Myths of Permanent Cities

The original you can find here.

When there is a general change of conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world been altered, as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew. —Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 1377 CE

I. The Settlers, No More
Can the practice of architecture—so often delivering solutions as settlement—design for change and passage?

If so, architecture should engage one of the age’s most crucial topics: the global movement of human beings. Migration is not a matter of “crisis” but a factor of humanity. Its occurrence increases every day.

By seeking out new ways for the architect to engage how hundreds of millions of people actually encounter cities, the studio will also take the opportunity to reset for whom cities are designed and visualized.

II. The City, Anew
This studio will seek to design a new city that acknowledges the transient nature of city populations: configuring its rules of engagement, its economies, and, of course, its forms. Some questions to be addressed: Will this city perform differently if its residents acknowledge their transitory nature? Should the city, explicitly run by a temporary population, provide new kinds of amenities and infrastructures? Should its form reflect the impending arrival, and departure, of its residents? How is it governed? Who builds it? Who represents it?

Does one have a say in the realization of a city where she does not, in the mythical sense, belong?

III. The Movers, In Short
This new city accepts the reality already lived by at least 258 million people. According to the United Nations, that is the world’s population of international migrants, defined as those who have crossed a national border to get to where they are today. This count is roughly equivalent to the sum population of the world’s twenty largest cities. Of these migrants, around ten percent are described as refugees who are “forcibly” displaced as victims of violence. Violence, for the UN, does not include systemic poverty and the repercussions of global warming.

Journalistic narratives of migrants rely on a limited supply of tactics. The most obvious is fear (for example, “caravans”). Another tactic seems more sympathetic to migrants, but still pivots on a false dichotomy: the itinerant and precarious lives of migrants are contrasted with “our lives,” portrayed as stable and steadfast. Similarly, refugee camps and cities with high migrant counts are depicted as dangerous and ad hoc, while “our” cities are reliable and deliberate.

The global population is of course not in uniform danger, but such a setup sustains the myth that some cities are assured permanence and that others are not. This split-screen portrait protects the Western news-gazer from the realization that every person’s sense of refuge should be felt as fleeting.

This new city will be based on the presumption that cities have been freed from their mythical sense of permanence. With that, they have been released from illusions of belonging and, in the end, might therefore be more humane and more welcoming.

IV. The Site, So To Speak
The studio’s site is, in some ways, Dubai (United Arab Emirates). The city will be the semester’s ongoing case study for investigating the temporary nature of urban living. A counter to Dubai will be Amman (Jordan), where we will investigate an entirely different manifestation of the urban temporary.

Dubai is not endowed with the myth of permanent cities. In fact, many critics have envisioned Dubai’s collapse at cataclysmic scales, even its physical dismantling by the blowback from its own hubris. The studio will inspect how the city has materialized over the last sixty years for and by a dynamic, global population.

Dubai is often described as a crossing of East and West. It’s been called a “miniature United Nations.” About 90% of the city’s three million residents have no permanent status. This means that nearly everyone will eventually either return to where they came from or, more simply, leave. This fact often leads critics to conclude that the temporary nature of life in Dubai is exploitative and unjust. There is no utopia or ideals to mine from Dubai’s history, but there are strands of calculated ambition and reasoning that have attracted millions from many provenances to the city’s ports.

The studio trip to Dubai will seek out the links between physical form and histories of global migration. The studio will also visit Amman for a comparative view of how migration is absorbed by city life.

Information about the actual site for the new city will be provided on January 10.

V. The Means
At first, the studio will focus on three topics for enquiry: 1.) the historical development and economic “rise” of Dubai; 2.) the ways which cities are visualized and represented in the 21st-Century; and 3.) the challenges confronting the global movement of people, including those of economic migrants, refugees, and global elites.

For the first category of enquiry, there will be guided readings and seminar-style discussions in preparation for the studio trip. The studio trip will include investigations of how the urban fabrics of Dubai and Amman accommodate residents and how they are marketed to attract even more. Discussions and interviews with residents and experts will explore the physical effects resulting from a city operated and occupied by people with two- to three-year visas.

The second category involves textual and visual analyses of work by visualizers of new cities, including management consultants, filmmakers, literary writers, and artists.

The third category will include investigating terms such as “migration space” and “humanitarian space” and how these terms might be reframed in a city redefined. Furthermore, students will analyze the current and arising dilemmas that face international migrants.

VI. The Work
Changing the narrative of the city also requires changing how we visualize it.

Since this studio focuses on the temporality and dynamism of a new city, the means of representation will have to be carefully considered for these aspects. Final projects might take the form of films, investment roadshows, animations, CNN commercials, and free-zone charters.

Throughout the semester, visitors to the studio will include experts from fields outside architecture, including human-rights activists, humanitarian analysts, social entrepreneurs, and journalists. The diverse audience will require editing architectural language for a broader reach.

In this way, a presentation is a pitch, wherein relevance is the currency at stake.

i [heart] Dubai

Dubai has a new heart. If Rome is the Eternal City, if Aleppo is the longest enduring city, and if Beirut is the regenerating Phoenix, then Dubai might just get along by having a new heart installed every so many years. Dubai’s heart was once split. Between two towns. Dubai and Deira stared at each other across Dubai Creek. The two were eventually stitched together by modern engineering. Tons of concrete and steel hardened the creek’s edges into something anyone might believe would last forever. Dubai then had a heart that was in neither town but drifted between the two reinforced shores. Dubai had a heart in its void. Urban planners compulsively drew circles of ring roads around the creek, as if swirls of asphalt and exhaust would keep the heart alive.

Ever since Dubai built an airport with a runway made out of hardened sand, it has been sold as the center of the world, just at the moment it was positioned to lose its own. Conventional wisdom says the heart left the creek sometime in the 1980s, when there was enough commercial attraction in Dubai’s newest districts to pull people away from its pulse. But the heart didn’t move; it dissipated. Or maybe it just burst, trying too hard to be loved by too many people, too many demographics. Newness, the planners learned the hard way, was marketed as Dubai’s heart.

Dubai became a city of cities. Or, if cities are organic, then Dubai was like a starfish, or a sea cucumber, reproducing by fragmentation. By having many hearts, Dubai might have had many ways to be loved. Multiple hearts also meant that one heart didn’t have to replace another. Hearts could beat as one. Or not. Hearts can share blood, or reject blood. Hearts were options. Or at least appeared to be options. Some hearts beat better, and longer, than others.

Once Dubai started to get its first fully interiorized living experiences (the World Trade Centre, Al Mulla Plaza, Al Ghurair Centre), its wave pool at Al Nasr Leisureland, a night-lit park in Karama, Dubai’s heart was everywhere and nowhere. Always parallel hearts pumping of their own accord on the dashboards of their own proprietary HVAC ecosystems. To be “in the heart of Dubai” meant somehow always to be outside it. It was the city of parallel and contradictory experiences that only through telepathy or heroic empathy could be co-experienced. Desensitization often kicked in.

Dubai has taught me something about people, about life. It brings me back to size. What people point to and call “so artificial!” gives me pause to feel my own blood coursing through my own veins.

Dubai is certainly about life. Thanks to Dubai’s growth philosophy in the previous century, the old heart on the creek was left alone to its own devices, to pump its own ancient systems of circulation. I’ve always been drawn to the creek and the suggestive parallel worlds it teases me into believing exist, where I recall once seeing IKEA glassware being shipped out to Iran and then another time witnessing some crew members load a fleet of pink kids’ bikes onto a boat to Pakistan while the rest crew took showers in the public facility.

Dubai’s heart yearns from a long time ago. There’s no room for nostalgia though. The city’s firmament heckles anyone with a tendency toward sentimentality. I used to heckle them too, until I realized I held onto a Dubai anno 2007. It happens pretty regularly that I get the question, “But…do you like Dubai?” As if Dubai was the talented but unlikable contestant in a pageant. As if my [like] mattered.

On the topic of nostalgia, I’m reminded of “Center of Now,” an advertising campaign that ran on LCD screens around the Burj Khalifa and the New Downtown district. It ends with a model, the typical kind in Dubai ads that defies easy racial categorization, singing something operatic from the Burj’s lookout balcony. Since the street screens were silent, I don’t know what she sings. But then I think of an Oum Khaltoum song that she could sing, one that an Egyptian friend once translated for me while we listened. If Madame Oum Kalthoum is right, then the heart is there all along; it just waits for you to return.

The beautiful nights and the yearning and the great love / From a long time ago the heart is holding for you.

Many watched with a veritable mixture of engagement and doubt when Burj Dubai, as it was known then, started to rise. Its immeasurable accumulation of concrete looked ominous. The tower’s construction was relayed in engineering machismo and sheathed in German techno-glass. But concrete and steel had once before made way for a heart. The Burj Khalifa’s opening was extravagant fanfare, followed by a quickened and grounded discovery that Dubai had a new heart. The spaces around the engineering feat, misted with the chlorinated water from the world’s largest choreographed fountain, didn’t feel exactly public, but they did feel central and more welcoming than anything before in Dubai. Well, maybe since before the shallow shores of Dubai Creek were hardened into an economizing aquatic machine.

* * *

This new heart I read about today is called Dubai Creek Harbour. It includes a tallest piece of architecture, though not very inhabitable. The needle tower is designed by a famous architect who is new to Dubai. It too will be an emblem of “achievements”, “challenges”, and “beauty”. Santiago Calatrava’s “human architecture”, we are told, is inspired by the bud of a lily just before it blooms. (Wasn’t the Burj Dubai also based on a flower?) It seems then appropriate that the tower is referred to as a “centerpiece”.

The proposed new heart at Dubai Creek Harbour circles us back to Dubai Creek. Dubai’s mythology might be meted out to a stomping march forward, but the city has a bag full of comebacks. One soundbite promises that the tower “celebrates the world one more time”. This time, the return is to a part of the creek mostly left alone during Dubai’s growth spurts. Once, when the creek was still the bull’s-eye of the planners’ concentric road rings, there was talk about developing this particular part. It was referred to as a “lake”, and it was proposed as a marina for Dubai’s wealthiest. Here is where Dubai’s first man-made island was planned.

Flamingoes now live near this part of the creek. They were once flown in from somewhere along the Great Rift Valley. The wading birds’ first days in airport quarantine were frightening, both for them and the ill-prepared airport staff, but even they eventually made a home at Dubai’s old heart.* Fauna can be imported, too. They are part of a nature reserve that Dubai Creek Harbor promises to protect and even make flourish.

When Calatrava came to Dubai, he posed with the model of his design. The tower and its appending tensile wires balance the bud, the heart, at the top. It is like a syringe whose tip is swollen with a sworn-by panacea. Calatrava’s pose with his design reminded me of William DeVries, the heart surgeon who once posed on the cover of Time magazine with his own model. Like an architect. Except the doctor’s model could actually do something. It was the Jarvik-7, the man-made object DeVries inserted into another man whose own “ravaged” heart “tore like tissue paper” when DeVries removed it.

As I arrived at the sales center for Dubai Creek Harbour, a busload of well-heeled American retirees arrived for a tour. A Scottish member of the development team welcomed them and told them that Dubai Creek Harbour was as big as a Scottish town. Someone told him that his analogy didn’t mean anything to an American. The guests asked who would live there. The answer included references to investment opportunities and Dubai’s appeal to markets in China and India. What about the environment? The project was actually “giving green” back to the creek, not taking it away. They asked about public transit. They were shown a video of how Calatrava’s tower “worked”. Only the top part—the swollen tip—was inhabitable. You buy tickets to reach this part. The more you pay, the higher you go. The video demonstrated how the translucent membrane of the bud can open and close. Balconies unfold outward from the interior. An icon of movable parts, not unlike the translucent and bio-mimicking chambers of the Jarvik-7. Plastic and metal promise to pump people and capital. Here, at an undisclosed number of meters above Dubai, another set of artificial chambers, thanks to “precision engineering”, will somehow manage high-speed winds so that ticket buyers can take in a peaceful view of Sharjah, of the Burj Khalifa, and, if they dared to look steeply below, of Dubai Creek. A heart’s blood finances an altitudinal nosebleed.

“Our project won’t look anything like the old Dubai Creek,” said the Scot. It was a promise, not a lament. The retirees had no plans to visit the creek, but some spoke among themselves further about environmental risks. “There’s nothing here, so what could be the harm?”

As engineers and builders prepare to hoist an artificial heart to a record height, more work continues along the shores of the “old” creek. The horizon-bound dhows, with their boatmen inside, have been mostly shuttled off the creek to a “wharfage development project with integrated infrastructure”. Dhows were once Dubai’s most expressive creatures. They proved Dubai’s connection to the world. Now they have all but disappeared, accessible only by the stevedores who have to carry access cards to open the guard gates. Back at the creek, the dhows have been replaced by their derivative cousins: floating receptacles for tourists, decked out in colorful LED lights and all-you-can-eat buffets. Culture is coming to the creek.

Indian investors were essential to financing Dubai’s very first building boom in the 1950s. And, if the Scottish tour guide is correct, Asian investors are going to keep his client in business, and maybe Dubai in business too. It can’t yet be determined whether today’s investors will ever step out onto the boardwalks suspended over the district’s rejuvenated marshlands.

Besides the financial investors, there were those who invested even more: tradesmen, craftsmen, tea servers and chambermaids who arrived from continents to take a chance on Dubai’s broadcasts. The men and women who came to build and fit out Dubai harbored ambitions that did not need to be more virtuous than improving their own lives and those of their family members. It was a trickle that crescendoed into an invigorating pulsation.

It wasn’t and isn’t pretty. It is a mushy palpitation. It is not made of glass or high-grade translucent fiberglass. It is muscle that can atrophy into tissue paper but somehow can manage to endure longer than any high-tech membranes. It is a heart of hearts.

Dubai’s hearts won’t happen in the return to the lagoons at Dubai Creek Harbour. They won’t happen in the air-conditioned galleries of a Condé Nast-approved museum. Those are Jarvik-7s. The artificial heart, we’ve learned, was not a long-term option. It wasn’t cost-efficient. The Jarvik-7 was eventually phased out in favor of recycled hearts. People, relieved of their “ravaged” hearts, lived longer on ones left behind by the deceased than on the one cradled in DeVries’s hands. Resuscitations are free, if a little sweaty and physical.

There have been master plans, cultural plans, visions, press releases, closed-door expert assessments, and feasibility studies to rediscover the creek’s heart. As if it were ever lost. The creek has kept its heart all this time, even at the moment engineering took its tides and sandbars away, prevented people from dipping their feet into its ripples, and turned a tenuous body of water into a cost-conscious harbor. The creek—at least for now—still has its own rhythms and arrhythmias. It still conducts its essential urban and regional circulations. It’s hard to kill this old heart. But it is certainly possible.

* Negar Azimi “Dubai is for flamingos,” Harper’s, June 2009.

An edited version of this article was published in Uncommon Dubai, 2018.

Dark Invasions: A Report from Sweden

Like other exported Swedish crime dramas, “Jordskott” has its fair share of sublime morbidity. I haven’t finished the series, so I will betray here only a partial spoiler. Like other Swedish crime dramas, this one follows a sharp, socially awkward, beautiful, and preternaturally tough protagonist. The plot focuses on Eva’s return to her hometown Silverhöjd, which is being strangled by the forest. She learns that ingesting a nasty-looking parasite can save your life in Silverhöjd and even clean up a rash on your supermodel-proportioned forearm.
A mirrored society of non-humans haunts Eva’s hometown. These other creatures are of the forest while the humans are of the town once built with wood fairly harvested from the forest. There once existed a symbiosis between the two societies (town and forest). But then Silverhöjd’s industrialists became stricken with capitalist greed for more forest access, which led to a xenocide campaign to clear out the resisting forest people.
At great risk, police officers, miscreant children, and loggers enter the contentious forest. Its cushiony floor is blanketed in a disarming misty green. But that’s a ruse. Festering heaps of organic rot conceal chutes to caverns below where shadow people mix potions to kill some people and heal others. The protagonist probes this underground, searching for clues about an aboveground epidemic of throat-slittings and kidnappings. She becomes entwined in a forest resounding with darkness, decay, transgression, and most of all, pending environmental catastrophe.
There are a few lessons in “Jordskott.” One is a horror tale about the need for forest stewardship. Another is the discovery of dank passageways that drip muck, channel rancid stenches, and lead eventually into the hallways of the town’s houses. Until the discovery that the town is penetrated by the damp hollows of nature, it might have seemed that civilization had been safely severed from the dark, that modern ideals of assured profits and hygienic lifestyles would reign. In a last effort to protect this appearance of nature’s submission, the industrialists of Silverhöjd are ready to take out the forest and its mirrored society by total annihilation. Once and for all, civilization would rule.
I don’t know yet if the annihilation plans will be successful, but it’s difficult to imagine a world where fetid tendencies have been entirely eliminated. The forest, whether it is filled with the mirrored race or our own feral selves, must creep into our perfect systems. Not simply because of neglected “design flaws,” but because it has to. Effluent pipes will burst, mold will paint itself on to pristine interiors, and creeping plant life will take over war zones. Putrid surfaces and scents need to be let into our well-drawn plans. Our grids and our systems are sold to us as the countermeasures to nature’s fecund mush of decay and life. Knowing better, we should instead seek out a regular dose of dark invasion.

Framing the Scene

In simple clothes
he dressed himself quickly and left:
doing just as an actor does
who, when the performance is over,
changes his attire and departs.

“King Demetrius,” C.P. Cavafy

Like any woman or man who arrives on the scene, the architect frames it. And like any storyteller, the architect constantly needs a new hook, a new scoop, a recrafted fiction that is neither lie nor truth. The question will be: for just how long will she stick to her story? To leave it too early is fickle, to stick to it too long is drudgery, at least for the listener.
Sigmund Freud might have started the modern disrobing of the architect into an anodyne metaphor for other operators. He once reduced architecture to scaffolding, a frame that was not the thing itself but rather the frame that metered out something else and that came down when it had served its purpose. I’ve often wondered, though, what the other thing might be. When the performance is over, what is left?

“A Deep Reverence for the Region’s History”: Edited Urbanism on Dubai Creek

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[This article was originally published in Ibraaz’s Platform 009 (here).]

Aladdin City draws upon a deep reverence for the region’s history, beginning with its iconic name. The legends of Aladdin and Sinbad are a driving force in the project’s architecture – main thoroughfares will be designed to resemble exotic marine life and fantasy animals such as dragons at their exterior. Consequently, the towers themselves seem to draw inspiration from tales of Aladdin’s lamp in the project’s concept drawings.[1]

On 12 February 2015, a development project called Aladdin City was launched, or relaunched, thanks to an earlier “sidelines” talk between two people paid by Dubai’s government: Dubai Municipality’s director-general and an employee from the government-owned daily Emirates 24|7.[2] After the daily published an article about Aladdin City, a social-media blitz gathered around the project, mostly limited to caffeinated and hungry click-baiting sites and British tabloids, all of which seemed to base their flimsy reporting on (and gather the jpegs from) the original article in the Dubai daily. Beyond the usual derivative article addended with exclamations like “next up on the list [for] Dubai’s skyline!” the obscure website Clapway managed to get more, if not well-worded, information on the project as quoted above.

As the name of the 16-square-kilometre project might suggest, Aladdin City’s architecture is said to take its formal cues from The Arabian Nights tales. For many reasons, the project shouldn’t come across as too shocking, if one follows any news on Dubai’s development pursuits. Its scale is not surprising: three towers of 25 to 34 storeys. The commercial space seems huge at 110,000 square metres (that’s about the amount of leasable floor area in New York City’s Chrysler Building), but that number could always be downsized after the press campaign. Dubai’s media office has suggested on Twitter that the municipality will fund it (though there is no published cost estimate) and begin construction in 2016. The four-year time frame to complete the project seems achievable; in not much more time than that, Dubai investors are promising an entirely new 700-square-kilometre capital district outside Cairo. Another element of the project that has yet to cause dismay is the fact that it is planned on the current site of Port Saeed, the mooring station for ships that still maintain a semblance to the vessels that once entered the harbour a century ago. According to other news reports, the ships are scheduled to disappear from view.

Aladdin City, however, isn’t immune to criticism, at least not online. If there were an approved global taste for architecture defined by social media feeds, this set of buildings would not fit the bill. Its outlandishness (gilded mesh and unsophisticated curves, for example) is an affront to acclaimed modern sensibilities. There is no available information about an architect or designer associated with the project to answer to such aesthetic malfeasance. Still, there must be designers for the project even if they are just rendering technicians. Whatever kind of designers created the images that have circulated online, the references that they have tapped into are not moods or settings of an Arabian tale or two. Instead, they are props from the tales that weren’t buildings to begin with: they might be tea or coffee pots, perfume bottles or a chain of genie lamps. In the end, the buildings are hardly oversized replicas in the form of architecture.[3] They suffer from being neither literal nor figurative allusions to the tales.

In trying to figure out how “exotic marine life and fantasy animals” might eventually take architectural form, there is much here to cause one to chuckle, if however smugly (“So Dubai!”). Rather than proclaiming these kinds of projects as absurd (for example, extenuations of the coastline into the shapes of palms, underwater resorts (and tennis venues), and Ferris-wheel hotels), I’m more interested in mining them for potential meaning. In the process, Dubai often emerges numbingly mundane but more intricately layered at the same time. Smugness is a temptation that could deter one from exploring richer investigations and discovering more significant matters in Dubai.

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Dhows on Dubai Creek, 2014. Photo: Todd Reisz

Online discussion forums host debates on whether Aladdin City will ever be built, with little evidence to bolster one side or the other. A YouTube video, dated to 2012, includes clips of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and his retinue reviewing the project among others that have most recently been announced as part of the city’s ambitions to amaze during its 2020 hosting of the World Expo.[4] From the video, one might assume that the Maktoum family has a direct role in this project’s development. That would not be surprising, since the land from which Port Saeed was carved was made from reclaimed land produced by dredging the creek during its transformation into a modern harbour. Snippets of historical storytelling reveal that the land, however, was eventually given to the Lootah family upon their return to Dubai from nearby Ajman. According to some sources, the head of the Lootah family, Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Lootah, did not name the port after himself but in the memory of Egypt’s Port Said, damaged during the Tripartite Aggression (or Suez Crisis) in 1956. Before and after 1956, Egypt’s port, a city in fact, was much larger than the three-piered wharfage on Dubai Creek. Today, the Lootah family continues as one of the so-called merchant families of Dubai. Hussain Nasser Lootah, in fact, is the director-general of Dubai Municipality who discussed the project with the Emirates 24|7 reporter. Dubai might be experiencing yet another private-public partnership for which it is so often known.

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Aerial view, Port Saeed in Deira. Each of Aladdin City’s towers are proposed to rise atop the three piers.

But just as unanswerable as the question of to whom this project belongs, is the question of why The Arabian Nights has been given such a prominent position in shaping Dubai’s waterfront architecture and reorganizing the city’s own geopolitics. What about this proposal, if anything, exhibits “a deep reverence for the region’s history”? There are various suppositions about the provenance of a historical character upon which the tales of Sinbad are based, including current-day Iraq, Oman, Yemen and Kuwait. And now it would seem that, through a fantastical development, Dubai’s shapers want to claim their own connection to Sinbad, a mostly mythological character, and then a genie to boot.

Business strategies for Dubai have most often focused on distinguishing the city among other Gulf cities. So why is there now the need to seek regional camaraderie through a set of buildings on one of the very sites that signified the city’s exception among its regional competitors? In other words – why is Dubai calling up a questionable history when it has a real and fascinating port history right there on site, and one that is at risk of being erased? Who will be convinced by a project that takes The Arabian Nights as both its formal and historical source?[5] While many in the Arab World would be bemused by Aladdin City’s reference to a supposedly “Arab culture,” others might point to the irony, or at the least the conflict of intentions, in the proposal. Along the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf, references to the tales of The Arabian Nights come with the risk of discussing cultural and ethnic mixing – that is, the stories of Arabian nights are hardly just Arabian. They are also Persian, connected to current-day Pakistan and India, and reach as far as places not excluding China and Mongolia with the added meta-structure provided by French Orientalism.[6] These stories continue to thrive in a global imagination because of their cultural mongrelism.

Beyond the project’s appropriation of a regional mythology, for whom is this project being proposed? Who will buy or rent property in these buildings? Who would be attracted to their shops? Can such a project speak to local Emiratis? Can it speak to expatriate Arabs or expatriate Iranians or Pakistanis? Or does it resolve to play with the fantasies of travellers from Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America, who look for some kind of modern transmutation of their hopes and expectations of smelling what William Wordsworth described as ‘”sweet … odours caught by him who sails / Near spicy shores of Araby …”? If that is the case, visitors will do so within the comfortable confines of air-conditioned walkways with views over Dubai’s node in global trade routes that prove too hot for their coiffured selves to experience beyond the glass partition.

Or is the ploy to feed into an external industry that will see Dubai in however way it wants to be seen? Is Dubai simply lifting the mirror and letting its weary Western travellers get a taste of what they had expected? (The cliché persists of Dubai as a “mirage'” or another tale of the Arabian nights. Publicist-driven press accounts suggest that the likes of Prince Harry and Kylie Minogue will be enjoying an “Arabian Night” in Dubai or another Gulf city.) Ever since the first strides of modernization in the 1960s, ambitions out of Dubai have played with notions of the “world as exhibition,” flirting with assumptions made by outside viewers as a business transaction.[7] But how far can Dubai trade in Orientalist platitudes before they become a liability?

Anthropologist Neha Vora points out in her recent book Impossible Citizens that leadership in Dubai is interested in “the production of cosmopolitan futures and the erasure of cosmopolitan pasts.”[8] Those cosmopolitan futures place Dubai in a formulated narrative which is part of the 44-year-old nationalism project called the United Arab Emirates and which seeks to define an Emirati culture, an Emirati people, against a historical and contemporary backdrop that has in its cast myriads of nationalities and sub-nationalities who have resided and continue to reside within the country’s boundaries. As early as the 1950s, more than half of Dubai’s population was made up of people considered to be foreigners (many didn’t carry a passport, though). In terms of Aladdin City, the erasure of a cosmopolitan past might include the vast number of kinds of people who contributed to making Dubai a successful port. If that’s the case, the cosmopolitan past is being replaced not by a cosmopolitan future but by a cosmopolitan fantasy, and one that is certainly not (only) Emirati.

This fantasy is scheduled exactly at the site of erasure: Khor Dubai, what is known in English as Dubai Creek. Why it was ever called a creek is not clear; it is more like an estuary and it was once the commercial lifeline of Dubai. During its most essential years, through the 1960s, it was also called Dubai Harbour. Western, mostly British, observers were often smitten with Dubai’s active port up through the late 1950s, where the city’s less than modest buildings and packed sand pathways belied the port’s teeming commercial success. It seemed no English-speaking observer could describe the port without the word “bustling.” Dubai was the largest town in the region. But that wasn’t saying a lot – by 1950 its population likely didn’t exceed 30,000 and even such a small population was already defined more by its immigrants or, more accurately, those people passing through. Dubai’s demographic makeup was already how it would be defined up to the present: a majority of the population came from somewhere else and would eventually go somewhere else.

It is said that European travellers of the Middle East sometimes ended up in Dubai because Cairo and Damascus had too many tourists. At the beginning of its modernization programme, Dubai’s port conjured up images of ancient traditions of trade: of a pre-modern world that seemed to have disappeared everywhere else but in a few ports. Dubai’s ancientness was not a natural state; it was as artificial as anything we might find in Dubai today, designed by an occupying British authority that found such a non-modern condition easier to control. One visiting British traveller remarked:

[The harbour’s] markets are the most picturesque I have ever seen in the Middle East and take one back to the time of Arabian Nights. In the narrow lanes roofed with matting, where the gloom is flecked by spots of sunlight, Arabs, Persians, and Baluchis display their multifarious and many-coloured wares. … Conditions are no doubt primitive, but there is an air of bustle and prosperity about the place that gives it a peculiar charm.[9]

A travelling Briton might find “charm” in Dubai’s tableau of headdresses, daggers and dhows (the traditional sailing vessels of the Indian Ocean). The truth was, however, that by the late 1950s Dubai was in no condition for continuing as a truly thriving port. The port was rarely the final destination for arriving goods or people; it functioned as a transitional hub that aided the British Empire’s trade networks and other networks that Dubai’s merchants were discovering on their own. The in-between was not only undeveloped but it was more importantly undefined – a purposely haphazard condition open to modification and profit. But it was a liminal existence that could no longer be sustained, at least according to the British administrators and engineers assembled to affect its course.

Around 1955, British government officials started to see their presence in the region as too costly. After almost a century of being maintained under a pre-modern rhetoric, Dubai was scripted for change. The British governmental oversight in the region – represented by an officer called a political agent – was charged with seeing to Dubai’s modernization, if on an extraordinarily limited budget. Part of the process included getting Sheikh Rashid – the Ruler of Dubai – to commission from his own checkbook an architect to draw Dubai’s first town plan in 1959. The plan was issued the following year. It not only lent the city a semblance of order and modern organization but also provided the board on which Dubai’s real estate game would begin. With land now converted into apportioned lots the British Bank of the Middle East, recently stationed on Dubai Creek, could dole out mortgages.

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The Deira side of Dubai Creek in 1964, after reclaimed land had been added to the shore. Dhows were offloaded by smaller vessels. Port Saeed would be developed further upshore in photograph’s background.

The plan included recommendations by British engineers to dredge the creek and harden its edges, stripping away the creek’s remaining natural characteristics. Dredging allowed larger boats to arrive at any time of day; the dug-up earth was used to create new land on the creek’s edges. British engineering created new real estate potential and British legalese helped ensure that all land created from the creek would be owned by the ruling family – part of that land included where Port Saeed, Aladdin City’s designated site, would eventually be built.

Based on the first master plan, it seemed that Dubai would remain centred around the port that had allowed it to survive. But there’s a hint otherwise in the plan – an unusually large roundabout where there was clearly no need for one. By drawing this roundabout, the architect revealed a tip to the engineer, who seemed to be playing a universal survival trick of consultants: when you finish with one project be sure to have the next project set out for you. Another even more modern port was recommended by British engineers and financed thanks to a British government that worked as an equity collector. Port Rashid would be announced even before all the improvements on Dubai Creek had been completed: its dredging schedule invited even larger ships than Dubai Harbour could contain, though the technological advancements were not much beyond those already offered. Ships at Port Rashid would still be loaded and unloaded by men from different parts of the world, usually wearing lungis and often without proper footwear.

Technological advancement would be reserved for the next port development project because, as with last time, the next would begin before the previous was finished. British bankers and engineers announced with Sheikh Rashid the launch of Dubai’s Dry Docks development. In similar fashion, Dubai’s second master plan of 1971 was already obsolete when it was published. It included what would become the famous highway of skyscrapers known as Sheikh Zayed Road, but the plan’s boundaries didn’t extend far enough for Dubai’s economic planning. Within a matter of months after the release of the plan, Dubai’s ruler was in touch with his British engineers to build yet another port well beyond the confines of this plan. Port Jebel Ali would be dug about 25 miles further out and close to the border of the next emirate, Abu Dhabi. Once again, it would be a combination of global marketing, geopolitical grandstanding and British engineering and financing that would launch what was without a doubt a technological feat. Port Jebel Ali was billed as the world’s most advanced port and also one of its largest. It not only made Dubai’s ruling family feel assured of its modern credentials: it also made Great Britain’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, proudly claim that Port Jebel Ali was a crowning achievement of British engineering, if only several thousand miles away from home.

This very quick history of Dubai’s port development reveals how Dubai’s modernization has been associated with spatial expansion. In other words, economic and urban development did not mean replacing original conditions but adding on to them. Dubai’s modernization – or, interchangeably, its urbanization – has always been associated with spatial expansion.[10] Spatial expansion has also been about expression of a sovereign existence, namely by occupying important borders and an urban sprawl that constituted Dubai’s physical existence. In this way new development has never intentionally replaced old. That is why today, one can speak of an Old Dubai and a New Dubai – not as temporal conditions, but spatial ones.

Old Dubai and New Dubai are places that coexist and may not be dependent on one another. In both, one may take rides across waters on water taxis known as abras; Old Dubai’s abras are considered authentic, while New Dubai’s are considered fake. Old Dubai is comprised of districts that concentrate on Dubai Creek and are characterized by Dubai’s initial forays into modern architecture. The buildings, though, may not be that old: they could easily be third or fourth-generation building stock. New Dubai is just about everything else but is most often represented by images of new opulence like the Burj Khalifa and Madinat Jumeirah. The cleft between Old Dubai and New Dubai is one of the main reasons why people speak of a city that rose from the sands: such an observation is made by those who have not ventured into Old Dubai. Even from the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, Old Dubai is hidden in shadows of dust.

This spatial strategy of expansion was how Dubai developed until around 2010 when the project Jumeirah Gardens was announced. Jumeirah Gardens included the world’s-tallest tower (if personal recollection is correct, the intention might have been for the building to revolve), luxurious villas, gardens and even its own metro line. The historically significant fact about this project is that it was going to require the demolition of a large swath of ‘Old Dubai.’ For the first time Dubai’s authorities were pursuing a large-scale erasure of its spatial and economic modern history. The demolition focused mostly on residential villas where some local Emirati families still lived, though most had already moved out to rent their homes to low- to mid-income expatriates. Neighbourhoods were levelled, or scheduled to be levelled, including one of Dubai’s most vibrant South Asian commercial districts, Al Satwa. The financial crisis saved Al Satwa’s main retail spine at least for the time being.

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Houses in Al Satwa being demolished for Jumeirah Gardens, 2009. Photo: Todd Reisz

Wrecking balls in Al Satwa meant that there was likely little time before bulldozers would be directed toward that original root of Dubai’s economic prowess: the neighborhoods around Dubai Creek. Even the famous dhows that had created the picturesque tableau were threatened with extinction. In the name of modernization, the dhows are being displaced to a “wharfage development project with integrated infrastructure that will facilitate increase in dhow trade.” The cleanup includes dhows and wharves at Port Saeed.

To wish for Port Saeed’s preservation is not to pine for an ancient seafaring culture. Port Saeed itself was a significant modernization project. Originally, the port was a means of organizing and controlling the presence of dhows on the creek. It was started in the 1970s, well after Dubai’s ambitions were aimed at Port Jebel Ali, evidence that economies continued in Old Dubai even after they were no longer the focus of the media spin.

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Stevedores at Port Saeed, 2014. Photo: Todd Reisz

Today, Port Saeed makes for a memorable stop when in Dubai and not just because each visit might be one’s last. On the piers and on land under the palms is a “bustling” assembly of sailors and stevedores. It has been a place that affirms the existence of a continuing Indian Ocean trade culture – the cross-cultural merger of ethnicities, religions and natural and unnatural resources for the sake of economic well-being. Dhows are also mobile homes for men from Pakistan, Iran, India and Iraq. One might catch a sailor taking a bucket shower on deck. The men on these boats exist in a Dubai that runs parallel to the Dubai we most often read about. But their Dubai is no less relevant. Their boats go to the places of origins of their sailors but also to Somalia, Yemen and Sudan. A recent article reveals how influential and current the dhows’ commercial networks remain, as they “look to war-torn Yemen for business.”[11] Such a context manages to complicate our understanding of regional politics.

But let us return to Aladdin City – a revisit that just might include an element of hope for the preservation of Dubai Creek’s current condition. Might dhows have a chance at survival? Aladdin City’s computer renderers have included cartoon versions of the dhows in their images, after all. By tapping into our impressions of Aladdin, Dubai is suggesting that its buildings can float above an economy now threatened with extinction for the sake of spatial renewal, or spatial editing. Still, can an economy of advanced building technologies addicted to the high returns of the tourism industry make these bulbous buildings levitate above the dhows? Could it be that a mirage of an Arabian Nights fantasy will save the dhows and the boatmen’s day jobs as long as they promise to perform a part in the new theatre, to create the scene of exhibition viewed from the blue glass above? Whereas critics fear that Aladdin City will bring about the obliteration of an old scenic place and a reliable, still very relevant economy, could Aladdin City be the cosmopolitan fantasy that saves a cosmopolitan past? If only buildings could float.

Addendum: Some time after the media blitz around Aladdin City, images for the project could no longer be found on Dubai Media Office’s Twitter feed or website. Inquiries at the Dubai Municipality led to questions as to whether the project had ever been proposed. In any case, it is no longer on the municipality’s official projects list. Aladdin City, however many times it has been launched with a rendering, would not be the first development project in Dubai to disappear as quickly as it arrived. Meanwhile there have been indications that there are other proposals for transforming Dubai’s creekside. Stay tuned.


[1] Christopher Smith, “Aladdin City: Sailing Into Dubai’s Future,” Clapway website, 13 February 2015,

[2] Parag Deulgaonkar, “‘Aladdin City’ work to start next year,” Emirates 24|7, 12 February 2015

[3] A side note: The project isn’t too far off from looking like an earlier proposal for the famous Kuwait Towers but there are stories about the Kuwaiti leadership wanting them to look like perfume bottles. Kuwait, it seems, has more of a potential claim on Sindbad. The Gulf’s modern times – as late as it is often described as beginning – is often full of its own mythologies that can be neither confirmed nor denied.

[4] See the YouTube video, which was found on the feed about Skyscraper City: “THE DUBAI GUYS,” 12 July 2012

[5] Architects might be reminded of another project that used the The Arabian Nights for source material: Frank Lloyd Wright’s plan for Baghdad, one project that is a blizzard of Orientalist fantasy.

[6] The stories were first published as Les Mille et Une Nuits by Antoine Galland between 1704 and 1717.

[7] In Colonising Egypt (1988), Timothy Mitchell introduces this term as a variation on Heidegger’s “age of the world picture.”

[8] Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013).

[9] Rupert Hay, “The Persian Gulf States and Their Boundary Problems,” The Geographical Journal 120.4 (1954): 433-443. Thanks to Tabitha Decker for sharing this reference.

[10] Ahmed Kanna makes the link between modernization and urbanization in Dubai, the City as Corporation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[11] Alexander Cornwell, “Dubai’s dhows look to war-torn Yemen for business,” Gulf News, 11 April 2015

Destroyers & Builders – Harvard GSD (VIDEO)

Along with Stuart Elden, I was invited to make opening remarks at Harvard GSD’s Baghdad conference about war and urbanism. I did so by presenting some ideas on peace and urbanism. Stuart begins with an informative intro to his work on territory; I begin at 38:30. Diane Davis, Pierre Belanger, and Neil Brenner have comments at the end.

[Harvard GSD’s youtube link seems no longer to allow me to put a link here, but you can visit their channel here.]


Doha The Post-Accumulation City

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Qatar National Convention Centre, Doha.

[An excerpt from an article published in Perspecta 47: Money. You can download the article here.]

It seemed, at least for a while, that cities (world cities, developing cities, instant cities, ghost cities, hub cities) were in an unfettered race to gain, or maintain, “world-class” status. For better or worse, no institution or group has yet to define what “world-class” means. However vague the term and its associated rating indices remain, pursuit of a definition has generated billions of dollars of development and countless unrealized skyline proposals. Architects continue to draw images for projects that are supposed to attract global capital or, in PR language, to put a city “on the map.” In every case of chasing world-class status, it is hoped that after so much new development, lifestyle experiences, and tourist attractions a tipping point will be reached; that some sort of global approbation will kick in and allow a city to rest on its laurels. But that moment is never reached.

As early as the mid-1980s, David Harvey grasped the role cities had defined for themselves for the coming decades:

Urban regions compete for employment, investment, new technologies, and the like by offering unique packages of physical and social infrastructures, qualities and quantities of labor power, input costs, life-styles, tax systems, environmental qualities and the like.1

Whereas cities might have also been once locales of production, Harvey describes the subsequent phase of cities wherein a survival scenario reduces the city to a repository for drifting global capital. Built or proposed skylines along with promised corporate services encapsulated a city’s means toward legitimacy through the attraction and absorption of that capital. Beyond just the physical forms of skyscrapers, office parks, and convention centers, Harvey also pointed to soft strategies that characterized any city’s pursuit of longevity. Even the most seemingly stable and permanent of cities, like New York and London, search for success by means of now too often recycled tactics. They line up with brochures of perks and freebies to attract the latest transnational looking for a bargain-price headquarters. Therefore one should contest Harvey’s use of the word “unique” as the competition has resulted in not many more ideas than increasing levels of tax breaks, zoning bonuses, and disingenuous panderings to the “creative class.”

Cities increasingly have had to define themselves in contrast to other ones, despite the fact they are almost all fixated on similar, if not the same, strategies. So while “new wealth” seemed to be created through ongoing urban development, city governments reacted as if there was less of it to go around. Global rankings and seemingly transparent competitions for hosting rights to countless conferences and global events consistently raised the stakes to which mayors had to respond. By 2008, this urbanism brinkmanship had reached its apparent endgame, with Dubai epitomizing for many the extravagances and platitudes of city score-card tallying (though Dubai arguably initiated its competitive edge much earlier than most other cities). Beginning in 2008, cities such as Dubai were exposed as excessive harborers of debt and glut real estate from over-leveraged attempts at global place-making. The global crisis exposed heady development scenarios which had been at best short-sighted endeavors in creating cities.2 Abandoned construction sites and spurned free zone deals throughout the developing world are some of the most easily discernible anecdotes of the global crisis, as if the world had run out of world-class vouchers.

It is no coincidence that Doha, the capital of Qatar, began its most watched and reported ascent onto the global stage of striding cities in the wake of the current global financial crisis. Doha’s leaders have announced and begun to deliver a series of development proposals that have been filling the vacuum for good-news stories in real estate and development media outlets since the global financial crisis began. The city has a modest population size at under 1.5 million people (comparable to Phoenix, Arizona), a great majority (about 90%) of whom are expatriates and are expected to leave eventually.3 The city is therefore inevitably international; it cannot exist without its overwhelmingly foreign majority, which is able to work there because of the country’s vast natural gas reserves. As the only city of note in “the world’s wealthiest country,” Doha’s development and ambitions represent those of Qatar, and vice versa. Therefore, there are few examples of where Doha’s municipal governance is demarcated from a national one. One might describe Doha as a city-state surrounded by a desert of villages that defer to it.4 News outlets like to add up Qatar’s investments: $18 billion (2009), $34 billion (2010), $60 billion (2011), and over $200 billion (2013). Thoughtful, if not overreaching, projects include an 85-station metro system, public parks, one of the world’s largest airports, and perhaps the world’s most influential Islamic Arts museum, followed by other bold museums, and the studiously urban Msheireb Project. These are all endeavors Doha’s leadership has pursued to withstand the criticism of global media just as eager to find a development miracle as to bring one down.

It has been argued before that Doha’s committed development schedule is in service of the same reasons why any city might add to its skyline or insert a new convention center: namely the ambition to compete in a regional or global set of cities for designation as the hub of (fill-in-the-blank). Several articles on Doha’s urban development have framed the pursuits of the city’s leaders as such.5 The recent and shifting situation in Doha, specifically the ever-increasing scale and altering direction of the urban development and how this multi-billion-dollar effort intertwines with other pursuits of the Qatari government, calls upon a reconsideration of the motivations for these pursuits. In the greater scheme of things, speculative development might distract from the potentially more significant developments at hand—namely that Doha could be departing from traditional notions of the city.

If one believed that a city’s overseers might pursue a brand, Doha’s brand might be described as one that aims to convince, rather than lure, a global audience. Beyond inordinate wealth that has imprinted its insignias on professional football teams, an airline, and other cities’ skylines, the city has become synonymous with an interminable (somber but serious) series of WTO talks; its revolving door of peace negotiations for such places as Lebanon, Sudan, and the West Bank; a problematic but entrenched role in the Arab Spring; a $250 million Cezanne painting; a high-profile losing bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics which is now a precursor for its next bid; and a game-changing procurement of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It might seem that these are all about building “Brand Doha”—that somehow they weave together the next CNN commercial asking you, the internationally incorporated, to invest in Doha. However, Doha isn’t so desperate for your retirement fund’s investments or your professional society’s next convention. Doha is not designing a stopover tourist hub (though there’s one included). Its brand campaign strives further.

Responding to the often asked question, why can’t Doha just be happy being small and rich, Mishaal Al Gergawi, a commentator on Gulf affairs, states clearly what he sees as Doha’s motivation:

Qataris have very existential concerns. The purpose of all this—of all the diplomatic efforts, the World Cup, the support of the Islamists, the Darfur mediations—all of this aims to do one thing only: to make Qatar globally important so that it cannot be invaded. They want to guarantee their borders, their sovereignty. You have to be globally important so that if somebody invaded you, there would be a global outcry. Doha is now trying to become that “only light in the Arab world.”6

In a similar vein, political analyst David Roberts explains that “anonymity [for Qatar is] a bad quality to have should something go catastrophically wrong.”7 Roberts signals that Qatar’s leaders pursue a foreign policy larger than roundtables. Within this framework, the country’s efforts on the international stage formulate a role for the city at once more complex and more basic than that of the traditional hub city. It is complex in the sense that urban development is directly linked to a nation’s global political ascendancy and simple in the sense that the city just needs to be recognized, not consumed, by a global public. Therefore the underwriting of Doha’s urban development must have in mind something broader than any hub economic theory. While there is not likely to be a grand narrative behind Qatar’s development of Doha, the country’s urban production signals an attempt to avoid any normative regional or global models. To understand this further, Qatar’s investments, both within the bounds of its own city and beyond, need to be considered in conjunction with its concerns beyond urbanism.

Since its first building boom, in the 1970s, Qatar has developed outward with an ever-increasing number of ring roads (now referred to as “orbital expressways”). Housing policy has historically offered Qataris residences farther out instead of creating a more dense center.8 In contrast, most recent projects might not bring all city residents back to the center but will at least start to suggest how megaprojects will generate delineated urbanism (“island urbanism”) as opposed to amorphous sprawl.9 Even with a population that is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s, the city is the focal point of a development portfolio that surpasses any in the Gulf region. Here follows a brief index of some of the major ongoing projects: Education City, home to at least nine university campuses, has developed on an average of a billion dollars a year since opening in 2006. The $20 billion Pearl project extends into the Gulf waters an artificial curlicue peninsula decked with luxury towers, shopping, and vacation homes.10 Lusail City is perhaps the largest megaproject in the region, at 35 square kilometers (more than half the size of Washington, D.C.).

The recent surge in development investments has been attributed to the country’s selection to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, although officials claim Qatar would have been committed to most of these major infrastructure projects even without it. More than any previous World Cup host, Qatar faces unflagging criticism, including questions of how such a small state will utilize so many FIFA-sized soccer stadiums after the tournament. With most stadiums sited within the Doha conurbation, this will be the densest World Cup ever. Doha will also have one of the highest residents-per-professional-soccer-stadium-seat ratios in the world (almost 2.5).11 Plans, for example, continue for a stadium in the fishing village of Al Shamal, whose population could fill the stadium with views of the North Field platforms more than seventeen times. Ideas to dismantle and send some of the seating post-tournament to unnamed “developing countries” have not appeared in the press of late.

The 2022 World Cup would rely on a new rail system, among other new endeavors for urbanity. Deutsche Bahn has been hired to oversee the rail projects that will run through Doha and stitch the city to minor towns. Costs exceed the company’s own annual revenues from Europe’s largest rail network ($35 billion). Eight billion dollars in new highways will connect the sprawling reaches to the old center, part of which has been gutted and is undergoing urban development that would answer any urbanist’s wish list. The reclaimed district, Msheireb, now owned entirely by the monarchy’s private nonprofit Qatar Foundation, claims culturally and ecologically attuned architecture in its 226 buildings, a 13,700-car underground garage,12 pedestrian streets, trams (which might prove undoable), outdoor storefronts, downtown homes for locals, and cultural event spaces.13 Additionally Msheireb Properties, whose operating capital originates from sovereign funds, has no plans to put its $5.5 billion of new properties and infrastructure on the market; instead it will remain as manager of the 76-acre “heart of Doha.” The city will be its own landlord.14

Doha’s urbanization pursuits are impressive and almost always high-minded. The Msheireb project has been described as an example of city leaders demonstrating lessons learned from previous development mistakes, presumably including West Bay, the 165-acre tower development that makes a convincing skyline from the distance, but up-close is little more than vertical office space surrounded by surface parking that would prove insufficient if the towers were ever occupied at capacity. It was supposed to include 180 towers.15 Most of what has been built is sheathed in the glass, silicone, and steel planned for their exteriors. Beyond that, many towers stand unfinished, but not abandoned. For example, Burj Qatar, a tower designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, has already won industry awards and is prominently lit at night, but at the time of writing its interior still awaits finishes and a tenant. Left incomplete, these towers likely do not register in a vacancy census. Increased vacancy rates would sink rental rates and generate bad news stories. For now West Bay functions more as a skyline without function. It is not Potemkin, because it does not mask something less than it, but maybe something more.

Nevertheless vast new swaths of the city remain empty. The country’s population could fill only a fraction of the offices and housing proposed. Moreover, sufficient business-attraction campaigns are not in place to fill Doha’s office space.16 There are also predictions that Doha’s population growth will actually diminish around 2030, when infrastructural projects start to come to a close and the expatriates residing there for building up the gas extraction industries will start to leave. The World Cup and other events might give momentary jumps to the population count, but there are no clear signs of how Doha’s population would rise more sustainably.17 More obvious to Doha’s critics are the city’s stadiums and convention infrastructure, which will be impossible to keep filled, or make profitable, for that matter. Critics suggest that in due time the empty infrastructure will become dilapidated and then obsolete. If eventually disassembled for scrap, the structures will prove as wasteful and wasted as the fuel exported to fund them. Were these strategies at all sharp and prudent they should together form a survival strategy. For that to be true, Doha would be implementing all too familiar development models, but for other, less familiar reasons.

All of this development frenzy does not suggest Doha as a new model of a city. In fact, it seems like a rehash with a standard set of parts from headier days of global development. [to read more please find a copy of Perspecta 47 Money, information here]

1 David Harvey, The Urbanization of Capital (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 126.
2 See Todd Reisz, “Making Dubai: A Process in Crisis,” Architectural Design 80, no. 5 (2010): 38–43.
4 Qatar’s Ministry of Municipality & Urban Planning oversee planning for all of the country’s municipalities, including Doha.
5 See Khaled Adham, “Rediscovering the Island: Doha’s Urbanity from Pearls to Spectacle,” in The Evolving Arab City (London: Routledge, 2008). Adham’s essay provides a concise history of Doha’s modern urban development up to 2008. One might argue this current article picks up on signals and events in Doha’s ongoing development since then.
6 Interview with Mishaal Al Gergawi, November 28, 2011, Dubai.
7 David B. Roberts (2012): “Understanding Qatar’s Foreign Policy Objectives,” Mediterranean Politics 17, no. 2 (2012): 239. Roberts’s article provides a summary of the international relationships that potentially influence if not threaten Qatar’s sovereignty.
8 Adham, 233.
9 Besides Adham, see Agatino Rizzo, “Metro Doha,” in Cities 31 (2012), and F. Wiedmann et al., “Urban Revolution of the City of Doha,” METU JFA 29, no. 2 (2012): 35-61.
10 “Prominent real estate projects,” Euromoney [serial online] 39 (February 2, 2008):13-22. Available from Business Source Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 21, 2013.
11 Based upon statistics in Middle East Economic Digest. Qatar Supplement, February, 2013, 24.
12 To provide a sense of how much parking that is, it’s about four times as many garage spaces as are provided to the public in Manhattan’s Financial District (
13 “Msheireb,” Middle East Economic Digest. Qatar Supplement, February, 2013, 22. See also
14 Interview with Issa Al Mohannadi, former CEO of Msheireb Properties, November 20, 2011, Doha.
15 Adham, 237.
16 Interview with Craig Plumb, Head of Research, MENA, at Jones Lang LaSalle, November 24, 2011, Dubai. When compared to Dubai (not known as a shining example of permanent residency policies, although it is where regional headquarters more often have based themselves because of the city’s long-term expatriate communities), Doha exhibits little apparent strategy in place to attract the people and businesses to fill it.
17 “Qatar census shows population boom as economy grows,” Reuters, July 1, 2010. HSBC’s chief economist in the Middle East is quoted as saying, “Many people are involved in the buildout of Qatar’s energy infrastructure. When the work is done, they will go home.”

Global Art Forum: Dubai’s 1970s (VIDEO)

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As part of the Global Art Forum, a brief interview with Ibraaz’s Omar Kholeif about Dubai in the 1970s and what it might tell us about the city today.

Below is the transcript provided by Ibraaz. To watch the video, please visit Ibraaz’s website (here), which also includes all the events from this years Global Art Forum and other great interviews.

Omar Kholeif: We’re here with Todd Reisz who is a writer, urbanist and architect, who also teaches a course on urbanism at Yale University. He was a speaker today at the Global Art Forum on a panel that looked at ‘The Short Seventies in Dubai’. I wanted to ask you, Todd, if you could put the 1970s in context for us a bit, because for so many individuals and tourists who come to visit Dubai for a short period of time, it seems like the 1970s is such a distant point in history. I was wondering if you could position us in a context about what the initiatives and goals were at that particular moment from perhaps a municipal level, and tell us how the processes of modernization were beginning then in Dubai.

Todd Reisz: Actually, the processes had already started as early as the 50s. I think there’s often a way Dubai is seen as having risen from the sands – I think that’s a metaphor you see all over the place – and I think the 70s are where you see that myth completely shattered. As we have been talking about, the real processes of modernization are not necessarily buildings, but processes and systems – like municipality, as you said. Having systems where, for instance, garbage is collected, where the city is actually taking responsibility for the appearance of a city, for the sanitation of a city. Those processes really started in the mid-50s.

Then you could easily describe the 60s as the decade of infrastructure, the kind of dead necessity of water lines, electricity, telephone lines, roads – these were very clear mandates from HH Sheikh Rashid and from Dubai itself. These were the things that you needed, the kind of physical plate for building a city. I think the 70s are a bit more difficult because that kind of obvious necessity is completed, so then, what makes a city? I think that what we tried to do today was look at that time when OK, everything’s been set; what now? There was a term going around today, ‘transformation points’, and really these are all happening in the 70s.

OK: Today when you were speaking you mentioned that Dubai seems to have had this idea of modernism happening very quickly, and this almost sci-fi, continuous acceleration. That kind of vision of Dubai as this sci-fi behemoth in the region has started increasingly to proliferate – I would say – in a broader pop culture, for me anyway, in the last ten or so years. But I’d be interested to get your perspective on when those processes of modernization really were occurring, and what the agenda might have been behind those images of Dubai as this rapidly accelerated modern site.

TR: I don’t really agree with the idea of sci-fi, I have to say. For instance, Anastase Emmanuel, the town planner from the late 70s, was saying today when he was describing Sheikh Rashid’s manner of planning, that it was really – actually, I think it’s more like realpolitik, that it was almost like the land becomes a chess board; who will be working where, how do you resolve the fact that people are living on the site that you’ve designated as a place for a port?

I think that’s something that came up today; it wasn’t just Sheikh Rashid’s vision to say ‘there will be a port here’, there were all sorts of things involved: the relationship with Abu Dhabi, the relationship with Sharjah, who was actually involved and had some kind of claim to that land – all of these things were a part of the system. Rashid was really a kind of master politician in that way of reining in this ambition that he had, and that others had, but also finding the paths that were, let’s say, of the least resistance. Science fiction to me is more having a vision and going directly toward it, but Rashid was having to deal with a lot more influences in order to get there.

OK: When I was sitting watching the presentation today, one of the speakers presented this advertisement for this urban development plan –

TR: That would be the Falcon City of Wonders.

OK: Yes, the Falcon City of Wonders. A colleague of mine sat next to me and said ‘we have America to blame for this’, and I found that an interesting comment. I turned to her and said ‘maybe the form might be American, but the people who are doing this aren’t American’. I think that there are these sweeping, sometimes irrational, statements made. I was wondering if, from your perspective, you could help us compose a picture about how some of these aesthetic influences might have been derived that compose these visions – especially when you think of advertising of Dubai and how people are trying to sell that vision or that dream.

TR: I have trouble coming up with a quick answer to that. I think that to say that it is American is a very knee-jerk reaction. I think a lot of what you see in that, I agree with you, is full of complexities; it’s full of all sorts of ideas of what success is; what is comfort? We also have to understand that it’s not just a potentially self-satisfied European mentality that is viewing these things; these things are being viewed on the Internet by someone sitting at home in a questionable condition in Benghazi, someone sitting uncomfortably outside the centre of Casablanca. These kinds of visions, these kind of aesthetics, as you call them, are some people’s unobtained expectations of what life is. I think there are all sorts of ways to read these things. It’s very easy to criticize them, but it’s also very difficult to find the roots of them all.

OK: I personally have always had this cynicism about Dubai as a site, and one time I mentioned that frustration to you when you were expressing your interest in Dubai. I was asking you about your interest in Dubai, and you said something along those lines of: what makes Dubai special is that there’s something kind of average and simple about this idea of pursuit or ambition. I think that’s a very nice way to think about it. It’s very different from the critical perspective, which is that Dubai is some kind of emblem of the neoliberal project, whether it has failed or succeeded. I suppose perhaps this is not a question that has a resolved answer, but do you think that we might be moving towards a position where we might move from that cynical point to people having a more nuanced understanding of that context, or not?

TR: Yes, I think there’s definitely something to be said about the normal and the mundane that Dubai can actually be. I took the metro from the airport to my hotel to see what it’s like to take the metro. It was at seven o’clock in the morning or six forty-five, I got in the car and it was me and six other men. By the time we got to around Business Bay it was packed, packed full of people going to work, mostly men – I would say 98 per cent men – most of them probably from southern India.

I started thinking how their activities on the metro were very similar to the ones you’d see on the New York subway or on the London Underground, things like playing with phones. They were the kind of mannerisms that actually I immediately saw as recognizable. Then I started thinking, how long have these men actually been riding on a metro? There is no metro, for instance, in Kerala, and yet there’s this kind of adaptability in people, and adaptability to new infrastructure, that I found quite remarkable. There wasn’t much difference between a rush hour in Dubai and a rush hour in London. I think that is similar to what you were saying.

OK: Yes. For my final point, I know you’ve been working on a book for some time looking at Dubai and the history of modernization in Dubai, thinking about modernity in this context. You’re taking, I assume, a historical perspective and bringing this through into the present. My question is: in light of the context of the Global Art Forum, which is titled ‘Meanwhile History…’, how important do you think it is to unearth these histories of sites that  have been modernized in very recent history, and what effect do you think accessing that history and making it visible might have in this context? It can be a purely propositional or utopic answer that you give me.

TR: I don’t know if I could give a utopic one; I’m someone who completely worships history – I’m almost too into it to answer your question because to me it’s everything. I want to draw on one of the things I said; I think this idea that the city is rising from the sand is pure nonsense, and what I seek to uncover are these moments of grappling and trying to figure it out, and making mistakes! Dubai made tons of mistakes within a compact number of decades, and I find those mistakes, and learning from them and turning around and trying again, really a fascinating process, one that counters a knee-jerk assumption of what Dubai is. Once one sees Dubai and everything that it had to respond to to get to this point, it is quite remarkable. Certainly mistakes were made, but those are part of the beauty, I think.

The Orderly Pleasures (and Displeasures) of Oil Urbanism

[singlepic id=226 w=550 h=350 float=] Advertising for British and American radios in Bahrain’s monthly Sawt Al Bahrayn, 1950 – 51, 1, no. 3, 32.

A recent issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East includes 88 pages of essential reading about urban history in the Gulf (which in this format includes Iraq and Iran). Nelida Fuccaro, a historian at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has guest-edited this issue, and her commitment to responsible and pioneering writing about the Gulf is represented in each piece. Fuccaro, one of the most significant scholars on urbanization in the Gulf, might not call herself an urbanist, but her approach to history in Bahrain has handled the island’s urban centers as the interactive backdrops for her historical research. The result is some of the richest and most specific urban histories of the Gulf.1 Fuccaro continues to deepen our understanding of the region’s urbanism in this academic publication. Along with her own article on consumer culture in Bahrain, Fuccaro has assembled a group of young scholars who might be grateful for the path that Fuccaro’s work has set. Writing on urbanism in the Gulf is generally misinformed at worst and unconvincing at best. I think it is fair to say that these writers represent a much-needed graduation in the field. While indeed there are other arduous scholars on these topics, it is a pleasure to see this group resist knee-jerk endorsements of general theories and employ resolve and curiosity to write histories that have been deprived of proper attention. I can only hope that each of these endeavors is representative of more expansive work to come.

Fuccaro points out that most writing on the effects of oil focuses on statecraft, not citycraft, a word I venture to propose. She emphasizes this negligence of the city in her introduction to the collection by identifying an unfortunate contradiction: “urban change [in the Gulf] has been the most tangible (and visible) outcome of oil wealth,” but the region’s cities have been approached in most research and writing as unalloyed paving-overs by those in control, thereby denying any search “for alternative patterns of city formation.” Fuccaro is not challenging the reading of petroleum as the generator of urbanism in the region; in fact, she reaffirms this generalization. But by reaffirming it, she is pushing us to consider oil (and today natural gas) as an agency with “almost supernatural properties.” Not stopping short of referring to “petro-magic,” Fuccaro’s point seems to be that the search for petroleum unleashed a landscape of conditions impossible to be controlled or fully fathomed by any single body of influence.

At first glance, it would seem that writing Gulf histories is easy – that a compact modern history can be easily collected, recorded, and analyzed. The truth is that the process has been elusive. Fuccaro has warned us before that the abundance of British, and American, sources – whether governmental documents, news articles, or personal memoirs – have to be approached as particular perspectives of multifaceted stories. Writing on cities in the Gulf must ride a thin line between avoiding claims of exceptionalism and the tendency to characterize these cities as helpless ships in the rough seas of global markets. These scholars prove adept at managing these difficulties. The articles refer to the usual sources: British government archives, petroleum company archives, and expatriate memoirs. In the spirit of Fuccaro’s warning, however, this issue’s four other writers are at their best when delving into other untapped sources.

[singlepic id=227 w=550 h=443 float=] Aerial view of Kuwait’s new town Ahmadi, 1956, KOC Archive.

It might later be said that these five articles are but the result of a more current academic fashion: a leaning-in on media representation and its relationship to modernization (though this is not a new approach). At this stage in writing Gulf urban histories, this is a welcome and necessary step. The work focuses on media representation, like magazines, film reels, newspapers, and, as one writer suggests, the architecture itself. While one might suggest that modernization always had a media department (it has always had to be sold), there is certainly something exceptional in terms of how cities in the Gulf have been represented and sold. In part, one might say that these cities were well ahead of their times in terms of conveying marketing strategies through mass media at home and abroad. There is a running agreement among the articles that representations in various forms of media have to be approached as more than “text” or windows for viewing how things were; they also need to be analyzed as “sets of practices”; that is, they are as much, if not more, about formative intentions as they are about representative acts. This is particularly easy to identify in media materials from the 1950s, in which ideological messages are almost humorously transparent to a present-day audience. One does not need to look too hard, for instance, to find the social engineering plan programmed into a propaganda film. There is no doubt that the formats these writers discuss were out to be shapers of society. The challenge, then, is to identify, dare I say measure, the amount of influence, both intended and otherwise, each effort had. Where these articles touch upon answers is where they are often at their strongest.

Perhaps as an aside, one question I would raise with each writer is their interaction with their collected representational resources. While these articles focus mostly on the media representations as “sets of practices,” one cannot forget they do include the evidence of bygone realities; they are the “texts” that we have. Such sources are part of a system wherein representation is inextricable from desires for control and design, but one also has to admit the very need, or at least temptation, to delve into these sources for the images and shapes of places that no longer exist. One writer describes how the shops of a commercial street flicker by from the car window in a film; but this also represents how one saw and experienced these places. We rely as much on these sources to inform us of their physical materiality, too. It seems there is a paradoxical necessity to mine and undermine these sources. If there is a fault line running through these articles, it might be that there is not enough admission of the mining.

What follows are thoughts on each of the articles.

[Read the rest of the review, which includes discussions of articles by Mona Damluji, Reem Alissa, Arbella Bet-Shlimon, Farah Al-Nakib, and Nelida Fuccaro at Portal 9 (click here).]

Plans the Earth Swallows: An Interview with Abdulrahman Makhlouf

[singlepic id=224 w=1024 h=819 float=] Dr. Abdulrahman Makhlouf in his Abu Dhabi office. Photo Ziyah Gafic.

Urban history is often told through great structures or their ruins. If history is the story of the victors, then urban history defaults to the story of the built. The towers, bridges, and kilometers of tarmac do not go the way of faded memories and yellowing archives. But it is these memories and archives that may reveal why we are left with the buildings and infrastructure we obligingly inhabit.

In my ongoing work with the architecture and urbanism of cities in the Gulf, I am constantly struck by how history is slipping through our metaphorical fingers. I put hope in meeting Abdulrahman Makhlouf, an Egyptian planner and long-time resident of Abu Dhabi. Our first encounter was in 2010, after I had seen that he was associated with Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium, one of the most beautiful buildings in the UAE. Our conversation generated a list of topics that multiplied the longer we talked. He studied under professors including Georg Werner at Technische Hochschule Munich1 in Germany in the years after the Second World War. He worked as an architect and urban planner in Cairo as the city tried to handle a population boom. There, he crossed paths with well-known Egyptian architects like Hassan Fathy and Sayed Karim. In the late 1950s, the United Nations appointed him to formulate the first master plans for Saudi Arabia’s cities. And then he moved to Abu Dhabi as chief town planner at the moment the city was catching up with modern expectations. Over the course of these experiences, Dr. Makhlouf participated in and witnessed a terrific age of urban history in Egypt and the Gulf region. He negotiated the meeting of so-called “Western modernism” with local and regional expectations.

Decades of practice by this one man could help inform a larger region’s urban history largely unrecorded by a generation that is leaving us. Raised by a grand mufti and trained in European planning principles, Dr. Makhlouf seemed well positioned to give us some perspective on urbanism in the Arab world. Nearing his eighty-ninth birthday, he is genial, but his eyes are still those of the calculating man in the many photographs with sheikhs and dignitaries. In these pictures he wears perfectly tailored suits and oils his curly hair back. He played the part of the agile, shrewd, ambitious architect.


[singlepic id=231 w=550 h=378 float=] Ruler and architect discuss “Conference City” proposal designed by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa in the mid-1970s. Photograph courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

Dr. Makhlouf says that he constantly reminds himself that God punished Qaroun for his arrogance by having the earth swallow him up. The Quran story serves as a reminder that God gives and God takes. Memory is part of this equation. To his great frustration, memory often fails Dr. Makhlouf, a fact he does not easily admit. He doesn’t want to forget as much as he doesn’t want to be forgotten. Therefore, he does not shy away from claiming credit for his work. He knows it is unlikely anyone will do so on his behalf. The roads he drew and the residential blocks he designed have all been razed and replaced by wider, taller, and sometimes better structures. For the planner, the next building boom is the equivalent of Qaroun’s swallowing earth.

Dr. Makhlouf invested a great deal of effort into our meeting. He converted his conference room into an exhibition of informational boards he has made over the years. The boards’ combination of text and images presented his biography: his grandfather and father, the teachers at Al Azhar, his time as a student in Germany, and his presentations of master plans on palace floors in Abu Dhabi. These panels surrounded us as we talked. In addition, the conference table was covered with a grid of stacked documents, the organization of which he rigorously maintained. All this effort made it seem as if urban history were within reach. However, the piles amounted to a mere fraction, at an oblique angle, of the story. The boards and documents functioned more as crutches of postponement than easy access to history.

Urban history is once again escaping us. We look at Jedda, Mecca, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, and by reacting to, say, a constructed clock tower, a mega-highway, or a ski-slope, we think we can interpret what happened. But we have lost the chance to know the personalities and the transcultural interactions that laid the complicated path to such urban testimonies. We have lost the stories not only of the places but also of major chapters in the saga of modernity.

Read the extended interview at Portal 9 (click here).

Facing the City: Benthem Crouwel’s Stedelijk Museum Expansion – ArtForum

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Originally published in the March 2013 issue of ArtForum.

 For some reason, monumental buildings do not work in Amsterdam. . . . The monumentality of Amsterdam exists only in the heads of its inhabitants, not on the streets.

—Geert Mak, Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (1994)


Geert Mak, a popular Dutch history writer, is often criticized for ironing the wrinkles out of history, but his antimonumental gloss on Amsterdam’s architecture has been affirmed twice in the past year. First, the shamelessly iconic Eye Film Institute opened to mixed reviews in April. Then in September came the new addition to the Stedelijk Museum, which houses Amsterdam’s modern and contemporary art collection. Except for two brief reopenings in the old building, the museum had been closed since 2004, finally returning last fall after a series of increasingly unbearable delays, caused by circumstances such as structural miscalculations, a bankruptcy, and an out-of-control soccer celebration that damaged the construction site. During the institution’s opening days, media coverage focused on the fact that the museum and its art were back, while the new building itself was often politely sidestepped. Given that the first renderings of the design had appeared almost a decade ago, in 2004, Amsterdammers had had time to become desensitized to the proposal, viewing it as more mundane than monumental. “They call it a bathtub,” residents would say to visitors, and indeed the hulking, fiberglass-smooth form warrants little more description.

“They” turned out to be the building’s designers, a team of architects led by Mels Crouwel (son of famed Dutch typographer and designer Wim Crouwel) of the Dutch firm Benthem Crouwel. Crouwel’s embrace of the bathtub moniker may have been an attempt to appropriate the nickname before someone else could turn it into a slur. His caution, however, was unnecessary, at least at home. While it might seem reasonable to ask an architect to take responsibility for imposing such an uncompromising form on the city, the Dutch press has not pushed Crouwel to do so. Architectural reviews from outside the Netherlands, such as those in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, have been far more forthcoming (the latter branded the building’s shape “ridiculous”). Foreign reviews have tended to describe the Stedelijk as the latest—and maybe last—victim of the febrile days of institutional icon-building.

But if at first it seems easy to dismiss Crouwel’s design as an endnote to a closed book, it’s difficult to make the accusation stick. To begin, the bathtub silhouette doesn’t meet the expectations one might have of an icon. It’s a strange form, yes, but it doesn’t lend itself to rebranding as the museum’s logo—its vexing whiteness reads more like an erasure than as a form, and there is no obvious vantage point from which it can be taken in entirely or reduced to a static image by the tourist’s camera. Nor did Amsterdam need an iconic building to “turn itself around” or “get on the map.” As a modest-size city that attracts more than twelve million visitors a year, Amsterdam has trouble enough accommodating tourists already. In fact, planning for cultural institutions has recently been focused on spreading tourist attractions to the outer reaches of the city, beyond the famous canals. A visit to the Eye Film Institute requires a ferry ride, the new Hermitage satellite (a terrific renovation of a former nursing home) sits on the other side of the Amstel River, and the renovated National Maritime Museum can be accessed from the train station without entering the city center. If anything, commissioning an iconic addition to the Stedelijk seemed counter to the city’s larger plan for shifting visitors away from the center.

It also seemed counter to the character of the institution itself. While some in the city’s cultural elite wanted a topmuseum, implying that they envisioned the Stedelijk joining the ranks of the blockbuster museums, such a gambit would have required going up against the likes of the Pompidou, Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art. Architecture alone could never have achieved that for the Stedelijk. Thankfully, it seems the museum’s leadership knows that. The Stedelijk has historically been known for combining vanguard artistic and curatorial innovation with audience engagement; its famed director Willem Sandberg (1945–62) is credited with originating the white-cube gallery space itself and with introducing audio guides to viewing galleries, not to mention ushering in Pop and Conceptual art. This penchant for experimentation is well suited to a smaller-scale approach, one also more appropriate to the museum’s resources and audience. The Stedelijk’s annual acquisition budget is about a million euros, a couple percentage points of MOMA’s or Tate Modern’s, and its targeted annual visitor count is an optimistic five hundred thousand (MOMA’s is three million; Tate Modern’s, seven million). It would seem, then, that the museum would want to forgo icon games in favor of more practical design.

In this context, the selection of Benthem Crouwel seemed logical. As lead architect, Mels Crouwel won the design competition for the museum’s extension in 2004, the same year he was named the Netherlands’ Rijksbouwmeester, an esteemed adviser to the national government on the built environment. In selecting Crouwel, the Stedelijk was considered to be playing it local and safe, having toyed with the stardom of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and then Álvaro Siza, both of whose designs were rejected as too ambitious. The reasons for Crouwel’s selection as Rijksbouwmeester also made him the ideal candidate for the project. As one observer wrote, Crouwel had already been “tested in the purgatory fires of what’s known as a government contract.”

Crouwel himself steers the conversation away from form toward function, asserting that he did not intend to create an icon, but rather a “super-organization.” He argues that the bathtub serves several functions. One example is that the tub’s folded-out lip provides protection from Amsterdam’s rain. But based on personal experience, the overhang is too high and shallow to protect anyone from a Dutch shower. Crouwel also claims that the light weight of the composite fiber shell made it possible to have a glassed-in foyer, which is hardly an architectural innovation. More substantially, he argues that the new extension provides seamless circulation for visitors. This last point fits the firm’s reputation as a specialist in large-scale infrastructural projects. Crouwel and his colleagues are known for using architecture to solve complex logistical problems in projects throughout the Netherlands. However, with the Stedelijk’s new face, Crouwel has traded in the smoothness of logistics for the smoothness of form, even if this translation is never explicitly justified and is not necessarily effective.

Already accustomed to directing the dense Dutch masses through their designs for the country’s main airport and many of its train stations, Benthem Crouwel was hired to design the Stedelijk more as a kind of cultural infrastructure, coordinating public access to a national treasure, than as an international attraction. Amsterdammers are by no means the only Dutch to take pride in the museum’s superlative collection. Unlike many other capital cities, Amsterdam is rarely more than a couple hours by train from anywhere in the country; that this is so affords a special relationship between the nation and its first city. Culturele weekendjes to Amsterdam are the norm, especially when the national trains offer seasonal discounts and the Netherlands has a peerless museum membership program. Part of the reason that the addition’s local reception has been largely positive may be that the museum’s community is simply happy to have the place back.

If the museum’s architecture was neither expected nor able to deliver a global art center, it does offer up some exceptional gallery spaces. The ABN AMRO Hall in the new and expensively excavated basement, which reopened last December with a landmark Mike Kelley exhibition, is perhaps the most essential element that the addition affords the Stedelijk: vast, white, column-free space. Walking in the twelve thousand square feet of space in the basement, one experiences a sophisticated exhibition site that Amsterdam couldn’t previously provide any artist or curator. Aboveground, floating over the museum’s new lobby, a second expansive exhibition space fills the body of the tub, alongside an auditorium and a multiuse space, both of which are lackluster. Walkways pierce the old building’s facade to bring you into the museum’s original gallery spaces. There, exceptionally detailed updates largely respect the older museum’s layout. One indemnity is a lighting system that other art institutions will surely envy. All the galleries feature a new, double-sided track system that allows strong, cold light to be cast upward onto the ceiling, giving the sense that each room has a skylight, while softer, warm light can simultaneously be directed downward at works on the walls without casting glare. This sort of perfected visual experience helps viewers forget unanswered questions about the outside.

The appealing scale of many of the building’s space helps, too. The museum is now larger, but it still feels grounded in its location. The Stedelijk officially increased its exhibition space by 50 percent, but its public spaces remain parsimoniously intimate. This is not a museum designed for the fantasies of globalized tourism that have guided other museums toward hangar-size entry spaces. Though larger than the previous one, the new lobby can accommodate a paltry eighty or so people waiting for tickets. It can feel busy even on a light day. Here, the looming tub shape overhead and the sense of crowdedness urge visitors to go find art, whether by stepping into the old building or slipping underground to experience the new galleries.

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Probably the most photographed element of the museum’s interior is a pair of escalators encased in yellowish polymer; riding them is like being conveyed through the giant tub’s oversize plumbing. The escalators are meant to offer a grand connection between the basement and the galleries and theaters in the belly of the tub. However, they make their pronounced arrival at an intermediary landing. Once there, you have to climb a set of stairs, surprisingly steep and in fact not dissimilar to those in old Dutch houses, to find the galleries. For all their dramatic looks, the escalators fail to do what circulation is fundamentally supposed to do.

The consolation for stopping at that intermediary landing is a viewing window that looks out over old Amsterdam and the adjacent Museumplein, a large green space in Amsterdam’s center. There you might realize you’re looking over this nonmonumental city from a hole in an enormous tub. This thought can be troubling, if you sense that the vista comes at the expense of the rest of the city, which gazes back at a form now as indelible on Amsterdam’s landscape as it is unexplained by its architect. From their international perspective, reviews from abroad have interpreted the inability of this idiosyncratic building to integrate into its city as the death knell of the icon era, but even the city’s most vocal critics are not ready to make the concession that this museum’s addition is a coda to an extravagant global phenomenon. And so, turning away from Amsterdam’s expanse, you take those steep stairs up to the world-class collection and do what the Dutch do: Focus on the art.

Sharjah Shake: A Report from Kerala

Originally published in Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued (2010)

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Juice stand selling the Sharjah Shake, Calicut, India.

As news sources started to chronicle Dubai’s descent into the global crisis, some stories questioned what would happen to the thousands of laborers whose minimal salaries depend upon the boom. Many of these laborers – the preferred word when discussing the people occupying the various unskilled labor positions in the Gulf from construction workers to street cleaners to domestic help – call from South Asia. That single immensely populated region, according to some statistics, provides 60% of Dubai’s population. Of that population, 60%, according to other statistics, hail from the Indian province of Kerala. That would mean one in three people you meet in Dubai comes from Kerala. Such a calculation would not be far off in any other Gulf city as well.

In the news coverage about these people’s troubles, Kerala is sometimes identified as a heavily affected province. Malayalis, as people from Kerala are called, are too easily conflated with a labor demographic. Commercial flights were said to be fully booked to escort unneeded laborers away from Dubai. An unspoken assumption: the flights were headed to Kerala filled on the way there and empty on the way back. In the Kerala press local politicians even responded to the announcement, calling for national and provincial monies to support the returnees. The huge exodus never actually materialized, but that’s not to say it might never come.

Those workers possibly heading back to the subcontinent are not just unskilled laborers. A quick calculation shows there are more Indian paper pushers facing layoffs in the Gulf than those hailing from Europe.

It is often unclear where workers and desk clerks go. Home? To another building site? Another city? News footage abounds depicting South Asians with their belongings piled high in the back of Toyota trucks heading for Dubai’s airport. Were they going home for good or were these the men taking their well-earned months-long holiday? Were we seeing their minimal life’s existence fitting in a corner of a pickup or the bounteous gifts that a home-visit requires, irrespective of the man’s salary?

In February I went to the airport to look for men presumably boarding these flights. The Toyota trucks pulling up at the departures curb composed an action-packed scene similar to any other night during the boom years. Cohorts helped those departing by building tenuous stacks of belongings onto luggage carts designed more for tourist suitcases than for these serious load transfers. The farewells were emotional with hugs, kisses and final grabs at shoulders and arms.

So as not to intrude, I waited to approach departing travelers until after they had finished their goodbyes. The departing men I approached (those who could gather up some English for me), though, were not leaving for good. They were taking their one or two month leave – or so they told me. I encountered one man who was not returning. He was unclear about why. Then it dawned on me: no one, skilled or unskilled, likes to admit being laid off. Another hazard for statistic collecting. As the men escaped into the passengers-only area of the terminal, numbers – people, packages, stories and plans – all seemed incalculable.

The current condition of the global crisis only heightened my curiosity to see Kerala. I wanted to find out more about this land, specifically why its people – the ones who had at least some education – could speak beautiful English and who never missed a chance to talk with me in groceries and taxi cabs. One Malayali had once told me there are things about the Gulf that are like Kerala and there are things about Kerala that are like the Gulf. I asked him for examples. He smiled, tilted his head, and said I had to look for them myself.

But to consider Kerala – in conjunction with the crisis, with jobs disappearing or not – forces a departure from the stories newspapers tell. The issues are torn inside-out.

Monitoring Kerala’s press reveals an inverse debate of that which filled Western newspapers I usually read. While human rights activists claim international jurisprudence and the journalists who interview them plead for the exploited and underpaid laborers, the discussion in Kerala centers on unflagging materialism and wasteful spending – fear of the loss of Islamic/Christian/Hindu values as a result of easy money. Was the Kerala-Gulf story about the exploited poor or rampant capitalism? It was as if the Western and Kerala press were shouting at the same region, but with conflicting demands, neither hearing the other. Which side really had its finger on the pulse? I went to Kerala to make my own decision.

If you want to know how the Indian province is handling the crisis in the Gulf, these are families putting their children through universities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia; they are building expansive homes in Kerala while they live in humble flats in Dubai. They are families working hard to make a better life than that which they were dealt. Just a slight investigation beyond labor camps and taxi stands reveals a variety of Malayalis making the Gulf cities hum, ranging from some of Dubai’s wealthiest entrepreneurs to witty school teachers to hard-working doctors to committed store owners. Back home in Kerala they are considered a separate breed: Gulf Malayalis.

Departure and arrival are very much part of Kerala’s culture. Mine was an overnight flight which meant loose-fitting clothing that could handle a bit of wrinkling. I was one of few who saw it that way. When we boarded the flight in Dubai most of the departing passengers were smartly dressed, recently showered and primped. A few were shaping their fingernails as we waited on the runway. Those who could made sure their outfits did not conceal the gold they were wearing; pressed, rolled-up sleeves and open-vested shirts seemed a uniform that allowed heavy gold watches and chains to breathe the cabin’s air. The amount of the element I saw adorning men and the few women boarding the flight was more than I had ever seen outside a display case. It was gold in movement. It seemed more orange, more color than light.

A month before the voyage I had met Sahil Latheef, an architect trained in Mumbai and Rotterdam. He said he was from Calicut, Kerala’s third city. More questions revealed that his mother left Dubai to give birth to Sahil in Calicut. Shortly afterwards the two flew together back to Dubai, where he lived until he attended university. I asked him about the Malayali experience in Dubai; he found it curious to think about a topic he had always taken for granted. During the following weeks he consulted his family and friends and gathered a list of names of people who might provide some perspective on the situation simply by relating their life stories.

Before we tried to get a few hours of sleep on the flight, Sahil and I went over our plan for the coming days. He had drawn our route over a map of Kerala. Our trip was starting in the south, in Trivandrum, and then we would make our way north. Dots scattered the coastal highway, each representing a place we planned to stop to talk with sociologists, psychiatrists, doctors, entrepreneurs, school teachers, writers – all of whom Sahil had collected for our study. Sahil’s map centered on the coastal highway of Kerala – the only road traversing the linear province; our plan populated its curves.

It would soon become apparent that this coastal highway was one of the biggest export products of the Gulf. Hiding behind its innocuous name, NH17, the national highway is what stitches the towns and cities together in Kerala. If you want to know how the Gulf – its money, its ambitions, its message – has affected Kerala, you hardly need to venture off this road.

This highway is rarely talked about because it is so apparent, so integrated in the lives of Malayalis. Integrated in their lives, but always hinting at death. Sahil had insisted we hire a driver for our stay. The intrepid Majeed was not only our driver; he was also the keeper of our lives. Rarely no wider than two lanes, the road almost always had a median line from which each side of the road started as unbroken asphalt then devolved into puzzle pieces of asphalt and then to earth. A driver negotiating this median line uses an endless code of horn-honking and bright-lights to pass cars and trucks ahead and miss those coming in his (our) direction. The distance between an oncoming automobile and yours can be as little as a couple meters. As a passenger it is better to fall asleep than to watch. Sahil translated Majeed’s response to my questioning whether the drive tires him out: ‘It’s not worth stressing about’.

NH17 is the only road connecting Kerala’s towns and cities, but its lack of upkeep makes it feel more like a back way. There is no money going into the province’s most essential piece of infrastructure and yet from our car windows we could watch, like a moving image, a rushing inventory of billboards promising luxury lifestyles, boundless gold, fine silks. And then there are the buildings sprouting up along the road – some finished, some occupied but half-finished, others started and seemingly forgotten. These are the products of Gulf money.

If you ask any Malayali about what the wealth from Gulf salaries has given the province, the question starts a trail of wastage and loss. When I asked the question that made me plan my trip this year: is the crisis having an effect here? Are loved ones streaming back? The questions produced shoulder shrugs at best. Worst things had happened it seemed. Even the demographer we interviewed dismissed his own numbers. Malayalis have a way of making things work, despite any hardship. And if the money dried up from one source, it would likely appear from somewhere else in the not too distant future. Crisis did not deter dreading the changes Gulf money brought.

Everyone seemed to agree. Gulf money comes with an itch to build. And that effect had not yet slowed down. First you build your own house – a Gulf House. And then, if there’s money left over, a commercial tower. Even those Malayalis not keeping busy with jobs in the fields of urbanism or development will point out a regional tendency: when it comes time to build commercial buildings the returning entrepreneur will not think of locating in the city; rather, the enterprise must be located in his home village. There the effect is greater, the message louder. And even better is to build along NH17, for then the structure can be seen not only by everyone in the village, but also by every other Malayali traveling up and down Kerala’s only highway. A Gulf returnee must return a success story incarnate in order to impress all those who knew him as a going-nowhere teenager. To do that they have consequently developed the roadsides of the NH17 from one end to the other with their gathered ambitions. Yet instead of building a linear metropolis, they have built what can read more like a graveyard of unfulfilled dreams.

Kerala’s urban densities do not come even close to figures for India’s larger cities, but as a province it has one of the highest densities in India. Kerala is human sprawl, inhabiting NH17 from top to bottom. The first thing I did upon returning to Dubai was to find Kerala on Google Earth. I wanted to experience NH17 from above. That proved impossible. Sprawl it might be, but the province’s omnipresent palm trees still rule. An aggressive layer of green masks the Gulf’s greatest effects to greedy, outside, aerial viewers.

What follows is a collection of thoughts and photographs from the trip, conversations with experts and some Gulf returnees. This relationship – between Kerala and the Gulf – is one of hundreds facing those living in the Gulf, but for those in Kerala it is a daily, inescapable topic – defining just about every aspect of life in Kerala, whether you like it or not. The store where you bought your fruit is run by a Gulf returnee; the hospital where an aunt lay sick is a Gulf returnee’s investment strategy; even the most favored summer drink – the Sharjah shake – carries memories and thoughts of luxury from a faraway land that anyone could reach, if he’s ready to give something up in exchange.

Background to the Foreground: Bahrain’s Pavilion at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale

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This article also appears at Portal 9 and Huffington Post

At the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, Bahrain won the Golden Lion for its debut national participation with the exhibition “Reclaim Bahrain.” The entry was as smart as it was simple – the implantation of coastal fishing huts from Bahrain into one of the biennale’s two main sites, the Arsenale. The huts’ peaceful presence was supposed to stoke a conversation about preservation, of not just buildings but also coastlines (reviewed here). Returning after a debut win and with the same curator is unquestionably tough. Those conditions, combined with the unrest that has shaken Bahrain since 2010, made it a year when you could say Bahrain was brave just to show up.

[For images and a review of more of this year’s Biennale, visit here.]

Since they chose to return, the team could hardly arrive without in some way address this political and social turmoil that has wracked Bahrain. The returning curator Noura Al Sayeh compared this year’s experience with 2010, when the pavilion had to address a public with little or no mental picture of where the island was or what it looked like. Two years later, she explained, it’s a different story; people have a clear, if mediated, idea of a kingdom gone awry. The curator and designers decided to approach the ongoing Bahrain tragedy as a media issue. What we see on TV, on YouTube, is “Background,” the title of this year’s installation. The exhibition responds obliquely to the turmoil, suggesting Bahrain also has other “backgrounds” from which media purveyors choose.

“Background” is based on live-streaming CCTV projections, as eerie or ironic as that might sound coming from Bahrain. The cameras have been set up discreetly on one building’s rooftop and beam Bahrain into the pavilion room. The projection screens take the form of and therefore conceal the room’s windows and doorways; instead of looking out at Venice, the viewer is supposed to see Manama.

The five views of Manama reveal little movement to make it immediately clear this is live video: A palm barely sways to a weak wind on one screen. A Pakistani delivery truck teeters across another. As I watch the sun going down in Bahrain on a third screen, some footballers enter and start a match. The images seem mundane, banal. Knowing more about the images you realize things aren’t as idyllic as they seem. That palm plantation under the CCTV’s gaze is threatened by water shortages. That beach is a result of zealous land reclamation. Those new towers have an unresolved relationship with the rest of Bahrain’s modern urban fabric.

Upon entering the room, the eye has to adjust, to distinguish objects in a field covered in a toothpaste-blue haze. An uninformed viewer might find that the contrast and color balance of the projections have not been corrected. But the projections are perfectly toned. This is the experience of light in Bahrain. As someone familiar with Bahrain, I found the projections enrapturing. I went back several times to stare into them, yearning for the Bahrain I wonder if I’ll ever experience again.

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It can’t be described as curatorial bravery to reveal apparently sleepier realities than the ones reporters and demonstrators capture with shaky and unnerving recordings of alleyway chases and brutally unfair clashes between teenagers and armed officers. However, if a viewer can identify the nuances (and it isn’t easy to do so), then there is a considerate point here. As the curator Noura Al Sayeh pointed out during our discussion of the exhibition, the problems confronting Bahrain are not new ones – they were there when Bahrain was celebrated for its modernization advancements throughout the twentieth century. What the media conveys are tensions that parties inside and outside Bahrain have chosen to ignore until recently. That luxury is no longer possible. Bahrain is now at a point from which it can never recede. But how can architecture address this political – and inarguably urban – predicament, if architecture can neither help resolve it nor leave it alone?

Is this exhibition about architecture? I don’t think so. Could the Bahrain pavilion have presented architecture this year? I don’t think so either. This exhibition is a discussion of political landscapes, not physical ones. It’s architectural in the sense that any meaning intended in constructing something (whether landscape or building) can quickly collapse into a vortex of something more ferocious (see here).

Even while it has urbanized, Bahrain has consistently challenged the legitimacy of architecture. Its urban centers remain defiantly stretched out on plains of un-delineated space. Open space is not park or public space. Open space is vastness, non-distinction, void. Bahrain expresses a resistance to fill every void. Space might not mean freedom or publicness, but it suggests something left undefined. In the exhibition, some viewers will experience a lot of space left unfilled, except for some low-standing stools. This, however, is a determined void. It represents what the show doesn’t reveal. In a way, the exhibition offers a reprieve from the often overly dense Biennale, but it’s not necessarily a reprieve if one contemplates what is missing.

In conjunction with 2010’s “Reclaim Bahrain,” the organizers gave away a dense publication filled with texts, images, and “urban research.” This year the free book is almost exclusively images, either taken from television screens or made to look that way. There are two brief texts, one of which can quickly be removed thanks to a perforated edge (text supplied with an eject button). The other text is penned by Bahrain’s minister of culture Shaikha Mai Al Khalifa; it is a thoughtful, though discrete, commentary on the need to collect images. Images and projections suggest immediacy, and they can be an easy mechanism through which to slip an idea. They can seem neutral, accidental. Even though they’re not. Bahrain’s exhibition both exploits the misconception and acknowledges the ambiguity.

One thing I appreciate about the Bahrain exhibition, and this goes as well for the Kuwait and Denmark (Greenland) exhibitions and maybe a few others, is that it takes on current and grave questions. In discussing the pavilion with curator Al Sayed, it didn’t seem there had even been a choice as to whether to address, directly or not, Bahrain’s most obvious troubles. I wonder where the boundary lies between the national pavilions that have to represent/explain their country and those which don’t. That only some national pavilions need to engage the audience this way (as opposed to, for example, promoting a handful of young architects) might be unbalanced, but it makes for intriguing interaction. These exhibitions are what make the Venice Biennale’s delivery of nationally sponsored pavilions seem worth the time. Bahrain has had to do this obtusely, and that’s not surprising. Don’t forget that all of the national pavilions have to be sponsored by a public authority. Rarely would even the seemingly most self-critical nation choose to see itself criticized. And when CNN doesn’t air its Bahrain report internationally, would one expect a government-sponsored project to take on its own ongoing, contentious matters?

Did Bahrain have to address its political problems? Egypt doesn’t. Great Britain doesn’t (remember those riots?). Russia doesn’t. What one might find unsettling, however, is that in the room neighboring Bahrain, Croatia does. The Croatian pavilion’s soundtrack of public protests sometimes leaks into Bahrain’s void like a disconcerting whisper, as if it wants to rustle the CCTV cameras from their sleepy gaze.

Future Practice: The Management Thinkers


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Rory Hyde’s new book Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture includes a talk we had about Dubai, the Gulf, architects, and management consultants. Below is an excerpt. Lots of great interviews in this volume. For purchase at amazon.


Rory Hyde: So we have [John] Harris [see here] who’s an architect planning Dubai, and to look at the Gulf more generally, we have Bechtel, these American engineers who come from an oil and civil engineering background designing these industrial cities in Saudi Arabia in the ‘70s. Where were the planners in all this?

Todd Reisz: There clearly were British planners in Saudi Arabia before Bechtel arrived. You also had Doxiadis in Riyadh, and you had British planners especially in Jeddah. But that’s basically right, there’s even a piece in the RIBA Journal by a planner from what would eventually become RMJM, who was scared that the role of the planner would disappear because of the dominating presence of American engineering companies. The whole issue is speed, and the kind of optimism that’s imbued in unadulterated infrastructure. At this stage of the game, the British planner’s fear was well-founded; production of infrastructure became everything. The planners ended up reporting to the engineers.

RH: Why do you think these engineers are preferred over the planners? Because they present a non-designed approach which is purely functional; the city treated as a machine, rather than as a place to live perhaps?

TR: The beginnings of their success is not actually in the city, but in ports, in pipes, and oil rigs. Those successes enable them to be seen as the people who get things done. Halcrow modernizes the port of Jeddah, and suddenly Jeddah has the capacity to increase the number of visitors for the Hajj. Bechtel was doing the same on Saudi Arabia’s other shore and developing the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, Saudi Arabia’s ultimate lifeline to wealth. Both of these examples are about machinery. It’s not until later that you see that the engineers are specifically coming to the cities and working with planners.


RH: Perhaps we should move on to today. When we speak of consultants working in the Gulf, we now implicitly mean management consultants. The building blocks are there, and now it’s about fine tuning these machines to make more money. Or even to build whole new cities to make money, such as these economic cities in Saudi Arabia. So firstly, what is an economic city?


TR: ‘Economic City’ is a term being used by Saudi Arabia’s national planners, likely originating from work produced by McKinsey & Company. Economic Cities are Saudi Arabia’s next approach to city-building following its Industrial Cities of the 1970s. Industrial Cities were a way of building up a national economy – by making sure that as much money was being extracted from the country’s oil drilling as possible. Economic Cities are also about producing economic growth, but today it’s through the service industry and the knowledge economy. And there is a belief that global corporations, invested in Saudi resources and people, will fund it.


RH: And what role are consultants playing in determining these cities?

TR: As far as I know, McKinsey designated six Economic Cities in Saudi Arabia as a way of approaching national economic health and creating new jobs. McKinsey didn’t make drawings, but they did work with the government on the idea of identifying new cities. And there is evidence they worked on developing on the programming for at least some of the Economic Cities.


RH: That taps into the resentment that architects and planners have toward management consultants moving into their territory by shaping cities. Should we be worried, or should we just adopt more of their strategies, learn to play their game? Or are we no longer suited for that role, has planning become something altogether different, more about economics than about space?

TR: What I always find interesting between management consultants and architects is that they both profess to be generalists. They will comment on things broadly. The architect can talk to you about the details of a chair right up to expounding on Mumbai, the scale is limitless. The management consultant, if you look at what they do, they can talk to you about cites today as well as middle class woman’s shopping experiences in the suburbs. One of them is doing it better than the other, right? What the management consultant has been able to do is to show this spectrum of generalization is something that works in understanding the complexity a city, as opposed to how the architect has approached being a generalist. It’s a question of scale for the architect, but for the management consultant it’s a question of breadth of economic conditions for the city. Which one do you find more vital?

RH: And in that sense it’s understandable that the clients or the rulers are turning to these kinds of disciplines for advice – I would! The real question is what is the impact once it hits the ground, what are the characteristics of these cities, and are they lacking because of who has been determining them in the first place, people who aren’t trained in spatial planning? Of course they commission the architects and planners to work with them, but can we draw a line between the spatial qualities of these new cities and the ways in which they are initially proposed?

TR: An essential question to ask is ‘who is determining whether a particular economic city is important or necessary?’ There was a point in urban planning’s development in the 1970s when it was letting go of the physical characteristics of a city, what we call today ‘urban design’, and looked more at the economic conditions, the global networking that goes into how a city is planned. The planners essentially became more theoretical than visual. But what’s happened since then is that the planner has lost that role of working with, let’s say, the five year development plans for a country and that’s been taken over by others. So just as they caught on, they lost their audience. And it’s not just the management consultants who’ve taken the stage, it’s also the banks.

Look at demographic reports of regions where there are incredible amounts of urban growth. Sometimes demographics are provided to you by banks – how disturbing is that? Banks have everything to gain from predictions of growth, they gain from both sides, they get commissioned to write that report, and then when everyone comes to apply for a mortgage. The consultant isn’t doing it in the same way.

RH: Perhaps we can move on to the relationship between the consultants and the clients. I’m interested in this stereotypical attitude held by foreign consultants that the rulers have more money than sense, that they spend indiscriminately. To use Dubai as an example, it’s a view somewhat reinforced by the comments of Sheikh Mohammed on 60 Minutes [3] when he says that he ignores the advice of his consultants when they contradict his own aims, and just says ‘do it anyway.’ But this dynamic seems too simplistic considering what’s been achieved. Who is really holding the power here?

TR: In a way this has become the standard mythology of the Gulf and specifically of Dubai. Like Sheikh Rashid in the 1960s being told his port should have five berths, and he decides it should be nine and in the end he builds eleven, and he was right. The consultant represents conventional wisdom. The management report always comes with a clause along the lines of ‘decisions are being based on a historical pattern’, and therefore the moment of incredibility won’t be factored in. Yet there were moments of incredibility in Dubai that did happen, and whether Sheikh Rashid knew that they were coming or not, that’s a question. Same with Sheikh Mohammed. I can’t comment on what Sheikh Mohammed says, but I don’t think he’s necessarily talking about consultants so much as about the confines of conventional wisdom.


RH: You have a great quote from an architect from Lebanon who is working in Dubai, who says ‘this place is crazy but it’s also really boring.’

TR: Which is true. Expressed ambitions might at times seem crazy, but in the end I think Dubai’s leaders are very much striving for completion and establishment. That’s really what infrastructure allowed. I wrote about establishing the roots by means of concrete piles in the ground, that’s more than a metaphor; it becomes real. Dubai does not want to drift away, and that wish is great but pretty mundane.

History of the Future (VIDEO)

Miniature copy, Thomas More’s Utopia

Last March, I made a presentation called ‘Future City,’ which mostly took place in the past.
Thomas More’s death sentence in London is considered.
Ebenezer Howard’s attempt to live (and die) anywhere but in London is considered.
It used to be we were doomed to die in cities; now they’re supposed to be our utopias.

The lecture was part of a series in Amsterdam called Inspiring Cities (click here to learn more).

Doha Pursues the 2020 Summer Olympics (VIDEOS)

On the occasion of the 2012 International Architecture Biannual in Rotterdam (IABR), I was asked by XML Architects to consider Doha’s pursuit of hosting rights for the 2020 Summer Olympics. The result is a series of short homemade (yes, amateur) videos that go on view as part of XML’s exhibition about Olympic cities at IABR (click here for more on XML’s exhibition).

Produced in December 2011, the films were made when Doha’s Olympic coordination committee was just beginning to put together its bid plan; therefore the films are more focused on examining the overall setting in which the Doha bid was coming together than on the bid itself. Qatar’s preparations to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup play a significant role in these videos. In May 2012, Doha, along with Baku, was eliminated for consideration for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Qatari organizers were quick to assert they would be back.

Each of the films pursues a theme: Culture, Infrastructure, Global Reach, Diplomacity. There’s a link to vimeo and then to youtube for each video.

1. Culture

Doha builds with an agenda that struggles to define the city, as both a global actor and a localized identity. Branding represents a deep-seated attempt at global significance.


2. Infrastructure

Doha exhibits the ability to build, pursuing all the right ideas. And it’s happening, with or without the Olympics.


3. Global Reach

Doha’s advantage lies between its ability to finance the Olympics and its close ties to parts of the world currently not recognized as the Olympics’ marketing circles.


4. Diplomacity

Doha might be pursuing a new kind of city, one that doesn’t need to be filled all the time. In fact, by not being filled all the time, it could prove that it’s more globally significant.


Thank you to: Samar Ali, Nasser Al Amadi, Mishaal Al Gergawi, Joumana al Jabri, Ibrahim Al Jaidah, Mitra Khoubrou, Massimiliano Lodi, Roger Mandle, Issa Al Mohannadi, Craig Plumb, Huda Smitshuizen Abifares, Rami el Samahy, Omnia Shehabbadin, Polona Susin, Huib de Vries, Christian Wacker.

Doha Pursues 2020 Summer Olympics. Part 1: Culture from Todd Reisz on Vimeo.

Doha Pursues 2020 Summer Olympics. Part 2: Infrastructure from Todd Reisz on Vimeo.

Doha Pursues 2020 Summer Olympics. Part 3: Global Reach from Todd Reisz on Vimeo.

Doha Pursues 2020 Summer Olympics. Part 4: Diplomacity from Todd Reisz on Vimeo.

‘Doha is a colosseum’ (PHOTOS)

Last November I spent a week in Doha, with a day trip along Qatar’s widest, smoothest and newest highway (the North Road). It had been more than a year since I’d been in Doha, and that year has been a big one for Doha, at least in the news cycle — World Cup drama, diplomatic efforts throughout the Middle East and Africa, a development schedule that disregards global crisis.

There is no city that has generated such a complex and multi-faceted public campaign for itself. Real-time Doha, however, cannot compete with the city’s media frenzy. That’s a reality one realizes as soon as the sliding doors open at the airport (the gigantic new one is not yet open). Doha still feels small, comfortably quiet, graspable. The splendid, audacious Doha is a concept usually performed on stages elsewhere: Zurich, London, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, Khartoum to name the first six that come to mind. In a discussion about the cleft between the two Dohas, the concrete one and the conceptual one, Mishaal Al Gergawi captured for me what Doha is: a colosseum. It’s a place which knows it can host the world, but it is, more often than not, a modest city.

Driving, walking around Doha, one has to become reacquainted with the Doha that is a real city. One discerns evidence of the billions being put into new building and infrastructure, even though the spokespersons say that 2012 will be the year when more construction will be evident. For now, it is easier to find where these big investments aren’t happening. Doha’s agenda is bold, but fortunately not everything about Doha has to be bold. There are parts that, though as characteristically global as bold Doha, remain at a smaller, dustier scale.

A former colleague had asked me to help on an Olympic Games research project by reporting back on a few topics about Doha. In the coming months, I’ll post here my answers to his questions, but for now here are some snapshot sequences from my stay.


At work. Construction at the Msheireb project is where one finds the thump of 24-hour construction. With the construction soon to escalate in preparation for the 2022 World Cup, the domain of transformation is spreading beyond Doha and into the smaller towns.

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West Bay from the base. In the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote refers to this district when he writes: ‘All that has been learnt from New York or Hong Kong is … the spiky skyline: nothing has been learnt from the successful spaces of everyday urban life….’ Even Doha’s leaders will say they have learned what not to do based on the West Bay experience. Many towers remain unoccupied, but that’s not just through a blunder of urban design.

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Qatari architecture. Almost everyone in Doha (like Berlin in the 1990s) talks about architecture. A popular topic is what characterizes Qatari architecture. Here are five buildings I liked (or once liked). I’ve only been inside one of them, but I would say they are all Qatari architecture.

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The horizontal. Qatar calls for the wide-angle. Though few cities in the world are pursuing pedestrian projects like the one in Doha, the city and its surrounding towns are still to be experienced from the car. Landscapes to be read at 120km or more.

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Soft Qatar. There are moments when tactile surfaces offer respite in Doha. Materials can seem to know their existence is resistance, even if they will eventually succumb to harsh climate.

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Frontage. Some of the ways Qatar welcomes its visitors.

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The Italianate. It is difficult to avoid using this elusive term in Qatar. The suffix -ate is used to form an adjective from a noun. In this case, it is used to make an adjective of a word, Italian,  that is already an adjective. An intensified adjective, I guess.

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From Dubai to Amsterdam, There Is No Divide

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Leaving my house earlier than normal this morning, I found the nearby shopping street eerily quiet. Amsterdam’s center wakes up late because it’s more about entertainment than general commerce. Opposite Rembrandt’s house were three Latin American men occupying sidewalk benches usually claimed by tourists. Each had an overpacked duffle bag and work boots. The men were apparently waiting for a pick-up, and, to my eye, they might have been people whose daily wages are deemed illegal. Or maybe theirs were legal. In either case the question was playing out in the light of day, but a light that most people of central Amsterdam sleep through.

Discussions about the globalization of labor often distinguish between a here and a there. When it is about home, the conversation is framed as ‘labor issues’, and when it is about somewhere far away, it more quickly employs disquieting terms like ‘human trafficking.’

Around another corner from my house is Amsterdam’s red light district. Municipal leaders want to clean the neighborhood up. It can get rowdy there: soft (and hard) drugs easily bought; sex even more easily bought; and then the rowdiness and messiness that traveling mischievousness can provide. Change, the politicians say, is needed: fewer prostitution windows, less hash smoke, more boutiques. In addition, they assert, there is a graver, moral issue at hand, namely that there is a good deal of human trafficking going on in the district. The thought of such a thing happening in Amsterdam is powerful enough to silence even the staunchest critics of gentrification. Whenever the term is used, however, details remain vague. Listeners are left to fill in with their own imagination. That’s easy to do.

To mention human trafficking conjures up graphic images of abuse, suffering, torture and other marks of evil. But while the accusations remain obscure along Amsterdam’s canals, there are those who do not hesitate to incriminate, with a glaring certainty, goings-on in a city like Dubai. These are the kinds of contradictions and disconnects that crossed my mind reading Pardis Mahdavi’s recent book Gridlock (linked here), which takes on the issues of migrant labor and human trafficking in Dubai.

Mahdavi, at times, seems like another academic interloper in Dubai, but she has written a thoughtful book about the city at a moment when several other American university professors have issued their own. She makes a few wince-causing mistakes (like getting Dubai’s weekend wrong and confusing Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan), but these can be put aside for what she achieves.

One historical matter that Mahdavi doesn’t consider is the fact that Dubai’s growth was defined by migrant populations before anyone talked about a ‘globalized economy.’ The city’s mid-20th-Century modernization is largely a result of its migrant population, from the builders of its first bridge to the investors who bankrolled that bridge. Most of those people never expected to stay in Dubai long, and many did not. Dubai was one of the first cities to show us that assumptions about citizenship, about belonging, about home were to be turned on their heads.

Mahdavi does not dwell on questioning this increasingly accepted global condition, but she rightly calls on us to be aware of oversimplifying what is happening. Like many before her, she acknowledges and presents explicit examples of where things go wrong. Some of her portrayals of people she interviewed are harrowing, but what seems to anchor her descriptions in reality is her balanced understanding of the situation and, daresay, appreciation for what Dubai has afforded many migrants. She is not presenting people whose dreams have been shattered, but people who have made difficult, yet calculated, decisions to improve their situations:

Discussions about trafficking also reveal a xenophobic dimension; namely, that women from the Third World make the ‘irrational’ choice to migrate and are duped or tricked into sex work. In my experience, the migrant women I met in Dubai were neither stupid nor duped. Instead, they had made a difficult but rational choice to leave family and loved ones behind in search of wage-earning possibilities, adventure, or stability.

News accounts from places around the world have offered us images of humans living, and dying, traveling in packed containers or under duress. The accounts on their own are heart-wrenching, but in a way they also provide us a deplorable comfort. We are able to separate ourselves from the story. We can develop parallel worlds: a here and a there. Plenty of correspondents are willing to report to us from places where we don’t dare to tread: an underground, a dark side, a secret.* But what is more terrifying is that it is all within our reach. In Amsterdam and in Dubai. There is no divide. It is unfurling on my shopping street; it is the person beside me on my next flight.

As an anthropologist, Mahdavi relies on her urban fieldwork — interviews with over a hundred men and women. Whether via an anthropologist, a Human Rights Watch report or a global-trotting journalist, Dubai’s condition has been told many times through the voices that some interests might prefer we didn’t hear. But Mahdavi’s interviews are convincing. She follows up with her subjects; often even after they have left Dubai. One of her findings is not surprising: that every story is different. It might seem cliché to claim this, but it reveals there is not just one problem and certainly not a blanket solution.

Mahdavi clarifies ‘where the heart is’ for many expatriates in Dubai. A common criticism, especially from American observers, is directed toward the inaccessibility of citizenship for foreign workers.** Mahdavi’s interviews expose this as a minor issue. Almost all of her interviewees have a plan to leave Dubai eventually; they are putting their money aside to help loved ones abroad and then to go home without debt; it is true as much for a British worker as for a Bangladeshi. The book’s findings provide nuance for gauging why Dubai functions as it does. That nuance can also generate a more likely means to improving people’s lives than tolerating the heavy-footed judgments usually projected toward Dubai.

Any new policies or oversight will inevitably have to simplify things, reduce people to numbers. But that doesn’t reduce the danger in thinking that way. Men and women taking on work, whether as domestic workers, construction laborers, or turning toward ‘informal’ markets, are making decisions with their direct personal interests in mind. That being said, Mahdavi visits a Kerala neighborhood in Dubai; she finds a community that could provide the support to get people through tough situations. My own experience in Kerala, historically a significant source of skilled and unskilled labor in the Gulf, is that there was once a strong support network for workers in Dubai: family and friends. Family members made sure a job was legitimate; recommended fair employers; helped each other out. Mahdavi’s findings are looking for solutions that would replace this vanishing support system. She tells us that regulation could help, but such efforts in the Philippines and Ethiopia have mixed results. The answers won’t be easy, but thinking more like Mahdavi, in Dubai and Amsterdam, might just get us closer.

* For a striking account of trickery, read Sarah Stillman’s New Yorker article (here) about two Fijian women tricked into working for the US military in Iraq.

** Several writers have bungled the fact that Dubai does not grant citizenship, but the UAE does. The question is not whether you become a Dubai citizen, but an Emirati citizen. This is important in measuring the relationship people have with a city versus a nation.

Making Sense of the City

[singlepic id=138 w=320 h=240 float=]Mumbai. Photo from Living in the Endless City

This article, a book review of Living in the Endless City (Phaidon, 2011), was originally published at the Huffington Post. You can read it HERE with images.

The London School of Economics’ Urban Age Project has published its second and just as heavy volume about the planet’s most favorite subject: its cities. The first was called The Endless City, and the second is about living in it. But not really; rather it is evidence that the Urban Age Project has spread its wings to incorporate even more cities into its purview.

Big tends to be the preferred format for books on cities, perhaps evidence that the topic makes us lose our editorial minds. Big also references this project’s self-induced Herculean task: to make some kind of sense of the city as a phenomenon. Just about every writer in this installment makes it clear: each city is unique. But that doesn’t settle our craving to look for what makes a city a city. There must be some kind of infectious fantasy which makes us think: if we could just get to their DNA, we could understand and therefore change cities.

One of the first efforts to acknowledge that cities might share some characteristics and that the world was facing a potential urban-generated disaster was Planning of Metropolitan Areas and New Towns, a report issued by the United Nations in 1967. Like the Urban Age Project, the report put ‘developed’ cities in the same petri dish as ‘developing’ cities. The UN report includes some shocking moments of dramatic irony — like when the panel of experts still wonders whether the automobile will be an adopted means of transportation in African and Asian cities. Comparing the UN report to where we are today in understanding cities is heartening in some regards. Back then, cities were being taken on by planning to denude them; the British new town strategy was almost always the preferred one. The solution for the city was essentially to destroy it.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the new town hardly plays a role. Urban planning has taken a back seat to economic planning, if, as some of these writers suggest, there’s any planning at all. The world’s largest cities have become even greater behemoths, but no one in this book dares to suggest turning our backs on them. There’s now little belief in our ability to design them; but can we at least come to terms with them?

Deyan Sudjic plays the book’s inter-urban itinerant who gives a brief introduction to the three inaugurated cities: São Paulo, Mumbai and Istanbul. Before embarking, he dares to consider whether the architect might still have a say in all of this density. The bold metropolis — and these three cities are some of the boldest — have brought about the crippling of the architect’s role in shaping them. Sudjic’s catalogue of suggestions for reinvigorating the architect’s role, however, is a let-down, if not a string of non sequiturs. For one, Leon Krier inexplicably gets more than just a mention. Zaha Hadid’s coppertone skyline for Istanbul is reviewed for all the wrong reasons (it’s the evidence of the problem, not the solution). And then there’s the suggestion that one ultra-rich man’s vertical villa in Mumbai has given us a new building type: who cares. If this essay is any forecast of the architect’s fate, then it is still dim.

Cities have become an approachable topic in popular media. That is a good thing and, if not burdened by its own weight, this publication might be reaching out to broader audiences. Sometimes, however, the popularity of the topic has led to grave misunderstandings of what cities are. This book usually acknowledges what some, mostly American, authors and groups often overlook, namely that when we talk about half the world living in cities, we’re mostly not referring to Toledos and San Franciscos. We’re talking (mostly) about conditions experienced by people who do not likely read this book or gawk at its pictures. And their cities are in focus here.

The book calls upon some of urbanism’s celebrities. Sociologist Richard Sennett has two essays. One is an unexpectedly naive call for what he considers a new kind of urban design. Just one example of the naivete is that Sennett blames planners for doing things they never had the power to do in the first place. His other essay, in the Istanbul section, brings up a nice, explorable thesis: the Hinge City. This kind of city exists and thrives because it connects distant, disparate places. Comparing ancient Venice to current day Istanbul, Sennett captures how cities can capture the impermanent and ephemeral. Then Hashim Sarkis puts some meat on Sennett’s abstraction with a thoughtful article on Istanbul’s relationship with the Arab world. Once again, it is demonstrated that some cities have no boundaries.

Sennett’s hinge idea functions as a foil to one that Saskia Sassen touches upon in her introductory essay, but leaves frustratingly unexplored: that a city’s physicality, its buildings, are its attempt at permanence. Unfortunately the idea gets muddled with other topics. Two of those are: her criticism of the ‘creative class’ movement and her questioning the assumption that every city should be phasing out its manufacturing industries. The two are related in some ways, but the former has little function in this book. I am always curious to read criticism of the creative class propaganda, but it is misplaced in this book. Sassen’s essay might include the book’s gravest example of mixing apples with oranges, or Toledos with Istanbuls. In fact, Toledo is one of her examples. Mentioning Toledo in a book like this is on par with mentioning Leon Krier. Istanbul confronts a Hadid skyline not because it wants to attract a ‘creative class’; yes, it pursues a knowledge-based economy, but at what expense? The Hadid skyline is for investors, and Sassen has written about speculative markets before. She misses her chance to develop that idea. Appreciating the role of manufacturing is also a necessary topic, but this essay comes off disjointed.

One of the best guiding articles is written by a Harvard law professor, Gerald Frug. Clear and concise, Frug reveals the complexity that most of these writers, many of whom have written about it before, fail to consider. When others artlessly proclaim what cities should be doing to improve their streets and buildings, Frug reminds us it is not necessarily people living in the cities who determine the urban conditions. He makes a quick case that each of these cities is not a self-serving engine; rather each is the cash cow for the country it inhabits. The argument calls out the absurdity in an earlier statement in the book: ‘…since the birth of the nation-state [cities] have been a cosmopolitan alternative, offering tolerance and freedom.’

This second publication is a laudable distillation, if not maturation, of tactics and language that architects, planners, etc., have been building up over the last decade or two. Some of these tools: the ambition, the fixation on data, the subsequent doubt about what to do with that data (taken on dexterously by Justin McGuirk), and the photographs. Oh, the photographs. This last aspect is where I would challenge the group. To warn of the dread which cities might bring upon our planet and then to seduce us with these kinds of images is double talk. Photographs like these have been described before as a kind of pornography. That’s because they generate a feeling in us perhaps we don’t like to admit, at least in public. Taken from the safe distance of a helicopter, or maybe the fifteenth floor of a Sheraton, the shots are of a tantalizing tactility. But those of us who can afford to buy this book are struck with shame for wanting the experience because we know we couldn’t handle it. Jacob Riis created a movement. These just create secret desires that make us insidious voyeurs.

Photography, the medium that could most quickly draw us in to the turmoils of these megalopolises, is therefore the most guilty for keeping us from them. Beyond just in the photographs, these cities often come off too clean. The slums (rarely mentioned more than as an aside), the political criminality, the paradoxes, the stench of these places are somehow rubbed out. Their uncanny absence in this tome reminds me of how Mike Davis plunged us into these predicaments in Planet of Slums, and without a photograph.

In a commendable piece on Mumbai, the journalist Suketu Mehta delivers one of the book’s best anecdotes. He recounts an award ceremony for ‘a group of local residents’ in Mumbai. They had a designed toilet. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a cameo:

The prizewinners came in a bus to the grand hall, dressed in ill-fitting suits that they had rented for the occasion. When Frau Merkel gave them the cheque, they accepted it with grace and shook her hand, but when they encountered the municipal bureaucrat who was in charge of their [residential] area, they knelt down as one and touched his feet in reverence. They knew who had the power….

These microscopic kinds of mismatches reveal the scale-blowing complications at hand.

The London School of Economics’ Urban Age Project has published its second and just as heavy volume about the planet’s most favorite subject: its cities. The first was called The Endless City, and the second is about living in it. But not really; rather it is evidence that the Urban Age Project has spread its wings to incorporate even more cities into its purview.

Big tends to be the preferred format for books on cities, perhaps evidence that the topic makes us lose our editorial minds. Big also references this project’s self-induced Herculean task: to make some kind of sense of the city as a phenomenon. Just about every writer in this installment makes it clear: each city is unique. But that doesn’t settle our craving to look for what makes a city a city. There must be some kind of infectious fantasy which makes us think: if we could just get to their DNA, we could understand and therefore change cities.

One of the first efforts to acknowledge that cities might share some characteristics and that the world was facing a potential urban-generated disaster was Planning of Metropolitan Areas and New Towns, a report issued by the United Nations in 1967. Like the Urban Age Project, the report put ‘developed’ cities in the same petri dish as ‘developing’ cities. The UN report includes some shocking moments of dramatic irony — like when the panel of experts still wonders whether the automobile will be an adopted means of transportation in African and Asian cities. Comparing the UN report to where we are today in understanding cities is heartening in some regards. Back then, cities were being taken on by planning to denude them; the British new town strategy was almost always the preferred one. The solution for the city was essentially to destroy it.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the new town hardly plays a role. Urban planning has taken a back seat to economic planning, if, as some of these writers suggest, there’s any planning at all. The world’s largest cities have become even greater behemoths, but no one in this book dares to suggest turning our backs on them. There’s now little belief in our ability to design them; but can we at least come to terms with them?

Deyan Sudjic plays the book’s inter-urban itinerant who gives a brief introduction to the three inaugurated cities: São Paulo, Mumbai and Istanbul. Before embarking, he dares to consider whether the architect might still have a say in all of this density. The bold metropolis — and these three cities are some of the boldest — have brought about the crippling of the architect’s role in shaping them. Sudjic’s catalogue of suggestions for reinvigorating the architect’s role, however, is a let-down, if not a string of non sequiturs. For one, Leon Krier inexplicably gets more than just a mention. Zaha Hadid’s coppertone skyline for Istanbul is reviewed for all the wrong reasons (it’s the evidence of the problem, not the solution). And then there’s the suggestion that one ultra-rich man’s vertical villa in Mumbai has given us a new building type: who cares. If this essay is any forecast of the architect’s fate, then it is still dim.

Cities have become an approachable topic in popular media. That is a good thing and, if not burdened by its own weight, this publication might be reaching out to broader audiences. Sometimes, however, the popularity of the topic has led to grave misunderstandings of what cities are. This book usually acknowledges what some, mostly American, authors and groups often overlook, namely that when we talk about half the world living in cities, we’re mostly not referring to Toledos and San Franciscos. We’re talking (mostly) about conditions experienced by people who do not likely read this book or gawk at its pictures. And their cities are in focus here.

The book calls upon some of urbanism’s celebrities. Sociologist Richard Sennett has two essays. One is an unexpectedly naive call for what he considers a new kind of urban design. Just one example of the naivete is that Sennett blames planners for doing things they never had the power to do in the first place. His other essay, in the Istanbul section, brings up a nice, explorable thesis: the Hinge City. This kind of city exists and thrives because it connects distant, disparate places. Comparing ancient Venice to current day Istanbul, Sennett captures how cities can capture the impermanent and ephemeral. Then Hashim Sarkis puts some meat on Sennett’s abstraction with a thoughtful article on Istanbul’s relationship with the Arab world. Once again, it is demonstrated that some cities have no boundaries.

Sennett’s hinge idea functions as a foil to one that Saskia Sassen touches upon in her introductory essay, but leaves frustratingly unexplored: that a city’s physicality, its buildings, are its attempt at permanence. Unfortunately the idea gets muddled with other topics. Two of those are: her criticism of the ‘creative class’ movement and her questioning the assumption that every city should be phasing out its manufacturing industries. The two are related in some ways, but the former has little function in this book. I am always curious to read criticism of the creative class propaganda, but it is misplaced in this book. Sassen’s essay might include the book’s gravest example of mixing apples with oranges, or Toledos with Istanbuls. In fact, Toledo is one of her examples. Mentioning Toledo in a book like this is on par with mentioning Leon Krier. Istanbul confronts a Hadid skyline not because it wants to attract a ‘creative class’; yes, it pursues a knowledge-based economy, but at what expense? The Hadid skyline is for investors, and Sassen has written about speculative markets before. She misses her chance to develop that idea. Appreciating the role of manufacturing is also a necessary topic, but this essay comes off disjointed.

One of the best guiding articles is written by a Harvard law professor, Gerald Frug. Clear and concise, Frug reveals the complexity that most of these writers, many of whom have written about it before, fail to consider. When others artlessly proclaim what cities should be doing to improve their streets and buildings, Frug reminds us it is not necessarily people living in the cities who determine the urban conditions. He makes a quick case that each of these cities is not a self-serving engine; rather each is the cash cow for the country it inhabits. The argument calls out the absurdity in an earlier statement in the book: ‘…since the birth of the nation-state [cities] have been a cosmopolitan alternative, offering tolerance and freedom.’

This second publication is a laudable distillation, if not maturation, of tactics and language that architects, planners, etc., have been building up over the last decade or two. Some of these tools: the ambition, the fixation on data, the subsequent doubt about what to do with that data (taken on dexterously by Justin McGuirk), and the photographs. Oh, the photographs. This last aspect is where I would challenge the group. To warn of the dread which cities might bring upon our planet and then to seduce us with these kinds of images is double talk. Photographs like these have been described before as a kind of pornography. That’s because they generate a feeling in us perhaps we don’t like to admit, at least in public. Taken from the safe distance of a helicopter, or maybe the fifteenth floor of a Sheraton, the shots are of a tantalizing tactility. But those of us who can afford to buy this book are struck with shame for wanting the experience because we know we couldn’t handle it. Jacob Riis created a movement. These just create secret desires that make us insidious voyeurs.

Photography, the medium that could most quickly draw us in to the turmoils of these megalopolises, is therefore the most guilty for keeping us from them. Beyond just in the photographs, these cities often come off too clean. The slums (rarely mentioned more than as an aside), the political criminality, the paradoxes, the stench of these places are somehow rubbed out. Their uncanny absence in this tome reminds me of how Mike Davis plunged us into these predicaments in Planet of Slums, and without a photograph.

In a commendable piece on Mumbai, the journalist Suketu Mehta delivers one of the book’s best anecdotes. He recounts an award ceremony for ‘a group of local residents’ in Mumbai. They had a designed toilet. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a cameo:

The prizewinners came in a bus to the grand hall, dressed in ill-fitting suits that they had rented for the occasion. When Frau Merkel gave them the cheque, they accepted it with grace and shook her hand, but when they encountered the municipal bureaucrat who was in charge of their [residential] area, they knelt down as one and touched his feet in reverence. They knew who had the power….

These microscopic kinds of mismatches reveal the scale-blowing complications at hand.

Bahrain: A Roundabout Way to Signifying Nothing

This article was originally published at the Huffington Post. You can view it here.

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“Symbolism means nothing.” – Bahraini man in the street, The Guardian, March 18, 2011

Last week the New York Times ran an article with a headline more obvious than insightful: “Bahrain losing its edge as finance hub.” Even before Shia demonstrations started to rock Bahrain in February, the island country had already lost its financial primacy. The article, however, revisits a formula that has driven the Gulf through the last century: the deferral of political interests to the economy. Gulf countries try to function as apolitical financial forces for the sake of peace. Whether or not this attempt can ever work, ongoing turmoil in Bahrain has shown political mishandling can certainly hurt the economy.

On March 18, the Bahraini government demolished the Pearl Monument at the Pearl Roundabout, where the past month’s demonstrations had taken place. Even the roundabout itself was scheduled for removal. Within an afternoon, a political place and symbol of the uprising were removed.

The Guardian‘s man-in-the-street (quotation above) refers to the fact that the Shia uprising continues despite the loss of a symbol. What’s more, a symbol of unrest might be gone, but Bahrain is far from being stable again. There are continuing reports of arrests, disappearances and quelled demonstrations.

But is symbolism really worth nothing?

The roundabout, or traffic circle, has several meanings for Bahrain. It represents the strides of modernization that the British presence unfurled in Bahrain in the 1960s. Though it is not a British invention, the roundabout represented British development, principally of towns outside British cities. Not suitable for cities, roundabouts were for secondary economies; importing them to Bahrain said what British engineers thought of Bahrain’s future. Though a master plan did not exist during Bahrain’s modernization, British planners and engineers prescribed a regimen of traffic circles as a means to maintain smooth but controllable development. By the 1970s, Bahrain had about forty roundabouts and since then the number has not exceeded much beyond fifty.

Roundabouts also offered Bahrain another advantage: open space without extending those spaces for human use. An expanse of green parkland is isolated by an undying stream of traffic. Landscaped with follies and plantings, roundabout circles are not places; they are voids. In other words, Bahrain might have green spaces, but there are few public spaces needing to be monitored (see this previous article).

Unlike Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the Pearl Roundabout held little significance for Bahrain before 2011. There are no significant landmarks on its circumference. It is a place marker without a place. It is only a marker of time between places: “I’m now driving past the Pearl Roundabout, so I should be there in 15 minutes.” Since there was no significant public space in Bahrain, the demonstrators created one. The Pearl Void became Pearl Square.

In the process, the ‘Pearl Monument’ became the unwitting anchor of the movement. Before that, it too was an empty symbol, erected in 1982 to commemorate Bahrain’s hosting a summit of the six Gulf countries. The event is as much forgotten as the sculpture’s simplistic symbolism: six curved columns (the sails of ships), represent the six Gulf countries and support a sphere (a pearl), representing the region’s ancient sea-faring economy. Sails and pearls have shifted from being regional symbols to overlooked clichés. Symbolism, in this case, did mean nothing. Instead of sails and a pearl, people perceived an odd icon in a city without many icons. By appropriating the ‘Pearl Monument,’ occupants demonstrated something else: how quickly an empty symbol can take on real meaning.

The only video footage (view it here) of the Friday demolition seems to be from a Bahraini state-run television channel. A motorcade of extra-large dump trucks encircles the vacated roundabout. These are the kinds of dump trucks one associates with land reclamation in the Gulf. But another kind of reclamation was scheduled. Mechanical diggers chomp at the feet of two of the columns until their instability pushes the other columns toward collapse in helix formation. As the ‘pearl’ on top begins to teeter, preparing for its pulverizing fall, the footage cuts to moments later when the pieces have fallen to the ground. The video pans a still image of the collapsed monument which looks like what remains when the trunks of date palms have been burned and reduced to white ashes. The still image is a new symbol for Bahrain.

It is an image of destruction. By no means an auspicious symbol for the Bahraini government, but it does work to the authority’s advantage. It suggests an ending, when things are hardly over. The conflict continues, but dissipated, unlocalized, untelevised.

Without missing a beat, the government provided an explanation for the destruction of the roundabout: a need to ease traffic problems. The roundabout is to be replaced by traffic lights, a modern upgrade from a dated roundabout. City planners have demonstrated before that traffic jams can be measured in lost profits. By tearing down a roundabout, Bahrain tries to say it is just being a Gulf state, preferring the economy over politics. This action won’t save Bahrain’s economy though. Symbolism means nothing, but it can be so powerful that it needs to be taken down.

Asleep in Oman, Dreaming Dubai

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This article was published at the Huffington Post.

During a trip to Oman I learned something about the consequences of Dubai’s development appetite, namely that it extends beyond the city’s own borders. My traveling partner and I had been enjoying the drive-and-camp-where-you-may freedom Oman provides. Our guidebook described a beach and lagoon in a town named Yiti, about an hour’s drive outside Muscat. Darkness had long since fallen, and we inched our way into the town in search of the open beach.

Just outside the town where you could smell the fading scents of dinner and hear the last fits of children’s laughter before bedtime, we found where the horizon opened to the sea. The beach showed no sign of inhabitation, none of the usual late night strollers, fishing boats and shacks. The ground felt harder than a beach should, but still we were happy enough to stop, eat something and pull out the sleeping bags.

The next morning we awoke to find we were somewhere quite different than we’d expected. The beach and lagoon no longer existed. The ground had been packed hard, and the water’s edge had been crafted into a solidified, flamboyantly curvaceous form. Rocks, presumably from the overlooking mountains, had been gathered and fitted together to define a hard edge, making it impossible for us to touch the water.

We finally found some explanation: a sun-bleached, dust-ridden billboard at the main road off of which we had turned the night before (and a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign we had missed). We were standing on abandonment.

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The sign announced a huge project by Sama Dubai, a Dubai-based developer that had been folded into extinction. Before its demise, Sama Dubai had acquired this town’s natural shoreline and the sloping valley that connected the beach to the inland mountains. Until the global financial crisis, the company had begun rearranging the place into its own Yiti, this one a second-home/resort city. By the time we arrived, the security booms had been lifted, the laborers had left, and so had all the heavy construction machinery. Excavation pits were filled in.

The natural cannot return, but people will. Residents stare now at a strangely shaped coastline and try to figure out how to reclaim reclaimed land. No longer reigning over a marshy lagoon, fishermen have retaken an edge and remain hidden from sight by the high walls of the botched marina. The grounds above the hidden boats are as flat as a soccer field.

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And that is what they’ve become. Teams from nearby towns have come together to build two soccer goals and have even chalked field lines. This is Sama Dubai’s greatest gift to the local male youth. Beyond the playing fields, the flat grounds are places of departure. Useless space on the margin becomes useful for marginal pursuits: a silent walk alone, easy park-and-fish spots (a boat is no longer necessary to reach deep waters), and then the usual teen escape projects — ranging from listening to loud music in a 4×4 to things less legal.

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We stayed on the site for two nights. Heading out on our last day, I came across a man from town who spoke some English. We talked next to the developer’s looming reserve of quarried rock that won’t be redelivered to the mountains. He was walking home in a bright soccer jersey, his socks caked in the mud-sand from the development site’s surface. He told me that the sheikh of Dubai was giving Oman a new development, but, as I probably knew, Dubai was having troubles. I asked, “And so they just packed their things up and left?” He smiled, “Yes, but they will be back.” Willful optimism, I supposed. It is difficult to tell if anyone will be back to finish Sama Dubai’s project. The soccer player was not ready to say old Yiti faced a great loss, but until somebody comes back to finish off the curvy marina and the condominiums, the people of Yiti find uses for what was once theirs.


This piece is a modified excerpt for an article in the Khatt Foundation’s publication Typographic Matchmaking in the City.

Beyond Dubai: Urban Development Trends in the Middle East (INTERVIEW)

November 1, 2010

by Aziz Ali

[Interview originally published by Click here for original]

Todd Reisz is a member of the Al Manakh team focused on urban development in the Gulf region. Their publication Al Manakh 2 Gulf Continued aims to look beyond the easy cliches of cities like Dubai to reveal how they are confronting the shifting global economic landscape. As editor of the recently released book, Todd is an architect and writer focusing on cities in the Gulf region and his publication.

What is Al Manakh? What is your project dealing with?

Al Manakh is a project as well as a series of books that focus on the ongoing changes facing the cities of the Gulf, namely Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Manama and Riyadh. The books are scheduled on a two-to-three-year schedule. So we likely won’t have a publication before 2012. However, the project is still alive. We are working to organize a conference in Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah and Riyadh, in 2011 about continuing the work we’ve started in Saudi cities. We’ve of course also been keeping our website active. Rory Hyde, a contributor to Al Manakh 2, and I have been maintaining a blog on the Huffington Post, which has increased our readership, especially in the United States. The Al Manakh project has captured more attention in Europe and the Middle East, and the Huffington Post has allowed us to introduce issues confronting cities in the Gulf region to a new audience.

What measures are being taken to revitalize cultural heritage amidst all the urban developments taking place?

It’s not about revitalization; that suggests that something died and it has to be brought back to life; Al Manakh 2 covers this question in detail. Cultural heritage is something cities in the Gulf have had since their inception. If you want to get a sense of what different cities have been confronting over the last few years, Al Manakh 2 has an index of them. Of course, there are the museums and new cultural programs in Abu Dhabi, but those need little coverage at this point. An interview with Mohammed Ali in Doha about his work on the Souk Waqif provides an alternative to how preservation / reconstruction happens. The project has been nominated for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and deserves the attention. It is a clear example of how government can pursue a cultural project.

Culture isn’t just a governmental oversight. In her article for Al Manakh 2, Antonia Carver gives some terrific insight in the development of a ‘laissez-faire’ arts scene in Dubai. The accounts of recent history suggest not only ways forward for Dubai, but also remind us that culture cannot be a top-down project. Ingenuity and creativity from an individual basis are as much required as multi-million dollar art spaces.

What role does political and economic power play today in shaping the urban fabric of the gulf region? The cities are devoid of residents and then government is planning to attract people to occupy these cities.

It seems that that manner of building is coming to a slow-down at least. It characterized Dubai’s development over the last ten years and it seemed like other cities, Doha and Abu Dhabi, for example, were continuing to take that road. But now there are signs that there is a general sense of caution in building more housing.

There are places that are needing housing. Bahrain has calculated it needs more ‘affordable housing’ for lower- and middle-income Bahrain families. And then at a scale more than ten times that of Bahrain’s shortage, Saudi Arabia faces shortages that would required building about 300,000 new units of housing every year for the next five years. If that need could be met, such a development speed would dwarf that of Dubai’s in the last several years.

If the question is addressing Dubai — the unlit windows one sees in new buildings in the Jumeriah Beach Residence, for instance — yes, it all seems rushed. The financial crisis has suddenly given developers an opportunity to claim the criticism of Dubai’s harshest critics: that cities don’t happen over time. So it follows, these places just need time to become activated. To damn Dubai now for building too much too quickly, would be too short-sighted. It’s a question we’ll have to answer in years to come.

In a recent Huffington Post article, we discussed what kind of outward policy Dubai should provide: how should Dubai sustain itself. Dubai’s advancement in the last decade leant heavily on images provided by architecture. There are dozens of projects one might label “crazy” or “whacky” but for every one of those drawings there are dozens of real built projects. Architecture worked for Dubai, but the question is: by what means will Dubai sell itself next?

There are voices within Dubai, primarily Emiratis, who are saying Dubai needs to amp up its image as a place of entrepreneurship. Make it a place where you can easily set up shop as a business owner. I find this fascinating because it has a ring of Dubai’s yesteryears, when traders and businesses set up shop along the Creek. That’s what created Dubai in the first place. Of course supporting entrepreneurship can’t be the only goal, but it suggests a general direction. More broadly, it suggests a focus on people.

How can pedestrian culture be developed and encouraged in GCC cities, and what’s being done about it?

This is one of the touchiest topics facing Gulf urbanism. And it’s one that will require a new method of approaching problems. In many ways, however, these cities already have a ‘pedestrian culture’. Each of these cities has a part of town where walking is the preferred mode of transportation. Commerce in Dubai’s Deira neighborhood still relies on men pushing carts. How do workers get around the Port Rashid area? Bicycles. There’s an ad hoc bike lane painted onto the outer roads’ sidewalks. I would hope that places like these might provide hints of potentially successful systems.

Each city has some kind of master plan for addressing the issue, whether its Dubai’s metro system, Abu Dhabi’s ‘liveability’ vision, or Doha’s redevelopment plans for the city center. But these plans will only go so far. Building details, landscaping and streetscaping will eventually have to come into play (Abu Dhabi is trying to regulate this on an urban scale as well). The irony is that it can seem so simple. Walking from a metro stop to an office building, one can start to imagine what kinds of trees or overhead screens could make the walk bearable. It doesn’t have to be interiorized, air-conditioned walkways.

There are 120-130,000 people who take the Dubai metro daily. A rush hour ride is packed. People are starting to discover the city in a new way, to stick the foot out and find a sidewalk. I would also like to think that progress in this area might be attached to my answer in the previous question; in other words, that the future doesn’t lie in grand architecture or infrastructure, but rather in addressing how, and why, people come to live in theses cities.

What makes you optimistic about the future?

People taking on tough issues facing these cities. That’s what was so humbling about making Al Manakh 2. We worked with over 140 people to make this book; the majority of these people are living and working in the region. It’s very easy to find coverage on these cities provided by outsiders, but we are now beginning to hear from people who know these cities well. I can name two recent examples that post-date Al Manakh 2 of people working with a long-standing relationship with these cities: Bahrain’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the #iamhere phenomenon in Dubai. At this point efforts like Al Manakh are mere words, but a founding belief of the Al Manakh project is in the need to broadcast ideas and to have them debated.

Deira Modern, Notes from Dubai (PHOTOS)

(published at the Huffington Post)

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Deira was Dubai’s most modern quarter. It still is, though it’s often referred to as “Old Dubai,” a generalization that only describes a stop on the Dubai visitor’s course. To see a gold souk, a fish market. To take an abra for no reason other than to take an abra.

The charm of the antiquated is an applied layer. Deira survives this nostalgia by ignoring it.

In contrast to the towers of Sheikh Zayed Road, Deira might seem static and quaint, poor and outdated. This couldn’t be further from the truth. How could Deira be irrelevant when everyone complains that Deira is too crowded? It’s crowded because Deira is true urbanism; it’s more city than elsewhere in Dubai.

When Dubai’s residents started to build more than two-story buildings and use more than earth and coral to make them, the boom centered around Deira. The New Dubai was today’s Old Dubai. Deira transformed and then transformed again. It is still a task not yet completed.

Today’s Deira operates not much differently than that of the 1970s when reclaimed land began to make Dubai a real estate success. The new shore separated the merchants from the ships. They were reconnected with dollies and Japanese pick-up trucks outfitted with wrought iron fencing that could weave through auto and foot traffic to deliver goods. It’s still done the same way today. Tourists snap pictures of a world that seems so much of yesterday: Pakistani men in ‘traditional’ dress wielding worn carts stacked with supplies. These men running carts from creek to shop are more essential to Dubai’s longevity than the latest office tower in Media City.

In photographs, streets look so clean that they could be stage sets. But then there are moments when the stage set fails, when Deira reveals its roots in the desert. A cleared building site reveals the desert that once was.

If one wanted to locate a local approach to modernism in the Gulf region, one should start in the parts of cities like Deira. Shading built into building facades provides interaction with the street but also privacy from the street. These buildings should be inspiration for what could work in Dubai and in other cities, but tastes and preferences preclude that. These parts are written off as old, dirty, rat-infested. They are often all of these things. Most people living in the buildings would move out if they could .

But the struggle, the need to stay vs the desire to leave, once defined cities. Cities were never places of comfort; they were where we once encountered the human soul.

Pipe Dreams and Real Deals: New Cities in Saudi Arabia (VIDEO)

A 30-minute lecture about the making of new cities in Saudi Arabia.  The presentation focuses on the new cities built in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and investigates them as predecessors to the new ‘Economic Cities’ currently being pursued. These cities will eventually house close to 3 million people. An article based on this lecture will soon follow.

Many thanks to Al Manakh contributors for inspiration, research and help: Ziad Aazam, Joyce Hsiang, Joumana al Jabri, Mashary Al Naim, and Reda Sijiny. The presentation was given at the International New Town Institute’s conference in November, 2010

Other presentations from INTI’s conference here.

Making Dubai: A Process in Crisis

[This is a preprint of an article accepted for publication in AD copyright 2010. Photos: Katrin Greiling]

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Business Bay, Dubai, 2009

On 20 October 2009, a luncheon entitled “Restoring Trust – The Challenge of Exiting the Downturn “ was held at Dubai’s Capital Club and focused on a complicated but familiar triangle: Dubai, the crisis and the public relations response. The speakers were two of the city’s celebrated public relations strategists, Dave Robinson and Eileen Wallis, and around 50 people also concerned with Dubai and its future filled the dining room of the local business club to hear the story from their corner. While the guests were still finishing their desserts in anticipation of hearing from the speakers, one woman who worked for a well-known consultancy firm as a reputation management consultant, a ‘growing niche market’, according to her, not to be confused with crisis management consulting, was asked how she was surviving the crisis. Her reply was that it was difficult giving reputation advice because, well, it wasn’t being taken. And things were getting worse.

She was right that things were getting worse. By October, there was already a pile-up of disquieting circumstances: sinking real-estate prices, stalled development projects, departing expatriates, and increasing hyperboles in the press. Worse was still to come. In November, Dubai World, one of Dubai’s three important holding companies, would admit its inability to handle near to $60 billion in debt burden.

More than a month before Dubai World’s unravelling, Robinson, Wallis and their audience were all pushing a wholesale solution to Dubai’s woes over their lunch crumbs: Dubai needed a press relations strategy, one that was prepared to tell the truth. Honesty, it was said many times, was the only way. With all the head shaking and communal chastising towards Dubai, I began to wonder why there wasn’t also any self-congratulating. Dubai was PR strategy; it was a constant crafting of words and images to project a Dubai that did not yet exist. It was so good, so strong, that it meant few had to take into consideration what was actually happening on the ground.

This was a whole new generation of PR experts sitting at this lunch. They had likely arrived too late to aid in ‘master’ developer Nakheel’s meteoric rise as a global name without a portfolio to sustain it, in the establishment of a Dubai bourse before there was a banking community to support one, in the reinvention of DP World after the American fiasco, in the Burj al Arab becoming one of the world’s most recognisable buildings. But still, those seated at lunch represented the legacy of delivering truths before they were fully woven. They were also part of a city that didn’t yet exist. But it seemed now was the time of reckoning: Dubai’s government and its companies needed to listen to the PR experts, but for new reasons.

For the months leading up to October, there had been a clampdown on Dubai companies’ relationships with the press. Few were talking. Like children who had been kept too long from the playing fields, the assembly was cracking from the pressure. There needed to be more transparency: Dubai needed to talk to the world, PR people needed to be able to do their jobs. Calls for ‘transparency’ gave way to calls for ‘embrace’. Towards the end of the group cheer, the topic had turned to ‘all the bad press’ – the images of a sinking Dubai, the Darth Vader and Mickey Mouse references and so on by Western journalists coming in for a day or two and leaving with damning but entertaining articles about the city. How must Dubai approach these arriving journalists? Wallis felt compelled to answer: ‘You need to embrace them. E m b r a c e them. E m b r a c e them. E m b r a c e them.’ After each time she said ‘Embrace them’, she halfway lifted herself out of her seat and body-gestured a terrific air-bearhug and then fell back in her seat again.

As the rest of the group watched Wallis regain her composure, the head of a local bank, maybe the only Emirati in the room, took the microphone. He retorted: ‘We have tried that before. It doesn’t work,’ and put the microphone on the table with a sonic thud.

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Dubai metro, October, 2009.

The last year and a half of crisis in Dubai has unleashed a cascade of Schadenfreude. Crisis was for many critics vindication, a fateful sign that they had been right all along about the city: that Dubai was a failed attempt at making one.

Those critics have missed the point. Dubai’s crisis is not about urbanism or architecture. No model of development, or as some would say the lack thereof, has been proven a failure. If there ever was a model, it is still being pursued, in Dubai and in other Gulf cities whose deep coffers of petrodollars have given them elasticity during the crisis (look at Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi). The most successful designers of Dubai – be they architects, planners, engineers, artists, management consultants, bankers or entrepreneurs – are still designing, either in Dubai or, more potently, somewhere else nearby.

The critics’ poetic deployment of ‘ghost town’ imagery only gives the city’s champions an easier means of responding. By focusing their comebacks on the city’s physical components, Dubai’s leaders can avoid providing answers on the topics where the city is most bankrupt. In the process, Dubai has appropriated the critic’s trump card: time. Empty buildings will eventually be filled; the metro is working to connect once isolated islands of development; the city is becoming a place of the normal. Faster than it came, Dubai’s whirlwind pace has lost its gusto. When in earlier days time had to be beaten, it now just has to be endured.

Rather than in the city itself, Dubai’s crisis is rooted in a financial rumpus and the PR strategy that fuelled it: the prosperous pursuit of inordinate amounts of capital from the world’s most respectable banks with nothing more than an orchestra of words and images. To secure the over-leveraged funds, the present was merely an ersatz for tomorrow. PR had created this truth and the banks had bought it, but now PR’s acolytes were asking the mechanism to come clean, to pull aside the very arras PR had helped construct.

The fake catharsis over lunch will not ever result in a true exposure of Dubai’s losses; it is doubtful anyone would want that. Dubai has admitted some fault and therefore has exposed some vulnerability. Admission of fault has also revealed how a wounded giant can attract sympathy. The Financial Times, for instance, ran a story on 8 April 2009 about how Dubai ‘feels’ friendlier, abandoning its usual focus on numbers to describe a ‘more liveable place’.1

The Financial Times’ soft spot for Dubai would be short-lived. For the first time in a year when numbers were constantly sinking deeper in the red, Dubai World’s November announcement signalled the first true expressions of fear for Dubai’s future from international bankers, but without an ounce of self-criticism. It took Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia, the single person who lost the most in Wall Street’s fumbles, to expose the contrived surprise and puppy-dog whining of Western bankers at Dubai World’s proposed standstill: they should have known all along that these companies and Dubai’s strategies were never less than opaque. Dubai’s greatest loss is that it should never expect such willful naivety again. Good riddance, according to all parties.

This is not Dubai’s first crisis. It certainly will not be its last. It is a city surrounded by crisis (see Yemen, Pakistan), defined by crisis (its constant need to make something from nothing), and even profiting from crisis (see Iran). Dubai, its champions are quick to say, is the big hope of the Arab world. It offers peace and stability, a chance at wealth, smooth highways, and a clean, blackout-free existence. It is now a cliché to mention that children in Algeria proudly don Dubai T-shirts depicting skylines and camels.

The blows Dubai took in 2009 have lifted places like Doha and Abu Dhabi as more assured investment opportunities, but Dubai still reigns in the imaginations of millions of people between North Africa and Southeast Asia. One Pakistani might take a chauffeur job in Doha, but he would much rather take the same job in Dubai. Similarly, a Syrian, after being laid off in Dubai, will hold out as long as possible before he takes a job in Doha. No matter how many derisive labels one side of the world conjures up for Dubai, the city still stands for freedom, daresay hope, in a part of the world whose population (and growth rate) easily outstrips that of North America and the European Union. Dubai’s greatest export and perhaps its last chance at survival lie in this image. And it is one that no PR agent could ever take credit for.

As Dubai still holds sway in a vast region as much misunderstood as it can be, the city also searches for a new posture. The recent openings of two mega projects, the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Metro, both represent a more human Dubai. That was not their original intention – when was a world’s tallest tower a humanist project? But Dubai is now a city that knows the story of Babel and the value of a metro ride that from an elevated rail displays a functioning city gradually emerging, one healing its growth wounds and tempering its bravado so that it might one day have another chance at being great.

1 Khalaf, Roula, “Don’t Rule Out Dubai Comeback,” Financial Times. April 8, 2009.

Text © 2010 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: © Katrin Greiling

Recent pictures of Dubai, October, 2010 (PHOTOS)

My visit to the Cityscape real estate show inspired me, well, gave me the idea, to go out to the edges of Dubai’s development to see what was happening. Dubailand had been pretty quiet. Of course, many projects lie still, many more unstarted. But there was also some unexpected activity, and even recent inhabitation.  A new kind of Dubai living, on the edge of a vast desert that is something which has given up the beauty of the natural but also the brazenness of the developer.

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Reclaim Bahrain – A Review

(originally published with Rory Hyde at the Huffington Post)

One critic sardonically called the biannual architecture show now up in Venice “the biggest, most glamorous architecture show on earth.” It’s more often than not a lot of hoopla for navel-gazing architects. This year’s show has captured the usual kind of criticism within architectural circles, torn between finding some things beautiful but then feeling the guilt for being ravished by the beauty. This year’s curator, Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, authored the theme: “People Meet in Architecture.” It was at least an attempt at heading beyond architecture for architects’ sake; eyes were supposed to be not on architecture, but on its results.

It was a great year for Bahrain to show up, the first time it has exhibited in Venice, and the first time any Gulf country has shown in the architecture Biennale. The country won the coveted Golden Lion for its pavilion with a take that was more rhetorical, if not political, than other exhibitions. If any country has learned from the last several decades what architecture can do, Bahrain, as most other Gulf countries, could tell the story of how just a few decades of development can transform a country’s shape and its people.

Perhaps more than other GCC countries, Bahrainis are concerned about their history. Nostalgia can be a chewy substance, but its absence can sometimes feel like a loud silence in the Gulf. Not so in Bahrain. In our preparations for Al Manakh 2, it was difficult to find any contributors in Bahrain who didn’t want to talk about the present or future without a reference to the past. Consideration of the past, however, might have to do more with critical contemplation than with nostalgia.


Photo: Camille Zakharia

Titled ‘Reclaim Bahrain’, the exhibition levels its critical eye at the consumption of Bahrain’s coast. For a small island country, actually an archipelago, it seems ironic that the country should be worried about diminishing access to the coastline. But it is rightfully worried. You can visit Bahrain for days and never catch a glimpse of its waters. Bahrain is not alone in this matter. Cities all over the world have been trying to “reclaim” coastlines for the last couple decades.

Dr. Fuad Al Ansari, co-curator of Bahrain’s entry with Noura Al-Sayeh , gave his reasons for his team’s entry, “We wanted to come with a problem, not a solution. We wanted to share a problem with the rest of the world.” He’s right to share this problem, and hopes that Bahrain’s presence this year “encourages other GCC countries to criticize themselves. You have to reflect back and think what you’re doing.” It’s a lesson Bahrain can easily share.

This issue is addressed not by presenting bold proposals for coastal redevelopment – as might have been predicted – but through the reconstruction of humble timber huts that occupy this waterfront territory. The huts are built illegally, often on private or government-owned land, using found materials. To bring something informal and vernacular, not designed by an architect, to an architecture exhibition is a bold move, but it is a move that fits perfectly within Sejima’s overall theme. The huts form a relaxed space in the context of a huge exhibition in which to sit, relax, drink tea, and cool off; ‘people meet’ in this architecture.

While these huts do reinforce curator Al Ansari’s claim that Bahrain only came to Venice with a problem, there is also a solution presented: a master plan for the country by US architecture and planning mega-firm SOM. SOM’s contribution to the catalogue describes a “Great Waterfront”, one which Al Ansari praises for taking back the waterfront along the northern edge with parks, beach, promenades and marinas; like many successful waterfront developments before it.

But the huts remind one of a time when the waterfront didn’t have to be “great.” It just had to be; they represent a casual but essential relationship people once had with their water. What might be surprising is that it’s not just wage earning fishermen that build these huts in Bahrain; it’s professors and businessmen who refuse to accept public or private ownership of land and search for a vanishing experience once taken for granted. They represent a last spurt toward the water before the landscaping is laid out to define the relationship for them. Parks can be nice; and when a city can bring its citizens back to the water it shouldn’t be dismissed. But this exhibition, revealing to us these frail but assertive gestures — fishermen’s huts “caught in the awkwardness of the situation” — demonstrates that parks can also cover up things lost.

Intro to Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued

View of Sheikh Zayed Road interchange, Dubai, 2009. Photo: Todd Reisz

When we first conceived a second Al Manakh, the global crisis was not yet reality. ‘An eventual correction’ loomed over every new development plan in the Gulf, but it would be difficult to find anyone today who predicted the crisis’ onset and in what form it would come – a liquidity shortfall that started far away, then spread globally, and relentlessly exposed real estate bubbles in the Gulf.

In January 2009, we started Al Manakh 2 in the midst of a terrible cloud of no-information and misinformation. Crisis had bungled our initial plans and given us a new assignment: to follow its course and look for the ideas that might suggest the Gulf region’s way out of it. Several times elucidation seemed near, but almost every lead proved a ruse.

In the end, crisis was just part of the story. Al Manakh 2 had to take the next step. It had to begin uncovering the structures and networks that lay underneath the images easily found. To do that, we asked people living and working in the region to contribute.

And as is the nature of the region, we couldn’t rely just on voices in the Gulf cities; we reached out also to people who felt the Gulf in other corners of the world: Malaysia, China, Egypt, India, the US and the UK. More than 120 people contributed to this book. Al Manakh 2 assembles voices that sometimes unknowingly collude together and other times contradict one another. Distinguishing the voices ‘on the ground’ from those offering an outsider’s commentary is not difficult, and therefore it is clear that more work is to be done in stimulating the exchange of ideas and opinions over supposedly porous boundaries.

The first Al Manakh was a photographic documentary, in text and images: Gulf cities were what you saw, and what you saw was undeniable. The book relied on a process of collecting facts and figures that up to that point had not been gathered in one place. If Al Manakh was the first book to assemble an urban history of this region, Al Manakh 2 could be the first that explores the cultural linkages among these cities in regard to their ambitions, predicaments and needs. Our attempt here charts an experiment to show congruence and contradiction – both mutually inclusive to any collaborative effort. And both are reconceptualizing the Gulf.

After this book goes to print, some ideas will be surely proven wrong or obsolete. That’s how it goes in this region. To publish a book on the Gulf is a risky endeavor because the region moves at a rate more suitable for other media outlets. But the Gulf does need books about it. And in the midst of a financial crisis – when much time has passed and more time must still be endured – the Gulf is at a point where the information available at this moment should be considered and examined.


A book that covers six cities in five autonomous countries – no matter how much it tries to underline their differences – assumes they share something in common. Each of the countries has elected to collaborate to some degree through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).1 There is relative ease in moving over GCC borders (especially if you are a GCC citizen), and with that ease, there has been a seeping of ideas and expertise from one place to another. One idea of 2009 loaded with considerable social implications for the GCC countries was the return of the GCC railway proposal.

Huge infrastructure projects – Guinness World records for engineering feats, thousands of kilometers of highway (and some rail), vast seaports and airports – have characterized the region’s modernization over the last 60 years. Physical infrastructure is worth more than its weight in concrete and steel; it lends the space for other kinds of infrastructural development: educational, healthcare, economic and cultural. Highways, telegraph technology and a postal system all have their roots in a twentieth-century idea of a unified Gulf. And if the 1970s were characterized by legions laying roads and pipes, the 80s, 90s and 00s were about harnessing those systems in order to build societies.

As with many other good ideas, the rail project is not a result of the crisis, but current economic conditions have certainly given the project resuscitation. In addition to the proposed GCC rail network, other countries are developing their own national rail plans. Saudi Arabia is fueling its economy by expanding upon the region’s sole rail line between Riyadh and Dammam. Abu Dhabi is also pursuing rail to connect its oil industries to its cities and port. The bridge connecting Bahrain to Qatar (auspiciously called the ‘Friendship Causeway’) will not only serve automobiles but will also include a rail corridor. In addition to rail connection, the GCC-wide electrical grid went online in 2009, aiding the region in sharing energy resources and paving the way to overcoming the paradoxical electrical blackouts some areas suffer in this oil-rich region. The energy link also suggests further unity as oil runs out and some governments move toward developing alternative forms of energy with export potential.

Not to be undervalued, infrastructure also aids in the imaginative process of understanding a common cause. Cities that seem far apart might suddenly be drawn together, physically and psychologically. Right now going from Abu Dhabi to Doha requires one to go through the same routine as from Abu Dhabi to London. Simplifying a travel routine would draw the two cities together, more than ever before.

The GCC does not spark the popular imagination. It elicits a trail of political setbacks, especially this past year – disputes over the location of a central bank; the decreasing likelihood of a monetary union; deflated claims for an ‘Arab agenda’; images of droves of UAE trucks trapped at the Saudi border. It might be infrastructure’s role, once again, to demonstrate how the physical can generate ideas and ignite a regional enthusiasm.

It’s a cruel joke to ask a newcomer: ‘What do you think of Abu Dhabi?’ To be asked the question is paralyzing, especially if compared to being asked the same question in Paris or New York. There, ‘Great.’ would suffice. How do you answer – acknowledging the socioeconomic conditions, yet not dwelling on them entirely? How do you talk about the ‘speed’ without oversimplifying or missing the point? If it’s cruel to ask the newcomer, it is laborious to ask the resident or citizen about his or her city. Globalized media have made these cities grow under international scrutiny. The oversight aids in some regards, others not, and in every regard creates complex issues of self-awareness. Each writer here, putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, is thinking how that word just written relates to a whole network of global opinions. It can be dizzying, discouraging and stimulating all at the same time.

Words and visions are not reserved for the power base. In the Gulf, the written and spoken word is a serious endeavor. This is a region where poetry recitations are televised, where blogs provide evidence of complex and non-complacent societies, and where debates happen in living rooms and cafes. Western critics might miss the voting booths, but the level and magnitude of discussions are by no means lacking. Trade data reveal that each of these cities is more connected to places beyond the Gulf than to each other. Al Manakh 2 argues that there is a united Gulf, united in resilience but distinguished greatly in details and far from unison. A united GCC is not just around the corner, but the ideas, however latent, are there to support its becoming. While cities in the West remain stagnated in the face of the global crisis – looking for ways to bring things back to the way they were, these cities move forward.

There is a propelling energy that aggravates any tendency toward enervation. Grave errors have been made, and leaders will address them, but critics will also be asked to see these mistakes in perspective. One can disagree with leaders’ arguments, and chastise their lack of transparency, but the pace and the perseverance of these cities require that the world take note. We hope that Al Manakh 2 helps you in the process.

Rank My City: The Singles Charts of the City-Building Business

(originally published with Rory Hyde at Huffington Post)

‘The list doesn’t destroy culture, it creates it.’ – Umberto Eco

City rankings drive urban planners, city mayors, presidents and rulers to do the things they do. Rankings are the singles charts of the city-building business, giving benchmarks for ambition. A slot on these lists can help reel in the tourist dollar or secure corporate investment. Consultants read them and sometimes even make the lists. The rankers aspire to be more than taste makers. They can formulate economic policies, foreign policies and the physical shapes of cities. (One example: Saudi Arabia’s economic policy is based on making it into the World Bank’s “Doing Business” Top 10.)

Summertime reflection has made way for a new batch of rankings announced in the past month, including Monocle’s “Quality of Life Survey,” Foreign Policy’s “Global Cities Index,” and Newsweek’s list of “Best Countries in the World.”

Of course, to be definitive or objective when discussing intangible aspects such as ‘quality of life’ is impossible. Despite that caveat, consultants put the statistics together for these magazines with a courageous badge of legitimacy. A.T. Kearney and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs rank for Foreign Policy; McKinsey & Co., McGill University, and Brookings-Tsinghua rank for Newsweek; as an exception, Monocle says it relies on its correspondents and “jetlagged” staff.

At Al Manakh we’re focusing on the urban culture of the Gulf, so we take a keen interest in how the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar or Saudi Arabia might fare in these stakes. They generally don’t at all. The charts seem to make it clear that these cities have a long way to go, with Dubai further along than the others. It came in at a respectable #27 in the Foreign Policy list, and generally rates a mention in many others. The UAE ranked #43 in Newsweek. Indeed these are young cities and they are still figuring out what local city life is all about; but doesn’t that count for something? The unpredictable factor?

Needless to say, no Gulf (or for that matter Middle Eastern) city appears in the Monocle list, which makes clear its preference for all things cozy, modern and European (#1: Munich). Monocle states it aims “to challenge the way people look at cities,” but there are no surprises in its list. And no surprises in the other two magazine’s lists. Newsweek’s country list is led by Finland, with the other Scandinavian countries helping to fill up the top 10. And Foreign Policy’s ‘global’ approach turns up the usual suspects: New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong in the top 5. [continues after the gallery]

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Collection of recent rankings.

However the Gulf may take heart in observations by Parag Khanna in his essay accompanying the Foreign Policy list. Khanna refers to the “truly new” models of the Gulf, including the ambition of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City, the multiculturalism of Doha, and the role of Dubai’s free zone in a world defined by networks and trade.

While the cleaned up cities of Northern Europe, North America and Australia cities rank high, Khanna argues that the definition of a successful model is being challenged and redefined by new players. “For these emerging global hubs, modernization does not equal Westernization….” Khanna’s words are heartening at best, but vague in what this will come down to meaning for non-Western cities. There’s too much evidence that the likes of Abu Dhabi, Doha, and even Dubai are eyeing up the lists we already know about.

Indeed, it is often the cities not making the ranks that can be the most lively and exciting, even if their cafes still use white plastic chairs and the streets aren’t pedestrianized. There is a hint in the pages of Monocle that this realization is dawning on them. They find it “disappointing” that no African city made it on the list. For now at Monocle, ‘liveability’ feels like a bore unless it’s just a good night’s sleep for the jet set.

As long as consultants circle the globe selling advice on how to spruce up urban centers with café tables and bike lanes in order to rise in the rankings, cities may be going the way of the chain hotel pawned as a true gem. The only way a city could counter this would be to play its strengths, or at least its idiosyncrasies, no matter how incongruous and incompatible they may be with the Platonic ideals of Vienna or Copenhagen. To quote an unlikely source in these matters, we happen to agree in this case with Monocle’s editor Tyler Brûlé, who is prepared to look beyond the figures, to celebrate the cities “that are incredibly liveable – if you accept them on their own terms.” Maybe next year.

Thoughts on Jeddah

(originally published in Architecture Today for the “My Kind of Town” column and in the magazine Destination Jeddah)

Al Bilad District, Jeddah. Photo: Todd Reisz

I could never claim that Jeddah is my kind of town. Saudi Arabia’s city of the Red Sea, like no other city I’ve visited before, continuously makes it clear – perhaps deliberately – that it’s not about me nor for that matter anything that might be connected to me. Not only do I get the message that the city barely suffers my presence, but it also parades before me roads, systems, countries, worlds that operate outside my assumptions. Jeddah is a nodal point of a world greater than mine. For centuries Jeddah has been the sanctioned harbour of Makkah (Mecca) and the region’s other holy cities – approached by some of Jeddah’s roads physically closed to me. Jeddah maintains an ineradicable position as a port-of-call for millions of people who visit Makkah every year – from the Sahel region of Africa, Bangladeshi estuaries, Pacific isles, the Tajikistani mountains and hundreds of other places that exist only as commanding places in my imagination. I’ve come closest to these people in the streets and hallways of Jeddah – some of them descend from people who came on pilgrimage hundreds of years ago and never left; others are in my ramshackle hotel’s lobby, restoring their energy before embarking on the rough road to Makkah.

Jeddah’s connection to Islam’s core not only secures it a pivotal role in the religious map of Islam; it also embodies a logical extension to Makkah’s other historical function (starting well before Mohammed’s birth) – a trade hub. A friend tells me of his mother’s annual lone trip to Jeddah. She would board a plane almost empty-handed in Damascus and land in Jeddah, perform the Umrah over a few days and then use all of her baggage allowance plus more to haul fabrics, lace, buttons and yarns back to Damascus to fill her stock room. Mohammad was a tradesman, and so are female shop owners in Syria. I started to understand Jeddah working on the publication Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued. The book was a follow-up to the 2007 Al Manakh which considered the conditions of Gulf cities. For the second one, we had decided to cover Saudi Arabia. Jeddah, of course, is not an Arabian Gulf city, it is the ‘bride of the Red Sea’, and its people (if they are not from somewhere else) are proudly Hejazi. But you can’t begin to characterise Saudi cities without considering Jeddah. At the same time, once you place Jeddah into comparisons, all generalisations fall apart.

Although they may not be entirely reliable, Gulf cities present clear narratives, or visions. Even for the most sceptical of observers, renderings of ambitions for future financial centres and residential neighbourhoods in Abu Dhabi or Doha manage to command at least a moment’s suspension of disbelief. In Jeddah, such romantic bouts of profit promises simply fade from existence. Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi – they all announce themselves with the persuasive crispness of a corporate annual report. Gulf cities proclaim goals and benchmarks and deliver charts, figures, models, renderings, and CNN commercials to make it clear where they aim to go. Gulf cities show themselves on course, like true students of modernism. They make themselves out to be moving linearly. Jeddah, however, defies the linear.

When one listens to Jeddans talk about their city, it can be difficult to discern if they are telling you something they find funny or utterly tragic. It’s neither and both, or maybe an entirely different category that doesn’t exist in my language. Ziad Aazam, an architect in Jeddah, described it for me in words that also landed in his piece for Al Manakh: ‘Jeddah defies logic and inflicts pain yet communicates to the hearts of its inhabitants and visitors meanings of love and belonging.’ Jeddah is emotions that swarm around you, making you elated and incoherent, then overwhelmed with exhaustion.

One of the city’s most optimistic moments in decades was the 2009 publication of the Jeddah Strategic Plan, the most recent attempt to bring order to a city that responds more to whim than to will. In language that was somehow sweet and stinging, most people I talked to about Jeddah’s new ‘roadmap’ held some hope that the plan would provide a stable rock to hold onto. Then came the November floods. Hundreds of people were killed, brutally exposing parts of a city that were living on the sham of an infrastructural system. Submerged highways were vast vestibules of rainwater. Homes collapsed as if made of plaster, and roads surrendered to avalanches of red clay earth. For a moment there was optimism – that this would be the turning point; that Jeddah’s leaders would have no option but to give some order to the chaos. Fierce optimism found its way into a moment of despair. As the rainwater dissipated and government officials made at least ostensible attempts at finding those to blame, the Jeddans I know started to settle back into that indefinable talk that settles somewhere between laughter and exasperation, but always with a warm hand for the man who doesn’t belong.

Pictures of Jeddah

This past June, I visited Jeddah and wanted to see the southeast part of the city that had been devastated by floods last fall. The area is about a half hour from the city center and can feel like a small town of its own. Pictures below show evidence of the much filmed automobiles that floated by in youtube clips, some still lining the streets, others piled high in junk yards, never to be reclaimed. And a surprising amount of new construction going on. Hills claimed. In all, a strange mixture of stillness and incessant activity.

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As a Matter of Fact, the Legend of Dubai

(Excerpt from article about Dubai’s modernization, published in Log 13/14, Fall 2008)

Al Maktoum Hospital, Dubai, ca. 1968.

In 1968, while many Western cities coped with social turmoil, one of the world’s largest and most expensive social experiments was well underway, and hardly anyone suspected as much. The site was Dubai, already described as being built where there had legendarily been “nothing.” Most commonly referred to by its port, Dubai was less known as a stable settlement than as a tenuous nodal point of nomadic bedouins and fleeting boatmen, of waters and lands that provided scant reason for staying. As the leaders of Dubai sought an existence beyond transience, the idea of permanence first needed to be comprehended and willfully adopted before any urban ambition could be considered. The project began with strategic insertions of modern infrastructure and then started to develop its own rules for sustained modernization. Accounts of Dubai’s incremental modernization often take the form of lists, the components rolling off cargo ships like the parts of a train set: tarmac roads, a deep-water harbor, a hospital, an airport, a bridge. Instant new housing units, evidenced by the appearance of concrete mixers on the region’s coast, went up along barely hardened roads. Building a city never seemed simpler, with all the parts easily identifiable, but together they added up to something no one was ready to claim as a proper “city.”

The main protagonist of this urban experiment was Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai.(1) Modernity, once again, would be driven by autocracy, but not by a kind that ever rested on the whim of sovereignty. Sheikh Rashid was at the helm of a modernization process that elsewhere had required more than a century of work. Unknowing of what the process might entail, he relied on a handful of advisors, mostly British, none of whom could claim experience in city making. It would be fair to say that they didn’t even see their work as such. Dubai was proving to be a land of opportunity at a time when an emergent global economy was offering people in rich but stagnate economies the chance to look abroad for work and profit. Histories of Dubai describe an indefatigable leader who would do anything to enable the emirate to withstand time. British government documents depict a needy leader who called on his British advisors every day. Both accounts seem plausible, given the need to create a city’s functioning infrastructure in less time than an existing city has to prepare for the Summer Olympics today. The story rarely escapes being told as legend; perhaps the sentimental genre is the only one that can relate the unimaginably narrow timeframe in which Dubai arose. Where legend fails Dubai it is because it cannot explain the most basic reason for Dubai’s drive toward a constantly accelerating future – its endless wish to achieve permanence. Dubai had never been perceived from the outside as anything more than provisional – expectations were that it would eventually either succumb to larger, regional forces or simply fade away. Modernity may have come calling belatedly, but it provided the means to change Dubai’s course forever.

We are too small to get involved. – Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum (Ruler of Dubai 1958-1990).(2)

In 1967, with the impending British departure from Dubai and the entire Gulf region, the Middle East was undergoing a geopolitical power shift.(3) In the decade immediately following World War II the West finished redrawing the Middle East, transforming it into nation-states sanctioned by the young United Nations. Now, with little outside knowledge of developments elsewhere in the world, Dubai’s fledgling statehood required decisions and definitions. Its ruler could elect to fold Dubai into something larger, an act that would end its independence and, for that matter, probably render a quick turn toward marginalization, or find a novel way forward. The sandy emirate had nothing to offer that could not be recreated at any other point along the Gulf coast. Its harbor was silting and could not keep up with modern shipping requirements. Its foreign population – already its economic lifeline – was not necessarily anchored to Dubai; people could leave as quickly as they had arrived. Sheikh Rashid’s social and economic policies made Dubai open to people from almost everywhere, as long as they wanted to participate profitably in the project. This made Dubai uniquely porous in comparison to the rest of the region, but it was an opportunistic rejection of politics that, he would learn, other states could easily replicate thereby threatening to lure away his mobile population. To make matters more propitious, however, Sheikh Rashid was readying to play a card he did not actually have in hand. All speculative accounts confirmed that Dubai would soon strike it rich with oil. It hadn’t happened yet, but the small emirate’s leader was already planning for what the discovery of oil would enable. Oil would provide determinacy, a way forward; it would connect its people to its land and Dubai to the rest of the world.

To prepare for oil’s arrival Dubai had to put down roots. Rashid began formulating his great project, taking on massive private loans from a British bank and Arab neighbors. The following years would require a number of physical and cultural changes to convince both citizens and outsiders of its viability. For its part, the British, simultaneously preparing a political exit strategy and eyeing new commercial opportunities, expressed their enthusiasm for maintaining trade relations by participating in Dubai’s modernization. Dubai would no longer be one of the last vestiges of a dying colonial system; it was to become a key British commercial interest, released from a political relationship.

Though he is celebrated for improving the lot of his people, Sheikh Rashid did not need to rely on any moral obligation for setting up a modern Dubai. A pragmatist credo had always been the ruling family’s modus operandi: mere sovereignty was not going to keep the people of Dubai fed, but an aggressive marketing scheme might. The project could only succeed by convincing foreign workers and their families to stay. Already by the 1950s Dubai was dependent upon a foreign majority, and relied not only on the British government but also on merchants and laborers from India, Iran, Baluchistan, and Japan for financial and urban growth. Base financial interests were the most easily calculable factor to keep these foreigners there. If Dubai remained profitable for these residents, more people would surely follow. To increase that likelihood, Sheikh Rashid had to bolster Dubai’s precarious territorial condition by building a mantle of solidity. He realized that importing the comforts and customs of the modern First World was the most practical and forward-looking means to achieve this goal. Modernity, in this case, meant immutability – its myths of stability and endless progress. Dubai’s first phase of modernization brought the most basic amenities. In the first eight years of his rule, Sheikh Rashid oversaw the laying of Dubai’s first water pipes; ordered the laying of the first telephone lines; and established the electricity grid that was connecting 50 new households every week. Each move pushed Dubai’s roots more deeply into its shifting sands. Never before had off-the-shelf components of the modern city been used with such precision to convince both nomadic and international populations to settle down.

We need YOU! – Safety-first sign at Dubai metro station construction site, 2008.

The riskiest and most expensive component of the project was also the most essential: the reinforcement of Dubai’s natural harbor, endearingly called Dubai Creek. Sea trade in the Gulf had prospered and ebbed by means of a dispersed and erratic network of bays and inlets, sometimes referred to as “pirate coves,” a term that would continue to describe Dubai’s lax trade policies for coming decades. This temporal network would provide bustling links between land and water one day and then quite often vanish the next, mostly because the inlets themselves disappeared due to the shifting ocean sands. The unstable shores mirrored nomadic life on land. Manifesting its geophysical condition, Dubai’s natural inlet was starting to erode in the latter 1950s, and accelerated silting was making the waters unnavigable for even small boats. As Dubai’s future required deeper harbors to receive the first large ships that would connect it to the more expansive international trade networks it was courting, nature’s course had to be countered. In 1958, Sheikh Rashid approved an engineering plan that would cost many times the emirate’s modest GDP, and the British encouraged the project, both to sustain its trading interests in the area and to promote its civil engineers. However, as hungry as Britain was to maintain its commercial dominance in the region, Her Majesty’s Government found the project too risky to underwrite. Dubai financed the project with a loan from oil-rich Kuwait, and British engineering companies reaped the profits. The project would be completed in 1961 but constant upkeep of the harbor, plus additional shore work, would keep British engineers busy for the coming decades.

By this time as well, Al Maktoum Hospital was being transformed from the region’s first but limited hospital into a modern facility. It had opened in 1952 as the first hospital in a 1000-mile radius, and with its reopening in 1968, Al Maktoum hospital had beds and extensive healthcare to offer its growing population. State-of-the-art healthcare and modern medical practices such as vaccination were signs that the future had arrived in Dubai. A healthy Sheikh Rashid had to pay the hospital a number of visits to demonstrate to disbelievers the institution’s legitimacy. As the idea of giving birth in the presence of a doctor became more accepted, the new maternity ward linked both native and guest citizens’ fortunes to Dubai. It was now possible to be officially “born in Dubai.” Advanced healthcare and enhanced longevity became synonymous with life in Dubai – for its citizens, but also for its campaign to market itself abroad. In the souk, the first sign of First-World consumer goods was not the usual electronic gadgets or household accoutrements but the conspicuous contrast between the natural beige of the traders’ clothing and the crisp, antiseptic white of bandages – the aesthetic of modern medicine.

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1 Upon the death of his father and the approval of the British government, Sheikh Rashid inherited his authority as Ruler of Dubai in 1958. He ruled Dubai until his death in 1990.

2 Graeme Wilson, Rashid’s Legacy (Dubai: Media Prima, 2006).

3 In 1967, the British government set an exit date for its 75-year presence in the Gulf region. From 1892, through a series of treaties, the British navy had governed over the region’s foreign affairs and managed its seafaring laws as a means to maintain peace among the various interests on the Gulf and neighboring seas, and, more importantly, to ensure safe passage for the Empire’s own commercial and military vessels in the region. The British, the most powerful presence in the region, spent the years from 1968 to 1972 unwinding its “special” relationship toward creating a regional balance to make up for the absence of imperial power.

The Pride of Pitch: Pakistan Plays Cricket in Dubai

Originally published at Last Wednesday, the Pakistan national team played its first matches since gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team’s bus in Lahore last March, leaving nine people dead. This time Dubai was the host. The tragedy threatened a cultural keystone for Pakistan. Australia had already avoided matches in Pakistan for the last ten years, but days after the attacks a diplomatic sports talk happened in Dubai to determine where the two teams would play future matches. Dubai’s new cricket stadium in the aptly named Dubai Sports City was already an identifiable landmark.

It seemed fortuitous that Dubai’s stadium would provide a neutral zone in time to ensure Pakistan’s continued presence in the sport. The UAE has in the last years positioned itself as a land for cricket, recognizing the country’s diplomatic ability to host different cricket-playing countries and the lucrative potential of the market. Like Dubai, cricket spans across vast borders of cultures and economies.  In the UAE, expats are the majority and in that majority, Pakistanis make up a great number, about 500,000; they could fill up 20 stadiums of this size. And on Wednesday, they showed they would flock at the chance to do so.

Yet the timing was just shy of perfect. The first match might have been a remarkable statement of sports and diplomacy, but it did not feature a completed stadium. Parking was on uneven patches of broken asphalt and unpacked sand. A small batch of mini-buses was commissioned to carry people from the sands to the stadium, but the crowd immediately realized the futility of waiting and started on foot. Security tried at first to coerce them back, but the crowd was just too big. It was a kilometer-long parade of shiny green and white flags, peppered with some Australians in their outback hats, to a stadium still adrift in sand and construction debris.

The most glaring evidence of not being ready unfortunately was the inability to get more than a fraction of the fans into the stadium before the first match had begun. Two hours into the match, there were thousands of people waiting to get through four airport-style security gates. The same number of security gates served the more expensive seating section, where one person entered for every 200 in the cheaper section.

You pay 50 dirhams, a dear sum for many, for the chance to see your national team, and then you reach a queue with no end in sight. Once the match started with more fans outside than inside, I couldn’t help but wonder if the stranded fans outside would become restive, or if there would be a quick logistical maneuver to open the wealthier gates to more people. Neither happened. The atmosphere remained positive. No one wanted to spoil the event.

I had come hoping to experience two contrasting cultures brought together by a passion for the sport. However, even in the 200-dirham seats, sealed off by a steel fence and a hefty body guard, it was hard to find more than a handful of Australians amid the Pakistanis and a few other nationalities. This match was about Pakistan — its concerns about home, the threat to its beloved pastime, its experience with a kind of freedom abroad, and most obviously its pride in its cricket team.

The stands weren’t outfitted yet with refreshment services. Only after the first thousand or so fans had entered the stadium was there any sign of refreshments to come. Dubai’s famous Pakistani Ravi Restaurant was putting up banners in front of its folding tables, stacking paper plates and cups, setting up pots and ladles to serve the 50-dirham section helpings of chicken biryani (a more sterile biryani served in pre-packaged containers would eventually be available via one of two microwaves in the 200-dirham section).

Signs made references to Pakistan’s contemporary condition. One man hoisted an inflated version of the Emirati eagle, next to his friend whose cardboard poster bore Sheikh Zayed’s portrait and the text “I MIS YOU”: perhaps nostalgia for less complicated relations between the UAE and Pakistan that go back before either state existed, or perhaps recognition of Sheikh Zayed’s conviction that sports should rise beyond political rifts. The revered former sheikh of Abu Dhabi had also built the UAE’s arguably most beautiful act of architecture and its original home to cricket, the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

One group of fans held a hand-colored sign “Listen! We want cricket back in Pakistan.” You had to wonder why. It seemed the Pakistanis working in the UAE could see the silver lining in recent events — the continued presence of Pakistan cricket in the UAE could fortify their existence here. Another sign read, “Enjoy the Pitch / We built it …!!!” The sign represented the terrific forces at play in the stadium, forces greater than the star power of the Pakistani athletes. The sign also represented a rare, expressive moment when individuals who have built Dubai’s great structures could then make it known to a crowd — including their revered cricket team, no less — that they had helped to make the day possible.

I left after more than two hours of play. Lines outside the stadium were only growing larger. There were even people approaching by foot from the speed-fierce Emirates Road. Families were emptying vans of strollers and bags of food and drinks, which would only have to be given up at security, if they ever got that far. I wish I could have seen more, to see the stands closer to full-capacity. The Pakistanis won the series, and one could ask whether the cheers were more about defeating the Australian team or about simply having hosted their own team in Dubai. The logistical mess of getting everyone out of the stadium likely became a celebration in itself. I would have like to witness it all, but it wouldn’t have been my party.

Two Idols, a Song and Some Money Transfers

Coverage of ‘Dubai Idol’. (originally published with Rory Hyde at the Huffington Post)

‘Dubai Idol,’ as the event is popularly known, gets a blurb in the local UAE papers around this time of year. The articles raise readers’ eyebrows, cause grins and evoke a warmth, perhaps out of self-righteous pity, toward Dubai’s most visible invisibles — the South Asian men who build, clean and guard Dubai’s buildings. The event’s official name is Camp Ka Champ (‘Champ of the Camp’), ‘camp’ here referring to the labor camps in dusty sections of sprawling Dubai. The champs (a duo) are chosen through several weeks of auditions and public performances. The jury is chaired by Shobana Chandramohan, a well-known former radio disc jockey and locally celebrated singer who often sings for large-scale events and weddings in Dubai’s wealthier Indian communities.

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photos: Katrin Greiling

For a few sweltering weeks of a Dubai summer, Ms. Chandramohan and her jury pare down the number of men who have a chance at breaking from the crowd with which they are always associated, if for just a few evenings. While the would-be champs are judged on their voices and stage presence, almost all of them can express stage-size quantities of emotion. If the news blurbs are emotive for the readers, the performances can be overwhelming for the audience.

The story of the Gulf laborers (a term that describes a class of expatriate population who are unskilled, cheap and historically the most easily exploited in the Gulf region) is that they leave their destitute surroundings in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan or a hard-up community in any number of economically unstable countries to work in the booming Gulf. It’s a tale that includes more nightmares than dreams-come-true, but in the larger picture involves millions of people living a bit better off, at least financially.

Camp Ka Champ’s main sponsor — and the one which gives the competition its electric-yellow hue — is Western Union, the US-based company which provides worldwide services for international money transfers. No company knows more about how much these men are worth — not only to Dubai, but also to corporate business and thousands of families abroad. In case the link between singing construction workers and money transfer was at all obscure, a 2007 report describes Western Union’s motives for sponsoring the event: ‘Target labour camp residents in a fun & meaningful way to encourage them to transfer money through Western Union.’

It is indeed fun. For the audience, the men don the yellow hats and raise the yellow inflatable toys and sway to the songs. For the contestants, the event allows for rare release of energy, pent-up from restless days of wearisome work. For many of the competitors, Camp Ka Champ represents a chance to exist as an individual who can separate himself for one moment from his peers and command a stage. I spoke with the finalists who could speak English before they took the stage. They exhibited an unexpected calmness. Few had practiced beforehand (no time!). Most claimed they were doing this for their friends and family. And also just to have a good time. That creepy, desperate hankering for fame that settles over TV-scale competitions wasn’t present in any of them. Maybe because they knew the results weren’t going to place them somewhere else, but it seemed to me it was also about a kind of self-confidence, a trait that never is used to describe these men in the news.

It is also amazing how well most of these men can sing. I attended some of the first-round auditions, when contestants were invited to sing a song of their choosing, usually a Bollywood number and almost always with an improvised keyboard back-up by a musician who seemed to know all the songs. No one was turned away. Ms. Chandramohan had a marathoner’s endurance and gave each contestant her steely form of support. Like the American ‘Gong Show,’ the better the man could sing, the longer he was allowed to continue. Ms. Chandramohan often asked each contestant a question, usually about his favorite Bollywood film or actor. From there she would ask for another song. Everyone received a cheer.

The semi-finals are perhaps the most captivating of the Camp Ka Champ events, as they take place in Dubai’s labor camp neighborhoods of Al Quoz, Sonapur and Jebel Ali. For one night only, the dusty buildings are flooded with bright lights and yellow banners. Outdoor gangways of the surrounding buildings are populated with residents cooking dinner in the communal kitchens and catching glimpses of their friends and colleagues on the courtyard’s temporary stage.

The finals this past year took place at one of Dubai’s yesteryear locales, Al Nasr LeisureLand, far away from the labor camps and home to a wave pool and the Gulf’s first ice rink. These men would otherwise never gain access to such a place. The finals are structured less like ‘Idol’ and more like ‘Antakshari’, the Indian quiz show where contestants have to answer questions about movies and music. The duo who hits the buzzer first gets to sing some lines as an answer to the question. Giant screens on either side of the stage run continuous Western Union commercials and pop questions for the audience, who can also win prizes by supplying the right answer with a text message (example: Do you need a bank account to send money with Western Union? a) No. b) Yes.)

Whereas the nights in Al Quoz had a terrific immediacy about them, the move to LeisureLand resulted in some awkward moments. Water and sodas in the 40 degree heat cost three times as much as in stores; invited guests (each finalist can invite twenty friends) arrived late because of bungled mini-bus arrangements; a local TV news correspondent easily got a camera moment with all the finalists — hailing from Goa, Swat, Punjab, Tamil, Kerala, Bangladesh and elsewhere — and asked them to sing for her cameraman “Jai Ho”, the theme song from Slumdog Millionaire. Needless to say, no one knew the words, and the performance dwindled into a humming for Dubai viewers.

But the uncomfortable moments seemed to be lost on the excited crowd. More minor event sponsors — a hair dye company, a skin-bleaching brand, a mobile phone provider — tried to garner attention from a rare captured audience ready to grab free samples and coupons. Friends shared purchased drinks and food. While the VIPs sat up front separated from the rest of the audience by nothing less than red-and-white road barriers, the grounds behind the barriers became a terrific sweaty dance crowd. Chairs were hastily piled to the side, and men started dancing as if this were the best concert ever. The thermometer dropped just below 40 degrees at about 10 pm. Ms. Chandramohan and another local singer put on a show as well, but their performances were stiff, as if they were confused by singing to Western Union executives and Dubai’s laborers. But the contestants were not inhibited by the cultural mismatch. Every musical answer shook the crowds into dancing. And then there was the dance troupe, which might have been called ‘Michael Jackson’s Day,’ who could not have expected a more enthusiastic crowd for its poppy choreography and its gold-foil suits.

When it came time for the finalists to sing their songs, however, they inexplicably had to stay seated behind their quiz tables. That was the night’s biggest disappointment because given the chance, these men would have rocked the house. One finalist used the occasion to sing Pakistan’s national anthem. Camp Ka Champ finals happened to take place on Pakistani National Day.

Trivia scores were finally tallied and the text message votes were in. A duo was elected this year’s Camp Ka Champ at around 11pm. The prize for each of the duo: a 1500 dirhams ($408) Western Union gift voucher, more than what many of these men make in a month, and a flat-screen television. After the winners claimed their prizes from the standoffish Western Union representative, the recorded music played on for a while. Eventually the dancing stopped, the four hundred or so guests started to leave LeisureLand, returning to the parking lot and patiently waiting for the mini-buses yet to arrive to take them back to the camps. For most of them, the next day was a work day.

(This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued.)

The Architect as a City Critic

(originally published with Rory Hyde at the Huffington Post)

The architect, perhaps more than other professionals, is a mythical figure. He projects a marriage of expertise with panache. Seductive imagery with poignant words. A suit man who doesn’t carry a calculator because he can do the math in his head.

A lucky architect finds his buildings praised for materializing cultural and social energies, when they give form to invisible forces: ‘frozen music’. Again, it’s more often myth than reality. But it nevertheless represents perhaps the one aspiration that all architects sustain: that their building represents the zeitgeist, preferably one several years after the team has submitted final drawings.

It’s this aspiration that has motivated a certain corner of the architecture practice over the last few decades: the use and overuse of the word research. Architects love the word. It makes them seem smarter, and it usually is employed to show that an architect is not an idiot savant, that he’s actually thinking about the place he’s been assigned to. Sometimes it’s a ruse, a post-rational coverup. Other times, the inverse: an overcharged research project that could never be fed into a building’s design. Either way, it is imperative that the architect understands the context in order to design appropriately for it.

In order to demonstrate this sensitivity, architects have published more than their fair share of books about cities and the so-called ‘urban condition.’ Usually architects living in boring, or at least comfortable cities, stream outward toward less stable, and therefore more exciting, cities to document, theorize and, if possible, discover. Architects consider themselves among the last pioneers, eagerly defining new goals and unexplored destinations.

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In this way, the Al Manakh project is another attempt at exploring. Our focus is on the largely ‘unexplored’ Gulf Region — Dubai, of course, and also Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, Riyadh, and Kuwait. This region has been covered extensively in books, websites and blogs, with reports from architects on how informal these places are, how danger brings excitement and — gasp! — fascinating and unconsciously good design. These cities are projected as ‘wacky’ places; places to visit because they are the ‘weirdest.’ It is consistently claimed their model ‘doesn’t work,’ and yet little space is given to consider why they at least try to work. And they are working, whether or not the onlooker approves.

In this sense, Al Manakh’s focus on the Gulf Region is the opposite. This time it’s about letting the cards fall to the table and then to be collected, considered and compared. Al Manakh is about revealing the normal as the surprising factor. When you talk about Dubai, you’re either a champion or an assailant; you will never be taken as a fair critic. Despite that impossibility, Al Manakh puts forward its stories and observations about a region that is, no matter how you take it, developing rapidly and changing while much of the rest of the world floats in its own quagmire. This is our contemporary zeitgeist. We caught the bug in tracking one of the world’s most captivating places, and we look forward to sharing our perspective with you here over coming months, while also defusing some of the smoke-screen hype.

Beirut: Transnational Tides and the Future of the Arab City

In October 2009, Todd led a panel at the Yale Arab Alumni Association’s conference in Beirut to discover the ideas and companies that are determining the contemporary Arab city.

“With the rapid growth of cities in the Arab Middle East, urban planners from the private and the public sector face the challenge of ensuring long-term sustainability. The approach to the urban development of both new and old cities often addresses short-term needs, but the solutions – from integrated communities to preservation and renewal projects – put at risk the urban environment, social and cultural welfare, and economic diversity.”

For the podcast visit the Yale Arab Alumni Association website.

Cityscape Abu Dhabi: A Review

Last week’s Cityscape Abu Dhabi was the first significant real estate show in the UAE since crisis was considered a force to be reckoned with in the Gulf economic landscape.  Abu Dhabi’s Cityscape has never been competition for Cityscape Dubai in terms of glitz and entertainment.  Rather, one expects a soberer show from Abu Dhabi, which, now more than ever, aims to portray its projects as more realistic, its future more solid, and its upcoming regulations more reliable.

It would be easy to write that Cityscape Abu Dhabi was “empty,” a “ghost town,” or a “mania that has reached its end.”  Or one could refer to comments by the organizers and its beneficiaries that, like everything else these days in finance, retail, and for that matter architecture and planning, it is simply “back to basics,” back to what they call a “business-to-business” (B2B) affair, where serious work, or daresay collaboration, can finally get started.

One development marketing director expressed relief that the frenzy of “buy-to-flip” investors was not to be found this year; instead, again, “serious” investors who had done their research were the days’ preferred fare.  While there might have been fewer of them, developers said they found them of high quality.  Another spoke of the disappearance of projects that didn’t have an ounce of marketing analysis to stand on.  But as one regular Cityscape participant remarked, “The stuff is still remarkably big.  You have to wonder if everyone really got the memo that there’s a crisis.”

Abu Dhabi Cityscape, however, by anyone’s standards had to be a let-down in that the spectacle has subsided.  Last October, London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone was a keynote speaker and had called on all architects and others who have a “head for heights and a passion for architecture” to come enjoy the “Gulf’s blank canvasses.”  That bravura was gratifyingly absent this year.  Whether it has been replaced by serious work and serious actors remains to be proven.  Deals and handshakes aren’t registered by the organizers.

There certainly weren’t the young men and women handling stapled pages of price lists, reminding shoppers of only-if-you-buy-now discounts.  Fewer people were walking around with shopping bags filled with CDs, booklets, knickknacks: the pleasure of carrying bags as if on a shopping spree wasn’t encouraged.

Dubai was for the most part absent — its largest project present was Dubai World Central, which is by no means small (it includes the world’s future largest airport), but its towers and shapes are nothing eye-catching.  While Dubai’s global positioning as an air hub has far-reaching implications, you realize it offers nothing more than locations of logistics and a large empty space for the airport.  It was one of the first projects to propose low- and mid-income housing at a Cityscape fair two years back, where it received quite a bit of attention from prospective investors needing housing for hospitals’ and hotels’ staff far away from the proposed airport.  Foot traffic at the DWC was unlikely bolstered by the ill-timed announcement that the airport would decrease its runways from six to five and that it was reconsidering its completion schedule.

There was less entertainment.  No virtual golf or sci-fi characters, no cinema-style viewings of computer-rendered drive-throughs to take you through new cities.  But there were plenty of opportunities for human contact, if you wanted it.  Representatives were more willing to explain projects to me and tolerate my questions, when at earlier events they couldn’t be bothered.  After one lengthy explanation broken several times by my questions, I felt I should tell the saleswoman why I was interested.  I told her I was writing about Cityscape.  She said, “Yeah, I thought you might be a journalist.”  I asked her if it was because I didn’t look wealthy.  She managed not to answer the question.

We can wonder if Cityscape will lose its significance if the fun is over.  I asked a real estate consultant from the region whether the heady days of Dubai’s undying ambition were over for good.  The answer was, “No, not over, but Dubai will be a place with a fascinating past.”  His answer, it seemed, was no, and yes.

One of the first booths someone directed me to was the booth from Panama.  Latin America’s most bizarre representation in past Cityscapes was the appropriation of Che Guevara’s image by one Dubai real estate agency (“Join the real estate revolution.”).  This year’s Latin American presence was “Panama, the New Dubai.”  Panama’s champion at the fair, a woman from Andalusia — what she described as the California of Spain, had a sales pitch that refused to let go of Dubai’s well-rehearsed assertions as its basis.  Panama wasn’t the next Dubai at Dubai’s expense.  Instead, it was positioned to function as a point between North and South America, just as Dubai is to, say, Europe and Asia; Panama, according to her, was also just as welcome to business and investment as Dubai; Panama also has a small population (3.3 million) and needs to attract more people in order to achieve growth.

Montenegro had by far the most beautiful scheme with which to sell itself, mostly because it was attracting investors with images of unspoiled nature.

Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council had the most ground-breaking proposal — not necessarily in its headline-grabbing project for a Capital City, but the ideas represented in texts beside the elegant renderings and videos.  The structure underneath the proposals was a burgeoning and convincing design review policy being developed to evaluate ongoing and future projects.  UPC’s Capital City was by some measurements the largest new project to be debuted.  But more significantly, it presented a dramatic symbol of national unity for the UAE, a country not known for being more than the sum of its parts, the seven emirates.

It might be strange to say who had the most souped-up display: Abu Dhabi’s Department of Transportation.  An elevated viewing platform positioned at one of the fair’s main gates gave you a general’s-eye view of a four-meter-wide screen, revealing not the expected fly-through renderings but visualized analysis of Abu Dhabi’s traffic conditions and proposed road and transit solutions.  It would be comforting to think that Abu Dhabi’s governmental representatives were the most serious actors at Cityscape.

ICT and Sorouh presented what might have been Cityscape’s only new icon tower, but it didn’t earn a model.  Designed by US-based firm SOM, it had an uncanny resemblance to its buildings proposed for the Jumeirah Gardens project in Dubai, which was inauspiciously introduced at last year’s Cityscape Dubai and, since then, has been put on indefinite hold.

The Danish Architecture Center provided the only convincing pitch for an outside country’s architectural merit with expensive computer renderings and models — glimpses of architectural ideas that were on short supply this year.  I asked what the feedback had been.  Lots, but mostly from other architects excited to see ideas being proposed.  Few developers had approached them yet.

New towers with views of the Kaaba seemed to be the only project with a steady stream of potential residential property buyers.  It wasn’t a flock of people negotiating with frantic salespersons wielding laser pointers over models, but couples invited to extensive discussions at one of the booth’s four meeting tables.

I attended one conference panels, which unfortunately suffered from cancellations by voices that would have been important to hear: from Emaar and developers in Saudi Arabia.  Instead, the panel comprised four British men — one representing Oman’s biggest tourism project, one representing an Australia-Abu Dhabi joint venture, one who described himself as “unfortunately here to take sterling pounds out of the Gulf economy to direct them elsewhere,” and the moderator who was a journalist.  Themes touched upon included a need to perceive distinct markets in the Gulf region and the oversupply of housing in the region.  The high number of references to a real estate oversupply made one wonder when the beautiful moment of balance had occurred between now and the insatiable demand for property just a year ago.

Dubai’s next Cityscape is in October.  That will be a better measure of how the region is responding to the new global terms, and, more specifically, how the real estate actors — developers, investors, consultants and government bodies — regard Cityscape.  It has always been a place to come feel a pulse, more telling than press releases and promotional materials, but less calculable than financial numbers.  At Cityscape Dubai,  Dubai’s master developers will have to show up and provide a more layered message, and other international projects will have to decide whether Cityscape Dubai is still the place to be seen.  It could be also a chance when changing economic conditions don’t have to mean just trimming down to “back to basics.”  What could be more fun than someone really taking on the situation by finding new forms, functions and formats that are neither lavishly unreal nor just soberly believable?  It’s a long-shot.