Jadaliyya Q&A

William Duff, Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum, and architect John R. Harris looking up at progress of World Trade Centre tower. Courtesy of John R. Harris Library.

Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai, featured in the “New Texts Out Now” Q&A series. You can read it here at the Jadaliyya website.

17 November 2020

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Todd Reisz (TR): This is not the book I intended to write. Originally, I had planned to survey the work of British architect John Harris during key decades of Dubai’s modernization. At the time, photographs from his archives revealed to me the power architecture wields to formulate how a city works and what it provides. Eventually, though, I realized that the source texts I needed about Dubai’s history did not exist yet. It is pretty remarkable how much has been written about the city without much historical documentation to back it up. So I turned to primary sources to help piece together the social and economic forces that brought Harris to Dubai and facilitated his success; to do that required a broader examination of the forces that created the city. Documents at the British National Archives, however limited they are in scope, introduced me to the British Foreign Office’s loose, though explicit, modernization program for the city, which paved the way for British and later more global consultants. English- and Arabic-language newspapers celebrating the feats of these experts made for other, more slippery sources, but they nevertheless provided a sense of the ambitions behind major projects. Reading about the city, putting it together through these papers became a thrilling kind of construction. In the process it seemed that the Harris photographs also started to change; they started to tell me stories different than the ones I thought they were telling.

The result is a history that, by no means comprehensive, focuses on Harris’s work among a shifting constellation of traveling consultants. It was important to show that Harris worked among many others, whether from Dubai or abroad. Rather than writing a book about architecture, I wrote a history through architecture.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

TR: This book took twelve years to write, so it feels both previous and current. Its meaning has shifted, and so has mine. When I started writing, I was an architect at the Rotterdam-based firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). One day in 2005, I was designing an art museum in Riga; the next day I was working on projects for Dubai. My first time in the city was as a foreign consultant. Ongoing and potential contracts were intriguing to the firm’s business department, but, outside of oil wealth, I had little understanding of what was driving the boom. Within a few months, I was onto answers, but I approached questions not as an historian, but as an architect. I witnessed that what we do as architects can transform a region, both physically on landscapes and expressively in identity and geopolitics. For some architects, this realization induces delirium; for John Harris, it fueled a drive for efficient clarity; for me, it rendered a leaden sense of self-reflection. In light of all those responses, I maintained the architect’s perspective throughout the book. Moving forward from this project, having been shaped by it, I do not know if I would still call myself an architect. If I do not, then there has been a momentous departure, at least for myself.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

TR: I would love to see this book on sale in Dubai’s airport gift shops. That does not mean it is just for the foreign consultants flying in and out of the city; it is also for academicians, journalists, and policy makers. I wrote the book that I did not have when I first wanted to know more about Dubai. It is so tempting to look at Dubai and think you get it. The city is designed to be legible, but legibility does not necessarily provide accuracy. There is much more rigor needed in approaching Dubai, because there is a lot to learn from it. In architectural and urban design, for example, the city is a tapestry of late twentieth-century and contemporary approaches to city making. Dubai’s legibility makes this easy to observe, but physical investigation needs to be backed up with other kinds of evidence, some of which this book provides.

More pervasively, there are broadcasted inaccuracies spread about Dubai. Robert Vitalis once claimed that history writing can provide a sort of reverse engineering—a form of analysis that takes apart widely held assumptions without the intention of putting them back together. Dubai seems to exist in an echo chamber that allows observers to hear and experience what they want. There are myths—for example, that its buildings effortlessly rose from the sands. Such a sloppy statement is used by both the city’s promoters and detractors. It can be sung in an Emirates on-flight video, and it makes for a flippant remark in an op-ed piece. Insidious truisms also slip into academic writing. I have worked especially to expose this particular out-of-the-sands myth. Still, more accurate accounts from more varying perspectives of Dubai’s past are needed.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

TR: This project leaves me in an existential fix. It defined my work life for the past decade. I wrote it in between design contracts, especially ones that took me to places that helped me better understand Dubai. In the latter years, I taught at design schools in the United States, which gave me access to conferences and the library resources that are cruelly denied to outsiders. There are other books I would like to write, but that would require me to reboot the hustle.

For now, I am writing an article that works as a prequel to the book, and I am organizing an exhibition of archival photographs at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. I am completing another book, to be out next year, about Sharjah’s architectural landscape. Sharjah neighbors Dubai, so I thought Showpiece City would have prepared me well enough, but it is turning out to be a very different story. That book is co-edited with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. I am anxious to know what comes next.