Dubai, white city (1/2)

Nakheel - The World
Nakheel - The World

Is Dubai the city of the future, or the condensation of the worst developments of the past decennia; is it a fantasy, or is it all just fake; is it a dream, or actually a nightmare, is it a utopia, or just an investment enterprise…?

Last Tuesday, 13th of March 2007, George Katodrytis and Kees Christiaanse duelled with each other in the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam about the question whether the developments in the city of Dubai are positive or negative. Like a stroboscope they portrayed the city alternately as illuminated and dark, white and black.

Architecture critic Roemer van Toorn was our host that evening. The Dialogue lecture series this semester is part of the Architecture Biennale (theme: ‘Power’) that is organized by the Berlage Institute this summer in Rotterdam. Unfortunately the third speaker of the Dialogue, Marc Angélil, couldn’t make it by airplane from Zurich because of a fog obscuring the runway.

Van Toorn started off by quoting critical comments by Mike Davis on Dubai, on the internet, and celebrating comments by Rem Koolhaas/AMO, that he made on the last Venice Biennale. “Dubai becomes a single experience, instead of multiple experiences”, Koolhaas notes. Van Toorn also showed a short film about Dubai Waterfront, which hilariously features Winy Maas of MVRDV designing beaches.

Rem Koolhaas, OMA and Porsche Design design project in Dubai
Rem Koolhaas/OMA and Porsche Design project in Dubai

George Katodrytis worked for six years in the city of Dubai and has clearly given more lectures like this. In staccato the astonishing facts and figures pass by. Dubai is a constructed fantasy; he starts. “It is a success-story, for the good reasons or the bad.” Rome was the classic city, New York was the city of the 20th century, and now Dubai will be the city of the 21st century.

Curiously, Katodrytis continuous, the most critique on Dubai comes form the outside, not from the inside. The critique is even more curious, as Dubai is really a Western idea.

A 2-d algorithm that is designed to maximize and optimize its perimeter takes the same shape as the waterfront development in Dubai, Katodrytis argues. The Palm is the only neighborhood on earth you can actually recognize from satellite, although – if you go there – not much is going on. The total waterfront-development of Dubai measures twice the size of Manhattan. Beyond bigness, I would suggest, towards hugeness.

If you compare the public spaces of Manhattan and Dubai, one finds that there is none in the latter. Public space seems like something of the past.

The first palm-island (actually a peninsula), Palm Jumeirah, will open within the next couple of weeks, and illustrates that Dubai in the first place is a real-estate project. Images show ‘fronts’ that are congested by enormous villas, almost shoulder on shoulder exploiting the waterfront every meter. Dubai is about selling something exclusive, but not that exclusive that not a lot of people can own a property there. Luxury becomes a commodity.

The island-conglomeration ‘The World’ is both the most primitive property – an island, and, because of that, also the most exclusive one. It presupposes that you own your private airplane/helicopter, or boat. Katodrytis sums up the features of the islands: a primitive, iconic form, pure cumulative sand-mass, security, and the ceremony of arriving/leaving. Some of the islands have been sold for more than 150 million dollars. ‘You can do there whatever you want’, the advertising video says. Ultimate freedom is for sale.

Extremely artificial, and extremely unique; Katodrytis says. In the following slides he compares the form of the Palm-islands to some visions of utopia of the past. The rising Burj Dubai is compared with images of the biblical Tower of Babel, the landscape from the film The Planet of the Apes, and visions for Chicago from the early 20th century. But as these utopias never were (meant to be) built, Dubai is actually building it.

The Burj [say: Bourke] Dubai is with 80 stories now halfway its supposed height, and already the highest building in Europe and the Middle East. The word ‘Burj’ is an Arabic word for ‘Bourgeois’, Katodrytis analyses. And Dubai sells this bourgeois-image to the world. Everybody is welcome.

Burj Dubai
Burj Dubai

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel

In the last 10 years the city of Dubai has dramatically grown from a desert and deserted town to a thriving city, that is growing faster and faster. The population, now 1.5 million, of which only 10% is native, grows with 25.000 every month, to about 5 million by the end of the decade. With 4.8 million tourists in 2003, Dubai has already surpassed Cairo as a tourist destination. While Cairo has the original pyramids, Dubai only has the fake ones, but it doesn’t seem to matter. By 2010 Dubai expects 15 million tourists every year, and it is building fast to accommodate that number.

Mike Davis writes that Dubai is about the fetishization of the image, about an architecture of persuasion that philosophizes reality, Katodrytis notes, but the image here is so overwhelming that reality and fantasy are not distinguishable any more. You’re blinded by the light.

In Dubai it is hard to recognize whether a building is commercial or residential, whether you’re looking at a landscape or a golf course. Because the development is so commercial, Katodrytis explains. It sounds like the end of representation, were it not that all the islands are extremely representational.

To all this brightness, there is however ‘a counter geography’, Katodrytis concludes his lecture. “Someone has to built it.” Southeast Asians do the job, under improving conditions, he says.

George Katodrytis, Studionova - Tower for Business Bay, Dubai
George Katodrytis, Studionova - Tower for Business Bay, Dubai

Another (minor) problem, he said, is that students from his faculty get job-offerings even before they have graduated. In Dubai they can directly start building skyscrapers, but as an architect you need at least 10-15 years experience before you have matured as a designer. So the immature city is designed by immature designers.

Katodrytis mapped with students structures in the city. He also designed a project himself - a tower in Business Bay. The plots for the 230 skyscrapers that are envisioned for the Business Bay central business district development have already all been sold.
Because there really is no context, most of the time not even a program, Katodrytis played with the form of the tower and its skin. That’s about what you can do there, he somewhat harshly finished, and what everybody does there. An image… and that’s about it.

It doesn’t get more cynical than that - there is nothing, so let’s make nothing. Giving architecture up like that made the position of Katodrytis an annoying one. Dubai, a city without architecture.

Tomorrow: Dubai, black city

Zaha Hadid - Dancing Towers, Dubai
Zaha Hadid - Dancing Towers, Dubai

The one-hour video on Dubai by Skyscrapercity feels like an uncomfortable, overstretched orgasm, but is nevertheless a good summary of all projects under way there.

Related Dubai: Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel-Ali, Palm Deira, The World, The Poem, Burj Al Arab, Chelsea Building, Iris Bay, Ipad

New on Dubai:
Dubai 1: The story so far
Dubai 2: Palm Jumeirah
Dubai 3: Palm Jebel-Ali
Dubai 4: Palm Deira
Dubai 5: The World
Dubai 6: Burj Al Arab
Dubai 7: Burj Dubai
Dubai 8: Dubai Towers
Dubai 9: Dubai Renaissance
Dubai 10: The Cloud


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