Dubai: from judgment to analysis
(1) Site for the proposed Dubai Renaissance, 2004
Rem Koolhaas
Lecture on OMA's engagement in the Gulf and the effect of the economic crisis on the region.
Sharjah Biennial, , 17 March 2011
I will present to you a series of frameworks that made me better understand how this part of the world works, and which describe my efforts to become part of it. I came here first in 2004. We were asked to do a major building on the site which is marked by the flag (1). Then, two years ago I became increasingly nervous about the mission of architecture and the uses of architecture: the incredible pressure of the market economy was forcing architecture itself into increasingly extravagant conditions (2). Dubai seemed to be the epicenter of that extravagance (3). So, I came with deeply ambivalent feelings. It seemed as if the idea of the city and the metropolis itself had turned into a caricature almost, where it's not a coherent entity but maybe a patchwork of theme parks (4).

And exactly because of all of this ambivalence, it seemed to me perhaps an ideal opportunity to try to work through the crisis of architecture. The crisis of architecture is clear in the following images. This is a major architect and a major building (5). This is a building proposed two years later for Dubai (6). This is major architect and a major building (7). This is a building Dubai proposed two years later (8). So, it seems that Dubai is tracking official architecture, but it is also generating a complete caricature of architecture that for me reflected very badly on architecture itself.

In the top line, I put together in a single skyline the work of the most senior architects of the world in the last ten years. And here, the work of the most senior architects working in the Middle East (9). This is just Middle Eastern architecture, by architects of immense skill and producing an immense amount of work. What both makes me nervous and excited is the similarity between these two skylines. We could be liberated from previous obligations and able to start from scratch.

My first attempt in Dubai was to use its expectations of absurdity and to run against them, to propose a very simple, singular, pure building (10). The building is 200 meters wide and 300 meters tall. It was seemingly absurd to think that the age of icon or the age of increasingly bizarre architecture would be over. My theory or expectation was that the building would work best in the context of Dubai, because you could count on the context of contrast to achieve pristine beauty and at the same time eccentricity – perhaps a new declaration at a strange moment in architecture (11).

So this is four years ago. As we became increasingly involved in Dubai, it became important for us to understand the place better and to understand how this constellation of buildings and architecture had come about. What were the forces that had changed it? Who were the participants that had generated it? We made our interest in Dubai manifest at the Venice Biennale almost four years ago. In the context of the art Biennale, the project stood out, and it was remarked that Dubai was presented as an issue to take seriously.

Two years ago, we published a book, Al Manakh, on Dubai and the whole Gulf region, because, as in this lecture, Dubai is a metaphor for the Gulf region as a whole. We simply decided to engage the Arab world, to talk to the Arab world and to comprehend some of the more superficial or some of the more common Western analyses of Dubai.

There is no person more eloquent about the evil of Dubai than Mike Davis (12). His book Evil Paradises, which is partially about Dubai, was published more or less simultaneously with Al Manakh. In his essay, he describes Dubai as a nightmare, where "Walt Disney meets Albert Speer on the shores of Araby." It is this kind of superficial reading of the possibility of Dubai that we have tried more and more to contradict. The phenomenon here is immediately ambiguous and multi-faceted, both in the good sense and the bad sense.

We started looking at the Gulf as a whole: youth, literacy, ecological footprints, among other topics. In other words, rather than judging, we started to look for a more analytical view. Perhaps the most interesting things we discovered – for us at least, and at that point it showed our ignorance – is that the number of expats are, for instance, 30 percent in Abu Dhabi and 80 percent in Dubai. How was it that, at the moment when the West is struggling with multiculturalism, in the supposedly intolerant Islamic world, this kind of sharing societies works there?

We don't hold any illusions about who those immigrants are, why they are here. It is probably undeniably true that there is an element of exploitation, but we decided to look at these worlds as prototypes of the new Islamic world in which the coexistence of many cultures is an ongoing experiment and probably an ultimately positive experiment.

We also looked at the history of Dubai. This is Dubai in 1973, barely more than village on a creek (13). What we discovered is actually a very touching, intelligent effort to modernize from the moment, in 1973, when we had the oil crisis in the West. This coincided with the first Arab awareness of the tool of oil for its own purposes, triggering a huge wave of development in the Arab world.

Rather than looking at this great development or modernization again as a caricature openly referred to as Dubai, we discovered there were very serious efforts to plan, very serious involvement of the different kinds of leaderships, real engagement in the small details of infrastructure, the engagement of the then best, most prominent architects in the world – Peter Smithson here presenting in Kuwait (14); John Harris, a legendary architect who put many intelligent things for Dubai on the map (15).

What we discovered were actually the remnants of the presence of more serious blueprints that had been put in place by significant coalitions of Arab rulers – Arabs and Western interests. Perhaps the most significant triumph was the World Trade Center in Dubai in 1979. It's still there, fortunately, and in itself a very impressive skyscraper. The irony is that most of the modernization from this early period and most of the extravagance is concentrated on Sheikh Zayed Road. That is perhaps a sign of alarm, but also a sign of a certain amount of hope.

I was saying that my involvement in the Gulf is in a certain way a series of failures or a series of efforts that were perhaps slightly premature. One of the next things we worked on after the Renaissance was to look at the idea of preservation in Dubai. It seems a crazy word. How do you talk about preservation in a city which is barely more than 30 years old? But, for instance, original workers' housing, etc. clearly was at some point likely to be removed. It was, to some extent, in disrepair, and nothing special in terms of architecture, but still in the sense of it being an interesting and working Arab environment, it was very significant, and totally in contradiction with the glamorous work in Dubai.

We looked at how we could somehow maintain this kind of Dubai. We explored how to work simply on the empty patches (16), with relatively discreet types of developments (17). But there again, we miscalculated. We were slightly too early. There are always expats and consultants willing to do what is necessary to make the changes that are seemingly inevitable. And that was the case here. So, in October 2008, we discovered at the fair of real estate that actually our site had been radically razed to make space for this project – a weird three-part skyscraper, incredibly tall (18). The attempt to maintain that part of Dubai was wrong.

Now we are of course facing the crisis. And at this point, it is almost a platitude to say that the crisis will be the end of that kind of developer architecture and that the overdose of icons is coming to an end (19). Therefore, there has to be new thinking. But unfortunately, or fortunately, some new thinking will also happen in Dubai. The danger here is that for this part of Dubai, at least, crisis came too late. So what we have now is a paradox of a modern Dubai and the old Dubai. The crisis will probably make it impossible to develop this area as anticipated, but also comes too late to actually make Dubai's heritage really viable.

I went there yesterday to simply look, and took some pictures that show you the rate of tragedy, something that could have been saved, but is actually gone. But still I think it's a very significant moment, and I fervently hope that the crisis will introduce new thinking that will somehow create in Dubai an awareness of the impossibility of the status quo, and also an awareness of some of the better things that were here in the 1970s and 80s. The elements of the crisis are very visible everywhere. Projects are simply not happening, are postponed, delayed, camouflaged – in spite of announcements (20, 21). All the frenzy seems to have come to a halt, leaving entire sites more or less static, with fewer workers. A paradox of paradoxes is the demolition of this hotel, which has been halted half way (22). So you have a weird aesthetic of half destruction, half preservation, which as a metaphor is perhaps a beautiful articulation of the current moment.

What has fascinated me in Dubai is how dominant our reading is. By 'our' I mean the West. Dubai happened; we participated in its construction. We were complicit in its extravagance. But we were also the first to denounce its absurdity. What I fear, now that we have declared the 'end-game', is that we will also be the first to tell Dubai not to be itself anymore, to tell Dubai that it's over and to declare prematurely an end, not only to an experiment, but also to a real cultural change that has been taking place in and underneath all of this, and that still deserves to reach its own conclusions. I think that is where it's a little bit strange to quote Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, in this context, as if she's a political thinker (23). But it is nevertheless significant that New York now looks to Dubai as the definition of what cannot be done anymore. And I really encourage everyone here in the room, do not give too much belief to this kind of material, but instead to what Dubai will eventually have to offer us.

What's highly alarming is the incredible eagerness with which 'our' media are documenting the end of Dubai, almost as if we need the assurance of Dubai's demise to maintain or restore some our own confidence, in terms of the crisis we are facing (24). So there is a whole new generation of urban myths propagated by our media. Perhaps the most famous one is the expensive cars left behind with the keys still in the ignition at the airport by expats on their way out. So, if you needed a car, you could just go get one.

Perhaps another way in which the media don't tolerate the experimentation that is Dubai or that is the Middle East is that we say that Dubai will never reach the height in real estate prices that it achieved in 2008, where 'we' have the fair expectation to pick up again.

I want to end this presentation with a number of signs that I have found very noticeable in the recent months – signs, that perhaps are naïve, that are not necessarily very intellectual, but nevertheless signs with no fronts of complication, both inside the Arab world about Arab issues, and communicating between the Arab world and the outside. Highly naïve, of course, but still a very emphatic way of including the grandeur of compulsion on the agenda.

This is another very interesting way in which this environment is beginning to function, namely as a secure place for the displaced. Dubai is becoming increasingly an attraction for the children of mixed marriages, who are not at home anymore in the fatherlands of their parents. Only here can they find a real, authentic basis (25). There is of course a sign of the United Arab Emirates pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This is a sign of integration, perhaps, or at least coordination between the different emirates. And also for the first time, a very intelligent response to all the condescension with which Dubai has been treated, not only in the last five years, but also currently in the crisis. Here's a quote that deserves to be read:

"In the Middle East, Dubai stands as a beacon of development, a city that refused to be dragged down by hopelessness that plagues its neighbourhood."

There may also be openness to protest. The entire Gulf region could still be more politically overt.

One of the most significant things we can do is look at Dubai beyond the hype and exaggeration and perhaps then identify a certain kind of beauty that is present here. I challenge anyone to define all the sources of this work, but at the same time to see that there is definitely an aesthetic at work, which we may not be able to embrace, but which we nevertheless have to take seriously: weird mixtures of ecological and modern… The Dubai financial district is a highly artificial landscape full of artifacts, a landscape of metaphor, but what is most significant is the mixture of the stock market sources and landscape. On the one hand absurd, but on the other a local sense of the real (26).