Building the Emirates – Global or local intentionality?

Twenty years ago, we had a project to plan and design a new national standards lab for Abu Dhabi. This was after that first great wave of American architects’ participation in building in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia began to invest in new urban infrastructure and development.

Abu Dhabi was looking to a future with a great need for transforming ignored resources like the great salt ocean into powerful resources to generate a sustainable agriculture and support and grow their population. A new national standards lab would be a key institution to support this regional transformation.

More interesting, however, was the intention expressed to us by the leaders of the country to grow and sustain a national professional and scientific knowledge base. The suddenly emerging wealth of the country meant that its youth were enjoying the opportunity of getting educations in some of the best universities in the world.

However, with that education, the young people of the country then sought to contribute and benefit from the opportunities that the world provided, very few of which were available to them back home. The development of a scientific infrastructure was a commitment to develop the institutions that would attract their educated children back home and provide them with opportunities for growth and recognized contributions there.

Our project involved the planning of a building with state-of-the-art laboratories that would be largely empty and unstaffed, of sorts. That is, we had developed a co-laboratory concept that would allow those Emirate graduates to continue their lives and research in the great knowledge centers of the world but develop and perform scientific exploration remotely in the new labs back in their home countries. Over time, the strategy assumed, the education of the staff at home, the growth of embedded technologies and legacy science in the new labs, and the application of discovery to national and regional development would, over time, begin to draw their newly and highly educated younger generations back home.

That strategy – building supply well before demand – looked initially so inappropriate from our resource-rich perspective. I thought of this while reading this PSFK interview with the authors of Al Manakh 2 Gulf Continued, the new volume of studies on the urbanization of the Middle East. Architects and planners from around the world initially rushed to participate in what is now perceived as the overbuilding of Dubai. Then as the global economic debacle took hold, we began to look with fascination at the empty buildings of Dubai, much as we do the “ruin porn” of Detroit. Certainly, there was much hubris in the rapid development of the Emirates, but was there vision as well? I am interested in the “time to activate” concept in this portion of the interview.

If the question is addressing Dubai — the unlit windows one sees in new buildings in the Jumeriah Beach Residence, for instance — yes, it all seems rushed. The financial crisis has suddenly given developers an opportunity to claim the criticism of Dubai’s harshest critics: that cities don’t happen over time. So it follows, these places just need time to become activated. To damn Dubai now for building too much too quickly, would be too short-sighted. It’s a question we’ll have to answer in years to come.

In a recent Huffington Post article, we discussed what kind of outward policy Dubai should provide: how should Dubai sustain itself. Dubai’s advancement in the last decade leant heavily on images provided by architecture. There are dozens of projects one might label “crazy” or “whacky” but for every one of those drawings there are dozens of real built projects. Architecture worked for Dubai, but the question is: by what means will Dubai sell itself next?

There are voices within Dubai, primarily Emiratis, who are saying Dubai needs to amp up its image as a place of entrepreneurship. Make it a place where you can easily set up shop as a business owner. I find this fascinating because it has a ring of Dubai’s yesteryears, when traders and businesses set up shop along the Creek. That’s what created Dubai in the first place. Of course supporting entrepreneurship can’t be the only goal, but it suggests a general direction. More broadly, it suggests a focus on people.

(More on Al Manakh, here)

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