Viewpoint (February 01, 2009)

My precursor to visiting Dubai began a few days before when, in early January, I was investigating Le Corbusier’s handiwork in Chandigarh, India. Walking across a smoggy, desolate field, I came across two men in their mid-20s who were photographing Corb’s Secretariat. “You must be an architect,” they stated. It so happens that they were economic mercenaries, recent architecture graduates who were beginning their careers at the Dubai office of Aedas, a firm specializing in high-rise towers and institutional work in the United Arab Emirates. These two wide-eyed architourists were nervous about whether or not their jobs would still exist upon their return.

When arriving in Dubai, it immediately became apparent that the bloom was off this desert rose. At the Mall of the Emirates–home to the famous indoor ski hill–Russian clerks working at Chanel were eagerly cutting deals with even the most casual of shoppers. In front of Starbucks, young Western women aimlessly pushed their Bugaboo strollers through the mall while their husbands raced along Sheikh Zayed Road–the main Dubai arterial that is more superhighway than high street–in their Porsche SUVs en route to market another real-estate development proposal or to introduce another retail concept to the region.

Nobody questions Dubai’s commitment to build–whether it is man-made islands, theme parks, or artificial marinas, but there are certainly signs that the economy is beginning to crack. Numerous reports and physical evidence indicate that some properties in Dubai have dropped 40 percent in value since September. Architecture and engineering firms are laying people off.

But there is a contrast to the wealth of Dubai, where thousands of migrant workers also live and work. There is even a secondary road network used by the construction crews and underclass circulating just outside the city. Last fall, 7,500 migrant workers were employed on the construction site of Burj Dubai alone (the world’s tallest structure pictured above). The immigrant labour comes largely from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and the Philippines. Roughly three years ago, over 2,500 workers rioted, causing almost US $1 million in damages after their buses were delayed at the end of their shifts. Their frustration is understandable. The difference between the lives of these people and the well-heeled foreign expats could not be greater. It is a common sight to see high-performance automobiles overtaking dilapidated buses ferrying workers to their prefab homes in the desert. Has there yet to be any architect willing to critique the architecture produced in the Emirates?

In 1995, Rem Koolhaas wrote an essay on “the generic city,” a sprawling metropolitan hub of banal buildings serviced by a busy airport and inhabited by global nomads–the group of economic mercenaries known as “the expat.” Singapore is a classic example of “the generic city”–a place where I once worked and where I purchased my contraband copy of Koolhaas’s S, M, L, XL, wrapped in kraft paper. Koolhaas argued that the sameness of a generic city like Singapore or Dubai was a more accurate reflection of contemporary urban reality than traditional global cities like London or New York. He has a point. In Dubai, you order a cup of coffee from an Armenian, a Nigerian makes it, an Uzbekistani serves it, and an Iraqi cleans the table. Coming from “multicultural” Canada, I felt provincial by comparison.

But Koolhaas may yet have an influence in Dubai. His Waterfront City, a 1.5-billion-square-foot master plan, is an attempt to replicate the density of Manhattan on an artificial island just off Dubai. Is Koolhaas offering a critique of Dubai’s excess, or is he trying to find some form of optimism in the inevitable growth that has been occurring in the region? His proposal may bring to the forefront the duality of a “generic city” that needs both the rich and poor to flourish. Alternatively, as Dubai’s economy begins to falter, it may simply become the Venice of the 21st century–a city that was once a centre of the global economy.

Ian Chodikoff