View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Sunday, October 28, 2007

UAE Architecture: Not All Visitors are Favorably Impressed

Many first-time tourists and travel writers to Dubai and Abu Dhabi are instantly bowled over when they see the tall, lavish buildings. Some recent articles that capture several first impressions of buildings and photos are linked here, here and there.

But not all tourists and reporters give UAE architecture a high rating. This morning, Washington Post readers will see a scathing article in their newspaper that also needs to be read by UAE residents, leaders and architects.

Washington Post staff writer, Philip Kennicott, makes some valuable points that are contained in the following snatches:

“Listing projects, or marveling at the architectural gigantism, doesn't get at what is unique about the emirates, which are emerging as the world's great post-democratic cities.”

“Architecturally, despite all the dissonance, the strange juxtapositions of the vulgar and the sleek, the blue-chip buildings next to the shabby high-rise clad in garishly colored glass and surmounted by a pagoda folly, the emirates are essentially an advertisement to an increasingly wowed world: Look at what enlightened, corporate, efficient and non-democratic government can do.”

“In Dubai, architecture must be iconic, and the word is a kind of mantra, rising above other adjectives you see (elite, luxury, prestige) that define the endless discussion and selling of real estate. Buildings are deemed successful if their shape is instantly recognizable, different, reproducible and memorable. But the iconmaking business makes each new icon seem a little more meaningless than the last…”

“Buildings are planned, marketed, sold and built as fast as possible. ‘Build it and they will come’ gives way to ‘propose it and they will buy.’”

“The new developments [The Palm and the World] often feel very Southern California, gated communities with planned town squares and lots of water features. They are bland, but they also underscore the degree to which the old skyscraper farms along Sheik Zayed Road have been an aesthetic failure. There is an absence of anything meaningfully local about the style.”

“The poverty of ideas in a city that is building capacity far faster than it can develop an aesthetic.”

“Dubai presents itself as a new crossroads of civilization and an unrepentant borrower and collector of the best. The dissonance is the aesthetic.”

“The striking thing about the hundreds of concrete support pillars that have sprung up in recent months along Sheik Zayed highway -- which will support a new light rail system -- is how quickly they're going up. The delays, the disputes, the litigation, the whole messy business of ‘Not in My Back Yard’ simply doesn't exist in the country.”

“The designs for these new palaces (or pyramids) of culture can be seen in an exhibition set up at the Emirates Palace, an Arabian Nights monstrosity in Abu Dhabi. Some of the ideas are intellectually dazzling, intelligent and graceful and worked out on Pharaonic scale -- and yet it's hard not to be haunted by a sense of emptiness in even the best of these designs.”

“Are they just more advertisement for the Emirates model, empty husks that won't serve culture, but hold it captive for the amusement of world's luckiest and richest citizens?”

“Perhaps because these are designs for cultural institutions, one shouldn't just admire them for their occasional brilliance, their clever programs and sometimes inspiring form. Perhaps one should ask what agenda they will advance, whether they will bring values that help the Emirates advance to the kind of open society that many architects, over the past century, thought they were building in the West. Or are they just more advertisement for the Emirates model, empty husks that won't serve culture, but hold it captive for the amusement of world's luckiest and richest citizens?”

“Saadiyat Island is the big "if" of the Emirates, where the fundamental question is whether anything will develop that isn't an extension of the most crass, exploitative, fast-paced and globalized capitalism the world has ever known. Will freedom grow, or is freedom irrelevant? Will culture peek out from the interstices of concrete and glass and asphalt, or is culture being reinvented as thematized, branded, mass entertainment?”

“The United Arab Emirates has been a dreamland for architects, providing them steady work, big fees, bold possibilities and in many cases, a canvas that is larger and blanker than any they might find on their home turf. As architecture, three of these projects are visionary. But they are visions of a purely architectural sophistication, beautiful gems destined for delivery to the super rich, with little of humanity stirring in their bold and beautiful spaces.”

The ideas above need to be read and understood in the context of the entire article but they give a taste and a sampling of some reflections about what is ascending in the UAE city skylines.

Icons, whether placed in galleries or on our computer desktops, must point to something more, hopefully to something of value and wonder. Philip Kennicott is asking the important question, “The new UAE buildings are being called ‘icons’—but icons of what?”

Kennicott is also asking us to think about the extent to which UAE architecture is reflecting the best of Emirati culture. If Emirati culture is not being captured in the emerging architecture, where is it being contained? If the architecture testifies to cultural plagiarism, where does one go to see authentic Emirati culture?

It is good to read an article that causes us to slow down, put aside our defences and take a deeper look. This report should be discussed and debated in the architectural and public forums but it is difficult to know if and where these are happening. The Festival of Thinkers has just concluded in the UAE capital. I wonder if these issues of architectural aesthetics and cultural authenticity were strenuously debated in that gathering.

To read the full article, view the pictures, respond to the writer and see what comments the American readers and bloggers make about UAE architecture, follow this link:

Philip Kennicott, ‘Arabian Heights: Oil-Rich Dubai Raises Its International Profile With Towers Meant to Be Icons -- but Icons of What?’ Washington Post, Sunday, October 28, 2007.

First time readers of the WP will have to do a free registration.

Image: Some of the ‘icons’ [Burj Dubai and Burj al-Arab] that American readers will see today in the WP gallery that accompanies this article.