Dubai, black city (2/2)

Nakheel - Villas on the fronts of Palm Jumeirah
Naktheel - Villas on the fronts of Palm Jumeirah

After George Katodrytis, it was the turn of the Dutch architect Kees Christiaanse to talk about Dubai in the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam.

The lecture of Kees Christiaanse was stunning. I didn’t know that there are still critical architects left like this. Projective theory is miles away from his point of view. His lecture showed that ‘the exhausted critical project’ is really exhausted.

Kees Christiaanse started his lecture by saying he had never been to Dubai, although he did a project there, via internet. Based on that experience, he would not do that again soon, he said.

There are four reasons to go to Dubai, Christiaanse summed up; the spectacularity of the developments, the projects of the Avant-Garde architects, to investigate the urbanity, and/or to do a design. Christiaanse won’t go there on vacation.

The city of Dubai might be the model for the future city, Christiaanse continued, and that is worrying, because its features are all the wrong ones:
- Sameness
- Fakeness
- Gatedness
- Maleness

If Coney Island was the prefiguration of Manhattan, than Las Vegas might be the prefiguration of Dubai, Christiaanse proposed. Las Vegas is all about fake culture, and just as OMA build a Guggenheim for it, so is Frank Gehry building a Guggenheim for Dubai.

The growth of Las Vegas was mainly due to the fact that it was located on a border, in a no-mans-land without any laws and taxes. Things that couldn’t anywhere else, could happen there. The absence of taxes and customs – that what defines a democracy, Christiaanse said – is also the basis of the success of Dubai.

Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis on helicopter platform of the Burj Al Arab, Dubai
Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis on the helicopter platform of the Burj Al Arab, Dubai

The rhetoric of Christiaanse is filled with irony, only irony. Critical theory is about unmasking the status quo – arguing that the reality as we perceive it is actually fake - and irony is one of the most effective means to prove that point, as it always points to contradictions.

It is applied by all the critical critics, to the extend that it is not only exhausted, but also applied by for instance the Bush-regime, as the French philosopher Bruno Latour notices. I did an exercise myself some time ago on Eikongraphia. It works like this: “The owners of Gazprom are criminals” (they are fake), so no good can come from that. To prove his point, Christiaanse argued, that the project that won the competition was really a ‘sameness’ tower – it could be located anywhere.

He himself had applied for the Gazprom-competition, but already the next day he regretted that decision and pulled himself out. To unmask the other entrants of the Gazprom competition, Christiaanse almost childishly compared the designs with projects from the past, in order prove their fakeness. Rem Koolhaas/OMA combined Leonidov, Manhattanism and Soviet architecture. Jean Nouvel redid some 1930s Russian architecture. Daniel Liebeskind made a jumping figure of himself, a hooray-jump because he won again a competition… and so on.

One of the most curious (read: ironic) things about Dubai, according to Christiaanse, is the fact that the region has a lot of oil, but no water.

Even more intriguing (read: ironic) is the fact that all the heroes from the cultural revolution of 1968 are now building for a (semi-)dictatorial regime, a sheik. Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, etc. They design museums where only not-offending art can be exhibited. How can these architects live with that?, Christiaanse wondered. There is also a grand contradiction: under the semi-dictatorial regime in Dubai, the room for creativity is the largest in the world. The most artistic projects are being realized in the Arab desert.

W.S. Atkins - Burj Al Arab, Dubai
W.S. Atkins - Burj Al Arab, Dubai

The office of Kees Christiaanse, KCAP, had some years ago been designing on the island-agglomeration The World. As the current of the sea is very low, they tried to design with that. Now they are working on a mechanical current-accelerator in the sea, Christiaanse said (ha!). Furthermore KCAP was interested in creating an ‘openness’ to the neighborhood there. The client wasn’t.

In a globalized world all cities look more and more the same. The same downtowns, the same suburbs – sameness, sameness. For China, KCAP designed a city for 250.000 people, and worked especially on the water system. The client wanted a Holland-city. “So banal, so rotten”, Christiaanse expressed his horror, to theme your city with something else. They completed the city, but protested against it in an exhibition ‘No Holland Village.’

The biggest thread to the world is not sameness, but gatedness, Christiaanse said. Albert Pope wrote a small but beautiful book about it called ‘Ladders’, which argues that cities were used to be based on a grid, promoting open communication throughout the city, but now more and more become segregated into ladders with a single entrance-road that does not promote any communication in the city. Christiaanse didn’t mention that gatedness might provide a sense of community.

An even more frightening trend, he said, has emerged in Istanbul, Turkey, where gated communities are illegally being build because of status. The gate itself is often just a low wall. In between these gated communities also illegal settlements are being build that curiously feature shops, and other facilities at a road. So in the end gatedness and ungatedness alternate in the landscape.

But the future is not that promising. The period of openness that started at 1820 or so might end already by 2050, Christiaanse warned cynically. ‘It must have been a great time, that period’, people will say then.

The lounge of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Dubai
The lounge of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Dubai

After these two lectures George Katodrytis and Kees Christiaanse had a ‘dialogue’ that was moderated by Roemer van Toorn.

George Katodrytis did not share the concern about the gatedness. Everybody in Dubai is very optimistic and has a sense of security. And there are a lot of areas that are not gated, especially the older parts. A sense of community does not exist there (yet), Katodrytis noted; you are more of a spectator than a participant.

“There are no places to demonstrate”, Katodrytis said, but one can’t say not a lot about it yet. “Dubai is only 10 years old. You can’t create citizenship like that. And we (as architects) are not there to create a revolution. People look proud about their sheik, and about the development. And: Dubai accepts all people. That does not happen in any other country. One has to respect their values. You don’t want to impose the western model of Democracy on their country, especially not like the Americans are trying in Iraq.”

The ‘invisible’ population of Dubai is a problem, Katodrytis agreed, but it is not unique for Dubai, but actually very common in the Arab region. And it is not something architects can solve.

What is wrong with ‘fake’?; Roemer van Toorn then asked Kees Christiaanse. He answered that is like with music: Either you like it, or not. And secondly; too much noise damages your ears. So it is part subjective and part objective.

Katodrytis wondered whether ‘fakeness’ could be avoided. Can you really create authenticity anywhere nowadays, he wondered. Besides, architecture is about artificiality. And Dubai is not trying to be authentic; it is only about selling. “Anything goes, as long as it is successful.”

About the maleness, Katodrytis joked that 80 percent of the Dubai population is male, as it are males who work in the construction-business and have enough income to be able to live there.

“If I get a museum, I will do it”, Christiaanse said, when asked if he would work in Dubai again, “But, over there, there is no difference in making a palace or a museum. I will me a very beautiful, fake building. As an architect you are limited in your possibilities. As an urban designer, however, one has more power to design a structure in the city, to design open places.”

Who is behind it all, someone from the audience asked? Katodrytis answered that Sheik Mohammed and a team of highly educated CEO’s run the building-boom of Dubai. In earlier years, the country did have the money, but did not know how to manage development. Now, they do. It is very well organized. And most of the money comes from outside, as investing in Dubai is appealing and secure, he said. 9-11 actually accelerated the development of Dubai, as Arab money was less welcome in the West. And Dubai had already laid out the infrastructure for investors.

Dubai is the result of a unique situation, Katodrytis continued. Something comparable will not happen anywhere else in the next couple of decades.

Yesterday: Dubai, white city

Satellite image of Dubai
Satellite Image of 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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