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  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.