Dubai is a double-edged sword. On one hand there is an encounter with a tarnished terrain; lucid lagoons and barrenness, propagated into a hardscape, an impenetrable reality of unprecedented scales. The other, a more global and serious reality, deals with the question of the impermanence of architecture. Like Coney Island existing as a remedy for the Reality Shortage suffered by Manhattanites, Dubai's petrotecture1 creates an Irresistible Synthetic though not through Coney's means of Fantastic Technology but through means of reckless construction as a mode of accumulating surplus. The hegemony of capital has deformed the sand plains appropriate to its own dynamic to find optimised urban forms and architecture to deliver accumulation as easily as possible over space and time. Part of its process is—as with Manhattanism's Culture of Congestion—to destruct so as to preserve (and accumulate). Cosmeticise so as to hurry-up. As Dubai is at the mercy of real-estate developers, speculators and finance capital, the not-yet-settled urban form is poly-centric and its architecture is impersonal as it changes its function over time, not by a feat of architectural choreography, but by definition of the State, relocation of resources, flip-sides to economic prosperity and the pressures of capitalistic endeavours and their perpetual longing for surplus therein.
The impersonality of architecture, is—as has been widely documented—because Dubai has garnered the wealth to exploit construction at a never-before-seen rate—leapfrogging values like craftsmanship (the lack of which is a ubiquitous problem), tactility, durability and poignantly, adoption. The fate of the buildings is to become suspect to Warhol's fame, then rapidly forced into the shadows of a newer, "World's Biggest" successor on some other terrain vague with too, a function bound to a state of negligence.
The two constants that remain of this nefarious urbanism and its mise en scene buildings are the acute memory of their respective architects and the rhythmic motion of the immigrant automaton (worker). The growth of Western cities was equally met with internal sorting of functions into comparative districts then residential housing followed suit by sorting into neighbourhoods which became geographic indicators of class. However, this has not necessarily meant that spatial separation has reflected class segregation: class divisions in Europe have effectively existed in compact urban scenarios. In Dubai, an absolute and grotesque spatial division of labour exists whereby immigrant labourers are discretely "mini-bussed" to compounds several miles from Dubai's metropolitan area to what could only be described as reminiscent of the living conditions of Britain's working poor during the industrial revolution. Instead of the consciousness that celebrates division of labour in the factories, it is the city that is the site of the stark annexation of the worker and that same consciousness that strives to control and regulate the process of production socially, controls the rights of property and freedoms of the workers.
But before the 1950s and the discovery of oil, Dubai was predominantly empty, home to Bedouins. Its early constructions were textbook examples of a honest regionalism; materials hard-packed from the earth, intelligent, breathable buildings in clusters allowing sheltered lane ways and so on. It was a worker's town, a World away from Simmel's overwhelming Metropolis. Then the lethal combination of oil discovered and concrete adopted as the preferred construction material in the 70s, terminated Dubai's regional identity and so began the violent transformation of the city into an inefficient cosmopolis whose history is falsified through ersatz antiquity.
The architectural atrophying of Dubai is connected to its purely global agency put up against local fiscal pressures, which inherently causes a shredding of regional qualities and greatly reduces its chances of local public "adoption". The public "adoption" of a building can be achieved through a number of factors: the function it houses, events it has contained over time and the age of the building (through its defiance against ecological circumstances and/or too, wrong treatment in a militaristic sense). But Dubai—to its detriment—is not an old city2 and does not possess architecture of artefactual significance compared to that of nearby Mashriq. It is a tabula rasa taken "hold of" by a metropolitan manifestation of the marketisation of everything and its subjection of all transactions to the odorous desire of commercial profitability.3 At battle is the spatio-temporal ferocity of Capital's reterritorialistion-at-any-cost motives versus the waning, all-but-destroyed ambition for "real" culture-creation and the formation of a coherent 'city'. It is within this contradiction that there is vested hope held by Dubai's speculators, that money really can buy everything, but it is what we see that has told us Dubai can't buy tradition, rusticity or antiquity nor the widespread adoption of their own city.
The lack of public adoption of Dubai's buildings may not be because of their pastiche, copy-paste language nor as a result of the State's triumphalism of barbaric spending ad infinitum, but because the city is a transient one. Residents and visitors alike turn a blind-eye to the realities of the city—as if it were a giant hotel room—a playground for indulging in anonymity, free of citizen responsibilities. The headquarters of Virtual Capitalism: play, but don't engage. A Foucauldian transcription of city-life normalised as gameplay. Frustrated avatars caught in bad traffic. Meet but don't adopt. Use and abuse.
Dubai's ability to untie the restraints of its users allows them to step into the virtual and forget reality, memory and origin points. The virtual space is awash with corporate suites, VIP Clubs, prostitutes, chauffeurs: everything for feeding the sim-persona's Capital/Sex-Drive (where war is declared on the libido, objective: total, urban ejaculation).What emerges from the shadow of the virtual is the "real space", where death-drive is incarnate: workers, children, dust, peak oil, debt... . Both spaces contribute to the whole, but the real space is the only vital space (the virtual space relies entirely on it). If the real space were to exist alone, "Pearl of the Persian Gulf" would be redundant and its achitecture would still caught with one foot in both of these contrary spaces: part virtual and part simulacra of Wittgenstein's motto: 'What we cannot directly talk about, is shown in the form of our activity'.
Public spaces in Tokyo are the commercial spaces of shopping centres, thoroughfares and annexes. The reason as to why these are so successful, is not because the Japanese are essentially concerned with material possessions, nor because of issues of density (both of which may be true), but rather because these spaces don't demand any responsibilities of the user. These are spaces that not only celebrate/reward passivity and recklessness but actively engender it; by giving cues, kneading movement and tailoring a heavily-mediated, anthropocentric phenomenology, anaesthetising the user into occupation and conformation. Above all, they are spaces that manufacture democratic exclusivism—the privatisation of users whom consider themselves chosen, but are not selected—which are spaces for only those who can and are allowed to occupy them.
As Dubai's spaces are no different, it comes of no surprise that the city is marketed on impression not reality, on seven stars, not hidden labour camps and on "life unlimited"4 not because the Emirates is one of the biggest energy consumers and carbon dioxide emitters per capita on the planet. These spaces are integral to the city as the city's mercantile aims are propelled skyward on the back of these transience-inducing industries: the perfect indication as to why there is continually present this quest for a "world's biggest" tag-line to each of their buildings or that they dream-up man-made archipelagos like "The World" and "The Universe".5
'Dubai has everything money can buy, but it does not have a unifying culture or identity. The only common thread is ambition.'6
Its Premiership is de facto hereditary to the Al-Maktoum family and UAE Nationals live in a world in which they should feel—similar to the exceptionalism that de Tocqueville recounted of early America—superior to the rest of the citizens of Dubai because of their perceived healthy immigration, seemingly democratic political climate and the illusion of free-speech. What really exists is a pre-elected government7 with communication-repressed citizens in a congested city, with the alluring veil of next-to-no taxes.
Most of contemporary urban planning is dedicated to re-solving problems. Aside from obvious problems such as the lack of prominence on transit-oriented development, Dubai has thus far managed to prolong this virtual space at the expense of exploiting their army of workers from South Asia. It is not enough that the architecture serves but no example for other cities worldwide, but their appalling construction methods are substandard to say the least, for in Dubai it is not the case—as Negri (2002) embellishes—that 'the metropolis is a common world, everyone's product.' Dubai is for Sheikh Mohammed, his Nationals, passing, anonymous tourists and Capitalism's virtual gamers. If willing to accept, the challenge for Sheikh Mohammed, is not to manifest his own Identikit, but to define a politics that can unite the various heterogeneities that exist in Dubai, without exploiting differences.
One way is through the modernisation of Dubai's labour laws, that outweighs the plea for an "adoptable" architecture, as trade unions are currently illegal in the Emirates.8 So a concept that could assume the legality of the such a program and could provide the base for collective bargaining for the workers, of which is a basic right of the labour force.
Negri's (2002) reminder for us think '...that the metropolis is an exceptional and excessive resource, even when [it's] is made up of favelas, barracks and chaos' provides a critical lens with which to see the gleaming towers of Dubai. One should be reminded of those remote desert compounds where the workers are bussed to at the end of a days work, the 12-hour shifts, the four to five US dollars a day and the exhaustive and precarious conditions in which they work. Even beyond this reminder, we should see opportunity for radical change where workers live in the city and their lives, activities and stories on show for the public and the decision-makers about their well-being and future, in and amongst the "virtual" underpinnings as a stark reminder of the contrast between it, and the "real": their spaces could be phantasmagorias. If a spaces are to reflect the city and the inhabitant is to change the space, the inhabitant has the possibility to change the city. After all, the city is a collection of "buildings", or rather amplified spaces that are the backdrop to our stories—and our stories are the infrastructure of humanity.
Today's story of Dubai is such that it is akin to Tolstoy's antihero "Pahom" in How much land does a Man Need? Pahom (Dubai) begins the humble farmer content with his lot as it yields well. But through word-of-mouth he learns of the business grok to acquire more land, until he hears of a 'whole prairie [of] virgin soil.' He leaves his wife to find the Chief who claims ownership of the site. Upon their meeting, the Chief offers Pahom the quantity of land that he can circumscribe, but to claim it he has return before sundown. Pahom sets off.
Then Pahom grew eyes bigger than his stomach. Here are the final moments of Pahom's fate:
He took a long breath and ran up the hillock. It was still light there. He reached the top and saw the cap. Before it sat the Chief laughing and holding his sides. Again Pahom remembered his dream, and he uttered a cry: his legs gave way beneath him, he fell forward and reached the cap with his hands.
"Ah, that's a fine fellow!" exclaimed the Chief. "He has gained much land!"
Pahom's servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!
The Chief represents humanity. Pahom's energy is ecology. Pahom's loss of life is metropolitan implosion. We all know the moral.
Negri, A., 2002. "La moltitudine e la metropoli (The Multitude and the Metropolis)" in Posse (September). Manifestolibri, Rome. [Trns. Arianna Bove]
Tolstoy, L., 1993. "How Much Land does a Man Need?" in The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Short Stories. New York: Dover Publications. pp.1-14.
1 Architecture made manifest by oil wealth.
2 The Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787 is believed to be the oldest building in Dubai.
3 (When the agenda is not for profit alone, only then can success stories of modern public adoration of its architecture appear. The youthful disobedience of the Pompidou Centre is a case in point.)
4 Introduction Movie, http://www.trumpdubai.com/, 10th Sept, 2008
5 Perhaps it's just that Sheikh Mohammed is constructing his way out of a mid-life crisis.
7 The Ruler of Dubai is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, he is also the Prime Minister of the UAE.
8 Workers can only be represented by their respective consulates.