piece, Davis systematically derided Dubai as one of the most spectacular neoliberal “evil paradises” today, (rightfully) reminding us that Dubai’s speedy rise to global visibility has been in part due to shady goings-on. The plight of disadvantaged migrant laborers, the alleged laundering of bin Laden capital, and corporate-inspired self-aggrandizement come together in Davis’s corrosive Dubai formula: “Albert Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby.”
For many liberal-minded friends and colleagues of mine, Davis’s comprehensive critical dissection of Dubai summed up their own worst fears: that Dubai is all sickening shine and no soul, an air-conditioned bubble of hype whose hubris guarantees imminent cultural and ecological Armageddon.
When I for my part raised my eyebrow at Mike Davis’s critique, then, I hit a raw nerve. But when I ask the question, “When do critics fail?” I mean it quite seriously. I’m not trying to imply any insistence upon ethical decency between critic and subject; we ought to be able to take that for granted. Rather, I am pondering what happens when a critic is confronted with an alien place that may bear superficial resemblance to what he has known but also may be critically different.
From my limited view, Dubai’s desert experiment is akin to a petri dish of fast-track dreams and global ascendancy, like those natural history TV shows wherein millennia of evolution elapse in seconds. From an urban, political, and anthropological perspective, Dubai makes for compelling drama, offering a case study of twenty-first-century mutant economies growing outside of Europe and the US. This may be problematic for a number of reasons, but I’m not convinced that Dubai is a monoculture of “evil,” as Davis would have us believe.
For all its sardonic, rancorous vim, Davis’s hatchet job seems too perfectly neat in its structured negativity. Did he write with a critic’s sleight of hand, in the name of the Left? And might the Left, like the Right, also have its own critical apparatuses that forsake the reality in front of them in favor of an obligatory idealism? Are both sides equally guilty of fantasizing about the future only on their own terms? Is the Western critic’s disgust with Dubai simply a veiled disgust with the West?
Fear in loathing
In their recent research on the Gulf, published as Al Manakh, architect Rem Koolhaas’s think tank AMO deemed Davis’s invocation of Disney as part of Dubai’s DNA to be an echo of William Gibson’s 1994 condemnation of Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty.” AMO’s text went on, “The recycling of the Disney fatwa says more about a stagnation of the Western critical imagination than it does about Gulf cities… . To be a critic today is to regret the exportation of ideas you have failed to confront on your own beat.”
This past May, Koolhaas went even further at a lecture at Dubai’s first International Design Forum, comparing Davis’s use of the word “evil” (as in, “evil paradise”) to George W. Bush’s infamous post-9/11 neocon slogan, “the axis of evil.” (“I’m always nervous when Americans use the word ‘evil,’” Koolhaas confessed.)
Was Koolhaas’s a harsh comparison?
Maybe. But he and AMO make this point: When critics bring their conclusions, a priori, to a place, it prevents what could be a productive confrontation between critic and site, in turn preventing any unexpected or unforeseeable critical responses. Predestination, instead, governs. There’s no self-criticism, no threat of mea culpa, and no promise of unsettling Alterity. Hard empiricism sometimes gives way to the delusional hypothesis.
I too would like to suggest that places such as Dubai (importantly, an ex-colony) act as a kind of narcissistic, mutating mirror to the emerging anxieties of the West. Lacan pointed out in “The Mirror Stage” that a subject can only understand her or his own being-in-the-world by seeing a reflection in a mirror, by comprehending the self as an image.
What if this vindication and assurance sought in the projected image of the Self-as-Other could also be extended to nation-states and civilizations?
Dubai operates as one of these Zeitgeist mirror-surfaces for the West (and, increasingly, for other parts of the Middle East, such as Bahrain and Qatar). For the neoliberal Right, Dubai is a phantasmagoric setting crafted in the perfect image of unbridled market capitalism (minus the democracy). For the political Left, Dubai may be just a grotesque reflection of the West’s worst endgames, manifest as that evil paradise.
Dubai’s urban physiognomy is one of the most recurrent targets for critiques and complaints. Where there ought to be pedestrian paths, they say, there are only clogged motorways. Where there ought to be public plazas, there are shopping malls. Where there should be local and contextual architecture, generic skyscrapers arise that many imagine will remain unpopulated yet grossly overvalued. The accusations boil down to these well-worn one-liners:
It’s a theme-park.
It’s all fake.
It’s not sustainable.
Let’s, for one minute, look more closely at the nature of the accusations and the tropes they belong to:
NO HISTORY: There’s a persistent hue and cry over Dubai’s supposed lack of history and the excess of newness. The critic rolls her eyes and sighs, “In Dubai, even the old is just new-old.”
SHORT-TERMISM: Dubai builds at an unprecedented rate. Skyscrapers jolt into the skyline like cutouts advertising a futuristic utopia that could never really materialize. Yet there they are, offering millions of square feet of potentially inhabitable space to live, work, and shop in. The doubtful ask whether these buildings will ever see actual lived life. How can Dubai try to be the world’s biggest transient hub and also a place of permanence? The orgiastic frenzy, they say, can’t be sustained.
ECOCATASTROPHE: Creating an indoor ski slope in desert climes emphatically declares that ecology is not something to be tethered to, but to be augmented or even completely negated. As the ecologically conscious in the world strive to avoid eco-meltdown, Dubai flouts contemporary reality with oblivious arrogance, an act of total irresponsibility at the nation-state level.
INAUTHENTICITY: Westerners seem to be on a desperate hunt to seek “reality” in Dubai. When they don’t find what they’re looking for, in their ensuing disappointment, they have no other choice than to yell, “FAKE!” What such critiques fail to highlight is that there is, of course, a reality in Dubai, and a history.
Dubai’s reality is one that not many have known. Copies and imitations are not abstract ciphers but productions of reality in their own right. (A fake Gucci handbag is still a real handbag.) And with each imitation and recreation, the status of the so-called “original” alters.
In the meantime, traces of civilization in the emirate go back to 3000 BC. More recently, Bur Dubai, the original settlement along the Creek, became independent in 1833. The phenomenon of tax exemptions for foreign traders began in 1894, with exports of pearls and dried fish, and imports from India to East Africa. Already by 1908, there were 400 shops huddled around the Creek. The area has a deeply embedded relationship to a past structured around the movement of people and of products, arguably the very thing that has become the supermodern visage of Dubai today.
Fear of fear
When Dubai fails the Western critic’s litmus test of a “good city,” it fails because it doesn’t exhibit (or, worse still, even try to exhibit) Enlightenment values and forms. Political representation; the disestablishment of royal rule; the manifestation of “society” in institutions like museums, libraries, and universities: these are all in short supply.
If the Enlightenment mandated the rule of reason over received convention, the modern city in the mid–twentieth century became the rationalist apogee of such principles, rigorously flat and therefore emancipatory.
With the modern city (a la Hilbersheimer or Le Corbusier in the 1920s) having already unapologetically deleted all references to the past in favor of the ultra-new, is Dubai any worse for pulling out fantasies of the fictional past from its virginal desert? Perhaps there’s a sense that Dubai’s searing skylines, where towers congregate in a vision of ungrounded liberation, is what we in the West had predicted for our own cities back in the 1950s and ‘60s. Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai — they’ve built what we once proposed. And they’ve built it without our blessing or our cooperation.
In a few years’ time, we’ll likely reach that mythic moment when China and India will become the first and second economies in the world. After all, they’re already the largest in terms of sheer population. Outsourcing and imports indicate that there’s about to be even more of China, India, and the Middle East flooding the streets of Europe and the US. Surely the free market saw this coming?
Given this imminent emasculation of the West, does the critic scald and sneer precisely because he knows that the West created the first versions of the very things that places like Dubai now want — skyscrapers, central business districts, air-conditioning, frappucinos, Topshop, Justin Timberlake, the illusion of an endless power supply, corporate corruption, infinite consumer choice, and promiscuity without penalties?
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s biggest disappointment was that his creation didn’t love him. His biggest regret was setting the precedent in the first place.
Story of the story
So when do critics fail? When they form intractable judgments before they’ve even begun to open their eyes. It’s interesting to note that much of the critical dismissal is based on aesthetics. Endless acres of mirror-glass facades and a compulsive sampling of the world’s best (and worst) bits signify supposed aesthetic “unoriginality.” Here, aesthetics are read as an embedded form of political and ethical agency. In this reading, Clement Greenberg’s disdain for kitsch reigns supreme. Today’s heavyweights likewise deplore kitsch because it signifies depoliticized frivolity and easy, mindless foreplay for the masses.
The real story behind the phenomenon of Dubai is the “story of the story.” And that narrative is maybe more telling than anything you’ll find sprouting from the desert on the “shores of Araby.”
What is the story of the story? It’s the future history to be written about the unwieldy cast of players, crooks, charlatans, saviors, doom-mongerers, cowboys, and visionaries who have rushed or been pushed to commit to Dubai. This story will contextualize the myriad motives that drive the migratory mobilization: desire, hope, desperation, fear, and the belief that for this moment, this is the place to be.
In September 1974, the Mandala Collaborative received a letter of intent from the Iranian minister of culture and arts to design a new home for the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. It was a prestigious undertaking for the young Iranian firm, a landmark project that excited the interest of the Shah himself. As in so many fields of endeavor, the ambition was to make a great leap forward, from backwardness to the cutting-edge. If the city’s several musical groups were ill-served by the small, overbooked, and understaffed Roudaki Hall, they would soon have one of the largest auditoriums in the world, with seating for 2,000 concertgoers and the finest acoustics money could buy.
It was an era of great plans and major projects. Tehran, which had just hosted its first international film festival in 1973, was to acquire a new museum of contemporary art next to Farah Park. A forward-looking “city of the arts” was planned for Shiraz, a research and performance institute to encompass sound, painting, sculpture, cinema, theater, ballet, poetry, and literature. As with Mandala’s Center for the Performance of Music, these various projects were meant to benefit Iranian audiences while impressing upon others the world-class status of a nation that styled itself “the most crisscrossed crossroads in the world” and the inheritor of thousands-year-old traditions.
The design concept for the symphony hall was based, Mandala claimed, on the “unifying organizational conceptions of Persian ‘place making,’” especially the garden, both the “hidden garden” — an open courtyard surrounded by indoor spaces — and the “manifest garden” surrounding the indoor spaces. The idea was to create a “concentric series of spaces” that would rhyme with and be expressed by the design’s centerpiece, a twelve-meter-tall ziggurat sloping up to the sky in rounded, circular steps. The whorled ceiling of the auditorium was at once functional — minutely calibrated to achieve optimal reverberation — and symbolic, evoking the graded textures of the walls at Persepolis, the ruined capital of the Achaemenid Empire just outside present-day Shiraz. Extensive rectangular gardens were meant to recall pardises — the ancient Persian ornamental gardens from which the English word “paradise” derives. The ceremonial staircases at Persepolis were reproduced, while the raised platform in the main hall echoed the Apadana, Darius’s audience hall.
The project, which also involved the American firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, proceeded slowly. Thousands of drawings and plans were devised; a model was produced and personally inspected by the Shah. It was very much a royal symphony hall, tailored to the needs of the emperor, with separate entrances for the conductor, the service workers, and the royals. The main entrance for commoners faced Pahlavi Avenue, near a proposed stop for the then-unbuilt subway.
By 1978, as the Shah’s repressive apparatus lost control of the country and Iran pitched into its revolutionary moment, the principals of the Mandala Collaborative fled the country. Yahya Fiuzi, the partner in charge of the design, had quit both Iran and Mandala the previous year; Nader Ardalan, Mandala’s founder, attempted to keep the project going from his new home in Boston. But as the clerical regime consolidated power, the idea of a royal symphony hall became an anachronism, yet another reminder of the epic waste and misplaced priorities of the Pahlavi era. Like so many things, it was a step too far, the latest in a long line of glory-mongering excesses.
In 1971, Mohammad Reza, Shah of Iran and self-styled “light of the Aryans,” celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the first Persian Empire with a party for six-hundred friends and admirers — celebrities, politicians, and potentates from across the globe, including Orson Welles, Prince Juan Carlos of Spain, King Hussein of Jordan, Pat Nixon, and Nicolae Ceausescu. Haile Selassie, the Negus of Ethiopia, had pride of place, as representative of the world’s oldest government. The events began at dawn on October 12, at Pasargad, with an apostrophe to the Shah’s most illustrious forebear. “After the passage of twenty-five centuries, the name of Iran today evokes as much respect throughout the world as it did in thy day,” the Shah said, standing before the tomb of the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. “Cyrus, Great King, King of Kings… . Sleep on in peace forever, for we are awake and we remain to watch over your glorious heritage.”
Xenakis was a frequent guest of Shah Reza and the Shahbanou, Empress Farah Diba, whose patronage made possible an array of cultural happenings, including the Tehran International Film Festival and the Shiraz Arts Festival. The first Shiraz festival had been held in 1966; over the next decade, the event brought a profusion of the West’s most progressive composers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, playwrights, and directors to Iran, along with traditional musicians from the East. Orghast, the first project of Peter Brook’s radical Paris-based International Center for Theatre Creation, premiered at the Shiraz festival in 1972 with a mixed troop of European, Japanese, and Iranian actors and a script (in a made-up language also called Orghast and supplemented with Greek, Latin, and Avesta) by Ted Hughes. Merce Cunningham’s dance company performed there, as did John Cage. Modern and electronic music was particularly favored; Karlheinz Stockhausen received multiple major commissions, while Xenakis, who had presented several ambitious works (including a 1969 choral work dedicated to political prisoners, among them “thousands of forgotten ones whose names are lost”) was asked to be director of the proposed arts center in Shiraz.
Though the audience for the Shiraz festivals was mostly Iranian, the predominance of Western artists and the vast sums spent preparing Shiraz for visitors made them, like the imperial celebrations, a magnet for criticism. Iranian newspapers denounced modernist tendencies (like Stockhausen’s “meaningless” music). Liberal reformers sometimes echoed religious complaints, insisting that the monies spent on these foreign-dominated cultural events might be used to improve the lives of average Iranians. But the cultural dimension was always close to the surface. The 1977 Shiraz Festival featured Pig! Child! Fire!, a play by the radical Hungarian theater troupe Squat that evoked Dostoevsky, Breton, and Artaud while making use of graphic nudity, an animal corpse, and acts of extreme sexualized violence. Squat’s antics had gotten them expelled from various European cities and stripped of their Hungarian nationality; their appearance in Shiraz, in those late days of the empire, felt like the greatest provocation yet. Khomeini again weighed in, this time from Paris: “[I]t is difficult to speak of. Indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz, and it is said that such acts will soon be shown in Tehran too, and nobody says a word.” He needn’t have worried; 1977 was to be the final Shiraz Festival, and Khomeini himself would be returning to Tehran soon enough.
In his first speech to the new nation that he had done so much to will into existence, the Ayatollah Khomeini declared, “We don’t need markers of civilization… . We need markers of Islam.” In the years that followed, a host of new journals attempted to define the aesthetic sensibility of the Islamic Republic. Two of the most influential were Faslnameh Honar (Quarterly Journal of the Arts) and Sureh (Qur’anic Verses). Article after article denounced the art and architecture of the Pahlavi era as either slavishly Western or regressively Persian, or both, while working to recuperate the nation’s Islamic legacy.
Zahra Rahnavard, head of the Al Zahra School of Art, wrote in Faslnameh Honar, “Our Revolution has been a bridge between matter and meaning, between ‘us’ and the ‘divine.’” Revolutionary art, she said, should be ayeh gara (spiritual, Qur’anic, intuitive) rather than vaghe gara (realistic). In this case, her commentary was directed less at the imperialist West than the socialist East — specifically, socialist realism, with its blandly heroicized depictions of individuals making history, which Rahnavard believed was threatening to “dismantle the precious goals of our revolution.”
The idea of the museum itself was also subject to interrogation. An editorial in Faslnameh Honar demanded that, rather than catalogue or represent the arts of past epochs, the revolutionary exhibition would submit the work of art to the judgment of Islam. (Certainly, lovers of modern art feared the summary judgment of the clerics; the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art became a storehouse for the largest collection of twentieth-century art outside of Europe and North America, including pivotal works by Picasso, Pollock, and Grosz, as well as a silkscreen portrait of Empress Farah by Andy Warhol.) By this light, in fact, the perfect museum was the Qur’an itself, a space in which stories from the past could constantly be reevaluated to provide life lessons for all Muslims throughout time.
This indifference or hostility to the non-Islamic past extended across the humanities. One cleric, writing in Faslnameh Honar, lectured that what Iran needed was not a font of superstition like the Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings,” the eleventh–century poem that was the holy writ of Persian nationalism) but a pasdar nameh (a “book of the revolutionary guard”). Archeology suffered, as well. The Institute of Archeology at Tehran University was closed; funding was slashed or eliminated for ongoing work at various locations, including Persepolis.
In June 1997, nearly two decades after his departure, Fiuzi received a phone call at his home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. It was a representative of the Iranian government, calling with a proposition: Could he lead the design and construction of a grand meeting hall, to be completed in time for the Eighth Summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference — just over five months away. In the wake of Mohammad Khatami’s surprise election in May, the OIC summit was to be a watershed in the history of the Islamic Republic. Iran had boycotted the last five OIC summits over the organization’s refusal to condemn Iraq for the Iran-Iraq war, and the December summit was to be a kind of coming-out party. President Khatami would launch his “dialogue of civilizations” initiative at the summit, beginning with the assembled Muslim dignitaries, many of whom represented countries that the Islamic Republic had broken off relations with (including Egypt, which had briefly sheltered the dying Shah two decades earlier, in the first days after the revolution).
Fiuzi was tasked to revive Mandala’s design for the Center for the Appreciation of Music. His team proceeded to produce some 4,800 drawings, including designs for fabrics and furniture; many were 1970s plans re-rendered with AutoCAD. The new complex would feature resting halls, prayer halls, and meeting rooms, though the focus remained the circular center, formerly the main concert hall, now a tent-like auditorium in which to install some fifty-odd heads of state and their retinues. The timeline required Fiuzi’s team to carry out the design and the construction virtually simultaneously. Six thousand workers laboring around the clock ensured that the construction of the building was finished on schedule.
The new design had to be modified in form as well as function. In light of the occasion of its construction, the conference center was to represent the achievement of Islam, not the timeless glory of the Persian Empire. Fiuzi would have to gut the Achaemenid elements from the original plans and replace them with new design elements in an appropriately Islamic style.
Of course, the nature of Islamic style is itself an open question. Fiuzi, under fantastical time and budgetary constraints, provided a new theory of the project, replacing the old paradigm of “Persian place-making” with something he called heya’ti, “rushed style,” a kind of temporary architecture inspired by traditional Shia religious ceremonies. Heya’ti was the name of the ephemeral structures erected in conjunction with the annual mourning of the death of Ali during the month of Muharram. This justification seemed awfully subtle to some observers, including one high-ranking government official, who responded to the open, minimalist interior with a request for glazed blue tiles, massive chandeliers, and Qur’anic verse to make the space more recognizably Islamic. The morning after his site visit, buses bearing traditional tile workers showed up at the site to begin their work. Fiuzi managed to placate the leadership by, among other things, adding calligraphic verses about Muslim unity from the Qur’an to panels in the main vestibule, though even then the effect was minor, as the letters are carved out of the white surface of the architraves.
Neither the building nor the Islamic Summit Conference was a phenomenal success. The conference center received little attention in the foreign press, and it was heralded in Iranian media more for the “rushed style” of its construction than for its design. This was a monumental work built in record speed for comparatively little money, ninety-three percent of it from local sources (and hence only seven percent foreign — the press loved to quote the exact figure). The “dialogue of civilizations,” though adopted by the United Nations as a theme for the year 2001, did not lead to an epic realignment of thought or politics (or even normalized relations with the US). Yahya Fiuzi did go on to get other, more leisurely commissions in Iran, including work on the Tehran International Trade Center and a proposed Farabi Performing Arts and Cultural Center. Today he lives and works in Tehran.
In The Concealment of Beauty and the Beauty of Concealment, a widely distributed pamphlet based on a 1986 address to the Seminar for Studying Hejab, Zahra Rahnavard, head of Tehran’s Al Zahra School of Art, insisted that a woman could only discover her true nature by covering herself:
The body, which is destined to decay, to be mingled with the dust and produce (and be eaten by) worms, even at the pinnacle of its beauty is but an obstruction in the way to real beauty. The beauty of concealment, therefore, lies in the elimination of the physical values in order to revive the values of the real self of a woman in the mind of the society of man and woman.
This celebration of the hidden self and its attendant derogation of the physical was consonant with the general post-revolutionary disinterest in “civilization” and externalized signs of greatness.
But the concern for appearances is an old theme in Iran, an element of the Iranian personality emblematized by aberoo, “the glow of the face.” It is not simply an elite concern; even the poorest households maintain a room for visitors, a kind of sitting room, in which one’s prize possessions are on display for the enjoyment of the guests. Aberoo is the basis of hospitality, even generosity, but it also contains an element of falseness. Those who labor to keep up appearances often have something to hide.
The 2,500th anniversary events were a kind of aberoo, a presentation of Iran’s best face for the consumption of guests, in this case the hundreds of foreigners who descended on the country to participate in or document the celebration. In addition to the tent city and the outlandish meal and extravagant spectacle at Persepolis, the whole city of Shiraz (where journalists and lesser dignitaries stayed) was cleaned up: the prison painted, potted flowers lined along the main roads, caged songbirds hung on lampposts. Shopkeepers were issued handsome blue jackets. After the events were over and the guests had left, the city was stripped of all these ornaments.
The Islamic Summit Conference and its specially commissioned building was a different kind of project, a demonstration of piety and simplicity, the opposite of ostentatious. But it was a kind of aberoo, too. The building was meant for show. It represented an Iranian claim to a different notion of belonging — to the ummah rather than the mellat. As conceived by the regime, it was to be an emblem of the Islamic Republic rejoining the community of Muslim nations, the site for a dialogue of civilizations — which is also, perhaps, to say, the site for a conjugation of glories. For that is the secret of aberoo, and also of glory: It only exists to be talked about.
At the top of an escalator in Harrods, the Knightsbridge department store owned since 1985 by the Egyptian soft drinks salesman-turned-billionaire businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed, stands what might be London’s oddest work of public art. Entitled Innocent Victims and designed by Bill Mitchell, Harrods’ chief architect for some forty years, the life-size bronze depicts Al-Fayed’s son Dodi and Dodi’s lover, Diana, Princess of Wales, who died together in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997 — an event that Al-Fayed has alleged was orchestrated by the British secret service agency MI6 on the orders of the royal family. Mitchell shows the pair boogying barefoot, she in a negligee, he in testicle-hugging slacks and a tight shirt unbuttoned to the waist, as though on the dance floor of an upmarket Mediterranean fleshpot, or on the poop deck of a burnished yacht. They appear to be about fifteen minutes away from slipping off to bed for a night of flashy, trashy sex — of posh lust and poshlust. Before that, though, there is one piece of business to attend to. Staring into each other’s eyes, Di ’n’ Dodi release an albatross into the sky, its two wings inscribing the initials “D.D.” into the department store’s perfumed air, with its Obsession and Samsara, White Shoulders and l’Eau Sauvage.
Innocent Victims is, by almost every measure, a terrible work of art. It fails as a realist work — his stomach was not that flat, nor was her nose that irredeemably beaky. It fails as a symbolic work, too — the albatross, post–Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), commonly speaks either of divine grace or of the burden and eventual expiation of guilt, neither of which seem appropriate to the couple’s short history. Most of all, it fails as a representation of love, at least between Dodi and Diana. Fumbling for eroticism (his bare chest, her swollen pubic mound) it slips closer to a soft-porn fantasy about an Arab “entering” the British establishment — something that Al-Fayed, with his failed passport applications and rescinded Royal Warrants never quite managed to do. (Prince Philip, identified by the Harrods’ proprietor as the prime suspect in the alleged MI6 plot, withdrew his official patronage of the store in 2001, following what his office described, in a masterful understatement, as a “significant decline in trading relationships.”) At the very least, the sculpture seems to be a vision of what a wealthy, unimaginative man of humble birth might want for his son — a princess, utterly pliant; a princess, to make of him a prince. Innocent Victims is a memorial, then, but not so much to the actual Dodi as to a version of him — an Arab blight on an English rose — invented by the tabloid media and appropriated by Al-Fayed for his own, establishment-baiting ends. Here, the beloved departed is remembered only as a sexual martyr, a man who possessed a queen who never was.
Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Moneim Fayed (“Dodi” is a nickname, derived from his childhood mispronunciation of his proper moniker) was born in Alexandria on April 15, 1955, to Al-Fayed and the Turkish-Saudi novelist and socialite Samira Khashoggi. Up until his relationship with Diana, he lived mostly in obscurity (or whatever form obscurity takes when you are the son of a very wealthy man and have access to many of the people, places, and things that our blue planet affords). At nineteen, he was sent by his father to Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training facility, to pursue a sixth-month course in what amounted to playing soldier, a program popular with rich foreign nationals keen to give their sons a little backbone and public- school sheen. The only appreciable upshot of this experience seems to have been Dodi’s new hobby of collecting regimental uniforms, which he’d wear to parade around his apartment (idle thoughts turn to him and Diana role-playing Richard Gere and Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman). After falling out, he floated into a life of semi-indolence, supported by a monthly allowance of £400,000, which he reportedly often spent within the first week. A Ferrari dealership funded by his father came to nothing, as did a seat on the board of Harrods, prompting Al-Fayed to refer to him behind his back, according to Dodi’s PA Pamela Maestre, as “my stupid son.” Dodi met with more success with his occasional work in film, gaining an executive producer credit for the multiple Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981), the tale of an Anglo-Jewish runner who defeats anti-Semitism to compete in the 1924 Olympics, and an associate producer credit for Hook (1991), the Steven Spielberg–directed reworking of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 stage play and later novel, Peter Pan and Wendy. Even here, though, it’s hard not to think that he wasn’t so much working as toying with Daddy’s money — Al-Fayed paid for much of Chariots, and Hook could not have been made without his permission as partial copyright holder of Peter Pan. “Playboy” is a word often used by the tabloid media to describe Dodi, and one that carries with it, alongside the usual associations of cocktails and louche daywear, the suggestion of heartlessness, not least to the Princess of Hearts. Perhaps. What seems more certain is that, as with Barrie’s creation, the billionaire’s son was a boy for whom life was a thing of little weight, a boy who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, grow up.
Despite the glossier kind of gossip columns linking him with, among others, the actresses Brooke Shields, Britt Ekland, and Julia Roberts, Dodi only truly passed into the popular imagination in July 1997, when he embarked on a love affair with Diana while holidaying in St. Tropez on Al-Fayed’s yacht, the Jonikal. The media response to this relationship — accompanied by blurred, long-lens paparazzi shots of the couple riding jet skis, alighting at marinas, and, famously, sharing an awkward, rather teenage kiss — seesawed between fascination and repulsion, with Dodi presented along old-school Orientalist lines as a simultaneously rapacious and impotent pasha (a headline from an August 1997 issue of People Weekly is typical: “In her first real post-Charles romance, Diana takes up with a controversial playboy. Is he a dreamboat — or a deadbeat?”). Although they were never given unambiguous voice in the mainstream press, the underlying set of anxieties about race, class, religion, and bloodline were clear enough. Ever since OPEC, Britain had seen wealthy Arabs make increasing incursions into, if not quite the establishment, then at least the establishment’s playgrounds, and here the son of an Egyptian tycoon — and, what’s more, one who had helped end eighteen years of Conservative rule through his part in a 1994 political scandal in which he allegedly bribed two Tory MPs to table parliamentary questions — was sharing a bed with the former wife of the first in line to the throne, and mother of the second. Despite the divorced Diana’s lack of a constitutional role, there was a definite feeling that territory had been taken. Albion’s body politic had been breached by a man who, in the confused fantasies of the media, was half-Saladin, half-robed seducer à la the TV adverts for Fry’s Turkish Delight.
The rest is history — or rather, a cacophony of competing claims of more or less dubious provenance (he was cheating on her, she had called things off, he had asked her to marry him, she was pregnant with his or another man’s child), not one of which, it seems, has entirely succeeded in drowning the others out. The press is determined that the Princess remain a restless ghost, and so, it follows, must her lover. There’s little dignity to be gained in going over this material here, and what’s significant is not what the butler or the best friend claims to have seen, but the fact that a large portion of the British public remains obsessed by the affair some twelve years after the crash. Governing this are at least two “what if?” scenarios. In the first, the crash never takes place, and the romance matures, with Diana eventually converting to Islam, marrying Dodi, and bearing him a child, a brown brother or sister for Princes William and Harry. In the second, the crash does take place, and Al-Fayed’s suspicions about the involvement of MI6 and the Royal Family are proven to be correct. Either of these scenarios would have resulted in the erosion, if not the wholesale destruction, of the House of Windsor as we know it, and their constant playing and replaying in the private imaginings of the British public points to a fuzzy dissatisfaction with being a subject people and a willingness to countenance — with mixed horror and glee — an alternative constitutional reality. Like Dodi’s military costumes, these scenarios allow the nation to imagine how it’d look as a republic, without ever committing to a fight.
Drawn in two dimensions by both his father and the media, the real Dodi is unknowable (he may not even have known himself). For the British public, however, he functions not only as an exotic Other, but perhaps also as a counterintuitive avatar of the everyman. In a monarchy, most of us are as remote from the royal bloodline as any Arab lemonade seller’s son. In a monarchy, most of us are Lost Boys, politically unwilling or unable to grow up. This enforced childishness gives rise to childish fantasies — fuck the Royals and there’s a chance you might just really fuck the Royals, and in the process open up a path toward a new, more equitable world. I suspect this is why Bill Mitchell’s sculpture of Dodi wears such tight-fitting trousers. Wouldn’t you, if you were packing a republican icon — however feeble — in your pants?
For many of us, the parched desert expanse of Dubai represents the most extremely fantastical site for experimentation. Herein lies the future of architecture, the future of urbanism, the future of the future. In hopes of tracking the evolution of this brave new word of design, Bidoun asked some of the world’s leading architects — all under the age of twelve — to propose projects for these pages. In the belief that the midget dreamers of today will build a bigger, better tomorrow, they had no parameters within which they had to work, no limitations to speak of.
Drawings were made at a workshop with UAE-based architects and artists, held in October at Third Line, cohosted by Bidoun and Start, the arts-education charity.
6 years old
It’s a hotel and office. Blue is the lake and the orange circle lowers and goes up and down to give you shade. There are willow trees because they give you shade too.
3-and-¾ years old
The Chocolate Factory
Chocolate makers use the factory to make chocolate and they give it to me.
Sabeena Anjali Sheth
8 years old
This is a house of fish, sharks, dolphins, and octopuses and people run around inside the octopus park. The design is an octopus on top of a shell.
4 years old
This is an island for robots where they live and relax after work.
Katya Mira Sheth
11 years old
People and animals come to the zoo to watch the animals and the water show. The whiskers are the viewing balconies and the tiger’s stripes are windows. You stop the animals eating the people inside with glass walls. It’s going to be built in Sharjah and the restaurant in the nose.