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  Whether it has been replaced by serious work and serious actors remains to be proven.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.

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