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Monday, May 30, 2005

Dubai Fresh

Via the excellent Mudd Up I've learned of the latest issue of Bidoun, a magazine devoted to new art and culture from the Middle East. The current issue is devoted to Dubai, the Arab world's number one stab at Las Vegas-style unreality. A go go go hyper-capitalist paradise populated by an astoundingly diverse mix of transients from around the world, Dubai is deep into a process of transforming itself into a major world destination. Like elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula, Dubai has been rocketed into the modern world over the past century by the wider world's unslakable thirst for petroleum. Unlike others, particularly their giant neighbour Saudi Arabia, the emirate has managed to diversify its economy beyond desperately hoping that the price of oil stays high. Led by Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum Dubai has managed to get to a stage where oil revenues account for only 5% of GDP, with tourism and business promotional efforts like the Jebel Ali Free Zone and Dubai Internet City now providing the lion's share of revenue. This new confidence can be seen across the city, in projects like the now-legendary Burj Al-Arab hotel, or the the Palm Islands, a fantastical re-imagining of what a city can be, of pushing further back the point where human vision and ingenuity end and nature begins.

The most interesting article in this new issue of Bidoun is Brian Ackley's "Permanent Vacation: The Making of Someplace Out of No-Place". An excerpt:

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, 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.

Dubai in this respect reminds me somewhat of Las Vegas, a city that I have always wanted to visit. Despite being in the middle of the desert Las Vegas has been one of America's great boom cities of recent decades. Spurred by the incredible growth of the gaming industry the Las Vegas metropolitan area has attracted enormous numbers of newcomers from across the United States and, indeed, the world, to work in the progressively more fantastical casinos and in the businesses that have sprouted in the wake of local economic growth. Today, Vegas is the very epitome of American unreality, from the neon-soaked strip to oceans of suburban tract homes that in creature comforts and design bend little to the realities of a desert location. Our love affair with the conquest of nature consummated in one city.

Oil is the connecting thread that has allowed both Dubai and Las Vegas to assume their current forms. Without oil, the royal family of Dubai could never have afforded to transform their once-humble port city into the post-modern consumerist extravaganza that it has now become. Without cheap oil to power cars and energize air conditioners, the sort of explosive growth that Las Vegas has experienced would have been simply impossible. Perhaps I am being unfair in characterizing these cities as 'unreal'; perhaps they simply represent a new form of reality, a new authenticity? After all, there is nothing wrong with technology enabling new ways of living. The city I live in, New York, could never have existed in its current density and complexity with the technology of two hundred years ago. As technology advances it allows new ways of living, new angles for organizing life. The unfamiliarity and distaste such new cities can inspire may be nothing more than the shock of the new. Indeed, I think that the very strange newness of Las Vegas has always been an important reason why the original CSI has been so superior to the Miami and New York spin-offs (the superiority of the cast chemistry has also helped, of course). The show always benefits from the contrast between the contrast between its often macarbre storylines and the neon-soaked glitz of the Strip and the peculiar placelessness of its suburban locations, complete with full lawns, a beefy raised middle finger to the lack of local water sources.

There are several threads of historical continuity connecting the new Dubai to the old: its accommodating economic polices, the government of hereditary autocracy, 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 local conditions, 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.

This is a fascinating idea for me, the idea that physical surroundings can be completely severed from any sort of tether to the past, that links to what went before can be deposited solely in ideas or people. Even in the most radical American forms of placelessness, the exurbs that have sprouted like plate-glass windowed weeds across the American landscape in the last decade, there is still, at the residential level at least, an attempt to recreate familiar aspects of the American past. It doesn't matter that these are often pastiches, where the white picket fence encloses a steroidal McMansion, the important thing is that a connection with an idea of a certain kind of Americana is sought in such places, that a premium is set on presenting these new forms as part of a national continuum. Not so in Dubai, as George Katodrytis explains:

In Dubai there is little difference between holiday accommodation and housing. Architectural programs are becoming fused and undifferentiated. The morphology of the landscape and sea-scape 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.

This is something entirely new, where residential accomodation becomes part of the fantasy world created for the benefit of the visitor. This is different from somewhere like Venice, where the resident can sometimes seem to be no more than a walk-on character to provide local color for the tourist's dream vacation. Indeed, the success of such a concept may be reliant on the transient nature of so many residents of Dubai. In a city where roots are carried only in people's minds or in small gestures, where such staggering sums of money have been committed to realizing an imagined world where the corners of the world meet and shop shop shop, it is perhaps most appropriate that the fantastic infects the mundane residential world, that the day-to-day grind is touched by the shiningly unreal and freshly new.

Finally, to return to Ackley's essay, I think that he offers an excellent conclusion:

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. It 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?

|| RPH || 5:37 AM || |