The roundtable workshop, Reconsidering Dubai: New perspectives for Cities in the Middle East? was held on 12 June 2009, as part of the Cities/Muslim Urbanities research initiative at AKU-ISMC.
The afternoon workshop involved presentations by seven leading architects and academics: Hashim Sarkis (Professor, Harvard), Brett Steele (Director, AA School of Architecture), Nasser Rabbat (Professor, MIT), Farrokh Derakshani (Director, Aga Khan Award for Architecture), Farshid Moussavi (Architect, FOA, Member of Steering Committee of Aga Khan Award for Architecture), Modjtaba Sadria (Professor, AKU-ISMC) and Han Tumertekin (Mimarlar, Member of the Steering Committee of Aga Khan Award for Architecture).
The workshop aimed to explore Dubai’s current state, which follows a period of seemingly endless development and prosperity, curtailed by the recent global economic crisis. This has also had implications for the Dubai’s position at the centre of discourses of architecture and urban planning.
Within this framework, speakers presented their perspectives on a re-imagined Dubai, and how this re-imagining could have an impact on thinking about other cities in the Middle East more widely.
In the opening address, workshop coordinator Professor Modjtaba Sadria outlined the background to the workshop and the Cities/Muslim Urbanities research initiative at AKU-ISMC. Sadria discussed the importance of exploring new ways of thinking about social and cultural transformations in cities in Muslim societies.
Sadria presented the background of the current situation in Dubai by introducing the role of international factors in the recent history of the city.
He noted that predictions that Dubai would escape the economic crisis were rapidly undermined, citing the fact that between late 2008 and early 2009 the level of discussion about ‘the crisis in Dubai’ in the public sphere grew exponentially.
Sadria reviewed the many ways in which Dubai has been imagined and criticised in recent research. Commentators have dubbed Dubai a global city, a form of colonial modernity, an emerging market, and a ‘window to a soulless world’. He argued that the role of imagination and symbolic expression was central to the creation of Dubai as a symbol of desire.
Brett Steele’s presentation, Dubai Provocation, drew a comparison between the development of contemporary Dubai and Bloomsbury in 18th century London. Both were driven by an economic model alien to the culture and society in which it operated.
He argued that commentary about Dubai has rarely been neutral, stating that the city provokes “an unbelievably strange range of deeply felt opinions and reactions about what cities and architecture are today”.
Steele said that the contemporary Dubai is, in a sense, an abstract place upon which we can project our understanding of the world, architecture, the city, politics, social life, and even our own identity.
Not only is Dubai characterised by a constant recycling of older patterns and a pursuit of ‘newness’, it has the magical ability “to make everyone into everything”. As the last great monument of the 20th century, Dubai continues to occupy a prominent, yet extremely ambiguous position within architectural discourse.
Professor Sarkis introduced the hypothesis that the crisis in Dubai could have benefits for the urban environment. The speed of development in Dubai, Sarkis argues, has had a negative impact on the quality of the built and lived environment. A slower pace of development could lead to more “thoughtful and meaningful” urban design, particularly in relation to energy consumption.
Sarkis noted that, “the region is bound to find better and more lasting qualities for its architecture than the sensation of novelty that has already been showing very serious signs of fatigue, even before the economic crisis”.
Sarkis proposed that the crisis has resulted in Dubai being faced with an image of itself as an ‘incomplete city’. While incompleteness an openness to change is part of the general urban ethos, he questioned the possibility of establishing a collective identity and distinct city character amidst this incompleteness.
Using examples of other cities in Asia, and across history, he argued that a founding myth is crucial for forming a collective image of the city. This myth incorporates different elements, including the relationship between the city and the terrain, public spaces and infrastructure, all of which he argues, have been visibly absent in cities in the Gulf region.
Farshid Moussavi presented a critique of Mike Davis’s reading of Dubai. She proposed a new model for thinking about the built environment in Dubai based on difference and Deleuze’s notion of the simulacrum.
The notion of simulacrum focuses on the elements of desire and fantasy, both of which are central to Dubai’s character. She argued that Dubai, in a sense, is “liberated from history”. It uses forms from history, but does so without enforcing a singular, pre-determined meaning.
She noted that while cities that grow at a slower pace have a certain multiplicity and richness, this is no longer the reality for many cities around the world. In this context of rapidly developing cities, Moussavi argues, multiplicity needs to be engineered through design.
Moussavi argued that the central question for Dubai and other cities in the Middle East should be: how can a set of planning or design rules be produced that ensure multiplicity and opportunity, rather than singular and homogeneous urban forms in the face of rapid growth?
Nasser Rabbat‘s presentation reviewed the historical and geo-political dimensions of the rapid growth of cities in the Arabian Gulf in the last two decades. His presentation plotted the rise, and, as he argues, the eventual fall of Dubai due to the global financial crisis.
Rabbat focused on Dubai’s architecture from an Arab and Muslim perspective, within the context of wider trends and examples within Middle Eastern architecture.
He argued that against this historical and geo-political background, what Mike Davis has called the ‘architecture of the utopian capitalist city’ has emerged, and fed an apparently never-ending cycle of investment of international capital in property and development. He noted that traditionalism, revivalism, and even postmodernism have been given up in favour of a new architecture based on the global pursuit of luxury, but with some recognisable local elements.
Rabbat’s presentation led to a discussion about the erosion of the ‘civic quality’ of Middle Eastern cities in the face of rampant commercialization, and architects’ response to this.
Farrokh Derakhshani, Director of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, discussed several key features of the way in which cities are thought about and understood, including the collective imagery of the city, ideas about the pace of its development, and the ideas of belonging to and ownership over the built environment of the city.
Derakhshani explained that in the context of Dubai, belonging and ownership are complicated by the extraordinary diversity of the population (the clear majority being newcomers to the city) and the fast pace of change occurring.
A central question concerning the built environment thus becomes: who is building what and for whom? The characterisation of Dubai as a ‘city company’, in which iconic buildings become part of an international brand, was discussed.
Derakhshani questioned the overall sustainability of Dubai, but noted that it may follow the example of other Middle Eastern countries, such as Qatar, that have successfully learnt how best to manage rapid development.
A number of questions were raised during the discussion session which expanded on and challenged the views presented during the presentations.
The notion of ‘erasing history’ was questioned in relation to the central role that history plays in creating national narratives and contemporary politics of place. The difference in the level of investment in public and private projects in Dubai was also raised.
Members of the audience also discussed questions related to the social implications of architecture. In particular, questions were raised about the way in which segments of society are included or excluded from the built and lived environment, particularly in relation to indigenous inhabitants and migrant workers.
Panellists also commented on the relevance of notions of ‘Empire’ and ‘Orientalism’ to understanding our own reactions to Dubai and other cities in the Gulf, as well as the importance of the separation of economic and political capital as one of the defining characteristics of Dubai.
The discussions stimulated by the workshop contributed to clarifying conceptual frameworks for ongoing research into cities and urbanities in Muslim societies.
By focusing particularly on ‘new cities’ in Muslim societies, the workshop raised specific issues and possibilities related to the built environment, the lived environment and their interactions.
Aga Khan Award for Architecture
Nasser Rabbat and the Aga Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture MIT
Hashim Sarkis and the Aga Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture Harvard
AA School of Architecture
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Coordinator, Planning & Academic Development
Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations