As part of the 2014 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.