Bigger, Taller, Better? Architecture and Modernity in Contemporary Dubai

If one could imagine Gotham City in the Arabian Gulf, they would undoubtedly think of Dubai, the once quiet fishing and trading port in the United Arab Emirates. Until its financial debacle in 2009, it soaked in the global limelight as the fastest growing  metropolis in the world. It is certainly a city of dreams, the kind that spring from a certain vanity that drives passive cultures to exhibit suicidal maneuvers in an attempt to garner respect and attention while striving to become a dominant force in a region.

Dubai is well known for its many escapades into the fairyland of skyscrapers, plush hotels, beaches, and unimaginable resorts that bring Nordic artifacts into a desert climate to satisfy the whimsical cravings of a wealthy elite and pampered European expatriates. Rich Asians and underworld tycoons also favor the city as an investment hideout. For a vast majority of others, Dubai is the inevitable paradise promised by visa agents who consign them to virtual slavery in blue-collar sales and construction jobs in the Emirate. Construction is perhaps the most obvious activity in Dubai, following rapid and delirious investments in the import of icons, tectonic and otherwise from all corners of the globe. The process of bringing Dubai to the world stage has included impractical ventures such as artificial islands, underwater hotels, manmade icebergs, bridges, a huge international airport, and high rise towers that straddle the Dubai skyline. Beyond this strip along the beach, the vast hinterland remains a desert.

Banks, resorts and trade centers top the list among new buildings. Most of Dubai’s prominent buildings are commissioned by the ruling elite. Dubai’s rulers have envisioned it as a modern business and tourist attraction as well as a global financial giant to be reckoned with. Hence, they wield a lot of power with regard to the iconoclastic images that these centers portray. Coupled with the mobility of contemporary architectural firms and ideas, it is little wonder then, that architecture in Dubai tends to be imported, whimsical, lavishly arrogant, and contrary to regional context.

Modernity in the architecture of Dubai is evident but highly questionable.  As an artifact of use, architecture responds to culture and geography, and when culture enters transitional states, architecture does the same. Yet, if culture is superficial, that translates to its artifacts. Climate, on the other hand, is a natural factor. It becomes the progenitor of form. In Dubai, as in Las Vegas, form appears to be the antithesis of climatic response. It is driven more by fiscal ideology aided by expensive technology rather than regional expression that defines a sense of place.

The architecture of contemporary buildings in Dubai begs the question “Is Architecture an elitist profession or a socially relevant act?” It seems to me that no matter what an architect builds, it would be imperative to question the social relevance of their act.

Lately, the Skyscraper has gained prominence as a conspicuous building prototype in Dubai’s skyline. The skyscraper was made possible by two prominent inventions – the elevator and the intercom . While structural improvements definitely affected the rise of the vertical building, what really promulgated it’s prominence was the ability to communicate easily between floors. This suited both, corporate culture and pride.  With the advent of steel, and of better fire suppression, plumbing and mechanical systems, the skyscraper rose further. In Dubai, it rose to meet the ego of the elite.

Dubai’s most recent architectural escapade is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.  It remains but a phallic symbol in Dubai’s quest for financial reckoning.  The architects’ claim an inspirational relationship of the form to a desert flower, but I fail to see the connection. If architectural form must be interpreted, it must recall primordial images.  Implied images are not easily recognized.  Interestingly both, the Bank of Dubai and Burj al-Arab, the world’s only 7 star Hotel, use the local dhow or fishing sailboat as the basis for form. Yet, the latter succeeds at the formal expression due to its primordial approach and exclusive location, while the former gets confused with typologies of the Lever House in New York.  Likewise, other tall buildings appear to mimic American high-rises such as the Chicago Tribune, Citicorp Towers, and so on.  This is due to the ease of superficial replication that modern architectural idiom lends itself to, and the irresponsible manner in which architects use it.

When it comes to symbolizing power and grandeur, where do we stop?  Are we being relevant to purpose? And in practice, how are we going to evacuate people in case of a fire, with just stairs and elevators, even with intermediate fire-suppression systems.  Physical challenges on the vertical plane are extant. Vertical travel distances impose great limitations during panic, as seen during the 9/11 disaster in New York. Likewise the egress principles for skyscrapers needs to be reassessed at the grassroots level.  I envisage emergency helicopter ports and docks at interstitial floors that may provide more meaningful rescue routes, but one that may have to assume many risks before it could be implemented.

However, the real question remains why? Why must tall buildings pervade the cities of the desert, or for that matter anywhere? It makes absolutely no sense from a climatological or environmental perspective. Entrepreneurs of contemporary building efforts in Dubai need to shift their efforts from elitism to realism. They need to focus on improving sustainable cities with mass transit networks, denser, low rise, climate-sensitive development in a manner unique to the region. Imported models only colonize their societies financially. Whereas, a moderate use of glass seems appropriate in Dubai’s climate, any excess use demands hi-tech enhancements to curb energy consumption. Imported technology, if not creatively reigned in, leaves little room for regional nuances. The quest for modernity must transcend utopian ideals and must be dampened to comply with the norms of local culture. Albeit, culture is transitory and temporal; however, its artifacts must spring from a conscious blend of choices rather than a clownish mimicry of others that appears to betray an underlying “inferiority complex”.

So what must contemporary modernist architecture in Dubai offer? The answer is not simple, but I strongly favor the ideals that lay emphasis on a modernism that springs from timeless geographic, socio-cultural and religious roots rather than superficial images of dhows, geometries, and desert flowers.