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Dubai, City of Generic Artifice

The Uncanny Valley brought to life

 

“If a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”
(Alasdair Gray)

 

What do we mean when we speak of Dubai as an “artificial” city? After all, every city since the dawn of time has been a human construct, and yet, we do not use the same term when we refer to Jericho, Babylon or Rome. Perhaps what we mean with regard to Dubai is that this particular city — with its futurism derived from the automobile-centric utopias of 1950s America, its giant glass cacti emerging from the sand, hubristic indoor ski slopes and all-you-can-hug penguins — should not exist here, in the middle of the desert. It’s incongruous, and as such it appears unreal.

In spite of its otherworldly appearance, however, Dubai is the culmination of a dream first conceived by Henry Ford (whose Fordlandia was an attempt at an idyllic American suburb in the middle of the Amazonian forest) and by Walt Disney (who, inspired by his good friend Ford, initially designed Disneyland as a unique shopping destination) — a dream of a privately owned city, built from scratch. Less ambitious echoes of this can be observed in the Facebook campus, which took an old building that once belonged to Sun Microsystems and created a Facebook-owned town, complete with a candy store, a bicycle repair-shop and a barber; concepts that may have made Facebook the “happiest workplace in Silicon Valley” but which pale next to the architectonic wonders that have sprung from the Arabian desert: the world’s tallest building, largest mall, largest artificial island and so forth. And yet, in the same manner that we still talk of the “discovery” of America as though it did not exist until the continent was experienced by Europeans, we like to think of Dubai as a place without a history, as though it were somehow exempt from the same constructs of time and space that rule the rest of the world.

This narrative was constructed in the name of capitalism: it is easier, after all, to attract investors if they are made to believe that they are pioneers tapping a new land unburdened by the weight of history and culture. The nomadic and largely oral history of the Beduins, who populated this land, was replaced with a frontier myth, while the wealth of an ephemeral culture was replaced, very consciously, by something more akin to a corporate culture. This is best represented by the phrase “city corporation” (al-madina al-sharika) coined by the political scientist Abdul Khaleq Abulla and used most notably by Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who calls himself the “CEO of Dubai.” Dubai, therefore, is not to be thought of as a state at all, but as a privately owned company, one that did not just grow as a pragmatic response to contemporary needs, but rather in anticipation of future development, suitable for a corporation whose goal is to maximize growth and profits. If, according to Fredric Jameson, postmodernism in architecture happened in the US to forget the past, in the UAE it was used to kick-start the future.

It is easier to attract investors if they are made to believe that they are pioneers tapping a new land unburdened by the weight of history and culture.

But it was a future indebted to a past that did not belong to the UAE: capitalism, for all its focus on the global, on the abstract and on the freedom of movement, didn’t grow out of nomadism. It grew out of the factory (site-specific by necessity) and so when the time came to modernize Dubai, instead of imagining a wild futuristic metropolis that was not bound to the past, the city that emerged was, for all intents and purposes, generic. Indeed, “for all the aggressive postmodernism of Dubai’s architecture, the city remains structured along the lines of a European city set in the early capitalist age: a wealthy, cultured core surrounded by a festering mass of laborers,” as author Richard Prouty puts it.

The generic city is a term coined by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who wrote that cities like Singapore willingly parted with their history in order to provide the comfort and familiarity of a McDonald’s franchise (“Regret about history’s absence is a tiresome reflex”, Koolhaas writes, “It exposes an unspoken consensus that history’s presence is desirable. But who says that is the case?”). The airport is the ultimate generic construct with its identical and instantly recognizable luxury brands that stretch out over a space that is designed to be easily navigated and understood — the same fast-food chains, the same signs and structure typologies (Koolhas states that “the date/age of the Generic City can be reconstructed from a close reading of its airport’s geometry”).

Similarly, in spite of the aforementioned record-breaking buildings that clutter up the Emirati skyline, Dubai uses brands from all over the world to instill a sense of calm in its visitors — the feeling that this is just like home, only better. What expats usually describe as the best thing about Dubai is that they have access to the best parts of home without having to deal with the least pleasant parts. And so any experimentation (with energy sources, transportation methods etc.) that Dubai could have dabbled in was set aside to recreate the past — on steroids. In spite of what is deemed to be Dubai’s “aggressive postmodernism” and its showy newness, what the city ultimately peddles is nostalgia.

Criticisms of this experiment, incidentally, echo those made of New York a century ago, and of Paris (and its “gaudy”, “useless” Eiffel Tower), the century before that. Such is the fate of the city of the future, no matter how steeped it is in the ideas of the past — it is seen as vulgar. What Le Corbusier wrote about New York, that it was “not a finished or completed city” and that it was different upon each visit, may just as well have been written about Dubai. It is a city in permanent flux, as though it were the video game Sim City 2000 brought to life, with towers stretching upward and further into the sky, a cosmology of red and white warning lights illuminating the night, a warning to planes that here the sky is occupied.

 

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Advances in technology, architecture and composite materials have made ever taller buildings possible, restricted only by capital and the ultimate bottleneck in vertical construction: humans. In the essay Never had people lived in such aerial splendor, by the journalist Tom Vanderbilt, a Dubai-based engineer from BuroHappold says that people are the “only real barrier to how tall we will go,” as services like mobile phone reception become difficult to implement at extreme heights, not to mention elevators that need to service more and more floors while still using technology that has barely changed since the 19th century. When the elevators at the Princess Tower, then the tallest residential tower in the world (a record now broken by Dubai’s Marina 101), broke down in 2013 after a firehose leak, residents were forced to take the stairs to their apartments, which could stretch as high up as 97 floors, while elevator parts were flown in from Finland.

Meanwhile, fires blaze regularly: the composite panels layered with polyurethane that have been deemed necessary to insulate buildings at these heights having turned out to be quite flammable (two-thirds of the buildings in Dubai are estimated to be built with such composite panels). In an event of superb poetic justice, a skyscraper named The Torch went up in flames in 2015, as have, among others, the Address Downtown and the Tamweel Tower. The latter remains as a burnt-out skeletal structure next to two identical (though unburnt) towers: no attempts have been made to salvage, to renovate or even to demolish the building. It will remain, as its residents move on to new heights.

It may well be a remnant of the nomadic roots on which the city was built, but Dubai is almost unparalleled in its lack of efforts to preserve existing architecture. Instead, new and ever more modern constructions are installed, leaving the older ones behind for the poor. This can be observed in Dubai’s ubiquitous malls. When the city’s first mall, Al Ghurair City, opened in the late 1970s, malls weren’t leisure destinations yet, as can be gleaned from its purely utilitarian appearance. By the time Deira City Centre was built in 1995, however, the notion of the mall as family-friendly space to spend entire days was firmly established among Dubai’s denizens, quickly becoming the location where the wealthiest people in Dubai went to shop. Today this mall, with its embarrassing off-brand stores and low-tier food-court, is all but ignored by the upper middle class, a fate it shares with the ambitious Ibn Battuta mall, which opened in 2005 to much fanfare and now is all but forgotten.

Today, the brands that matter can be found in Dubai Mall, and there they will remain until the domed, fully-air conditioned Mall of the World opens in 2020. Consumerism has become a major aspect of the city’s identity (what the anthropologist Ahmed Kanna calls “pacification by cappuccino”), and one of late capitalism’s most potent ways to proffer a cultural shorthand is, of course, the brand. What has been imported to the Gulf from the West is not western culture, as is often claimed, but rather western brands. NYU and the Sorbonne, the Louvre and the Guggenheim are now global brands that can be purchased. This results in a consumer citizenship: we belong with those who can afford the same things as us. By simply making sure that certain stores are located in certain areas, Dubai has segregated the population by wealth, reserving the newest shiniest buildings for those with the most money.

Advances in technology, architecture and composite materials have made ever taller buildings possible, restricted only by capital and the ultimate bottleneck in vertical construction: humans.

Dubai architects have consistently used space to alienate the poor: you cannot even enter the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel without spending a minimum of 250 dirhams, almost 70 US Dollars. Similarly, you can’t get into the ominously named hotel resort without at least eating dinner. No public spaces exist; only commercial ones. In a well-documented 2005 case, a worker killed himself because his employer wouldn’t give him 50 dirhams from the worker’s own salary to see a doctor. Each prefabricated bungalow-style villa scattered across Jumeriah, an expensive coastal residential area, has a built-in maid’s room. Domestic workers often reside in the same physical space as their employers, but the space reserved for them is built to different specifications than the rest of the house — to meet purely utilitarian standards. Their space is often, but not always, windowless, and usually smaller than the walk-in closets of the master bedrooms. Ahmed Kanna writes that “Employers seem to assume that it is natural and suitable for domestics and other members of the Southeast-Asian working class to spend most of their time waiting for, minding and tending to others, in transitional spaces that are not in any sense their own.” The extent of their alienation becomes clear when you watch them waiting for their corporate busses to transport them back to their camps, standing in line, aliens in glitzy commercial spaces never intended for them, out of place in spaces that they built themselves.

In certain ways, this relationship with the working class is nothing but the next logical step in the city as corporation: compared to the lack of worker’s rights in Dubai, a supposedly cutthroat city like New York seems almost quaint with its acceptance of rudimentary human rights, its insistence on perpetuating vague notions of freedom and liberty and its provincial claim that it is the world’s greatest city. And yet, in spite of the mall-cities and brand-centric life, it is far too simplistic to say that Dubai is ruled by profit-margins alone.

After all, when it was time to decide on the design of One World Trade Center in New York to replace the Twin Towers, neither Shigeru Ban’s skeletal monument (way too wasteful to occupy such expensive real estate) nor Norman Foster’s crystalline megastructure were chosen, there were cost considerations to be made, market research that indicated people were too nervous to live that high up after the attacks. Compare this to the almost preposterous ambition of Dubai’s project, where the Burj al Arab requires over a hundred years to recuperate its costs, or the Dubai Metro which doesn’t go anywhere useful, instead running in a straight line, just so it can be referred to as the “the world’s longest fully automated metro network.” Practicality and revenues must give way to the iconic. If all of the new world’s cities are generic, Dubai at the very least is the most extravagantly so.

 

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In recent years, the city has even begun to transcend its status as a prime example of a Koolhaas-style generic city, instead veering into an actual simulacrum of other “real” cities, becoming as referential as Las Vegas. Doesn’t postmodernism already posit that everything is simply a copy of everything else? (It is extremely fitting, then, that there are two different hotels in Dubai named The One & Only). The project that exemplifies this upgraded philosophy is one that collapsed over a decade ago: Dubai’s Falconcity of Wonders, a development that would have included actual life-size replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal and so on. What is provided here is no longer simply the generic high-rise, but a copy of a hyper-specific icon, in the same way that you no longer need to travel to Paris for your favorite hot chocolate or macaroons now that you can simply get them at the Dubai Mall’s Angelina and Pierre Hermé (their wares being flown in at astronomical cost to you and to the environment every day). You no longer need to travel to see anything either: all monuments can be erected in your immediate proximity.

Which takes us full circle to where we began, with the notion of artificiality. In creating hyper-specific, exact replicas of the world that surrounds it, perhaps what makes us see Dubai as artificial is the uncanny valley: the notion propagated by video game theory that seeing something computer-generated become almost identical to a human being fills us with unease. It may well be that Dubai inspires the same eerie sentiment as a forged painting: it looks identical to the real thing but we will always keep looking just that little bit closer, hoping to catch the detail that gives away the game.