On Al Manakh 2

Rem Koolhaas and Todd Reisz

On Al Manakh 2, at Columbia University GSAPP
New York,

At Columbia University, Rem Koolhaas and Todd Reisz, editor of Al Manakh 2, discuss OMA's persistent engagement with the Gulf region in the forms of architectural projects, exhibitions, research and publishing. Against a critical atmosphere condemning the Gulf's growth as simultaneously fantastical and oppressive, and the schadenfreude of the western media after the financial crisis halted Dubai's explosive growth, Koolhaas and Reisz insist upon the region's dynamism and potential as a laboratory for urbanization and modernization.

Edited transcript

Todd Reisz:
Dubai has been a place of investment and a labor source, it has been financially pushed and supported by almost every country with a majority Islamic population. If Dubai were to fail, many outside of Dubai would suffer. Dubai represents a unique point where powers that rarely align sometimes do. The goals or results of this process are by no means utopian. They are banal and they are unidealistic. They show a global population not seen for over five hundred years. We must be students and respectful observers of this region.

Dubai works within a regional network, a group of cities on the peninsula, Kuwait, Manakh, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and the cities of Saudi Arabia. We cannot see it as a collaborative effort among the cities. There is an extreme amount of duplication. Al Manakh 2 is a project and not only a book. It is an effort to understand this emerging constellation of cities and their significance to the future.

During the financial crisis, projects in the region were abandoned, buildings became ruins before they were even finished, and neighborhoods that had been the most lively, the most functional, the most fully serviced by infrastructure, were demolished for new development. These sites are now completely vacant within the heart of the city. It was a tragic moment.

We began our work by recording the news and mapping out trends. We met people in Riyadh and Jedda and Dubai and Doha. It was a tiresome process but incredibly informative.In Saudi Arabia, we found moments of total normality which transformed our image of daily life in Riyadh. Instead of looking for ways to provide criticism about cities in Saudi Arabia, we looked for people who are actually there, who provide criticism not only toward the outside, but also within the city.

We studied the conditions and rights of migrant workers, which fall within such a complex, international system. We studied the relationship of the gulf with the home countries of these unskilled laborers, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka. We took one region of India, Kerala. Two-thirds of Dubai comes from India and two-thirds of that population comes from Kerala. Roughly one in six people you come across in the UAE is from this little part of India.  Dubai takes on a kind of mystique,  represents success and of luxury, an obsession with materialistic gain. Many houses have a relationship with the gulf, a Father working in Saudi, kids working in Doha, daughter married to a man working in Dubai. The biggest complaint of those people we met in India, was that the connection to Gulf is increasing materialism and an addiction to an easy path.

The notion of a united gulf finds its expression in infrastructure. Dubai’s metro had its own stories, trials, and mistakes, and warnings that it would never work. All these different kinds of people would never step in the same train, rich and poor could never sit together, man and woman could never sit together. It quickly became part of what Dubai is. The metro became a place adapted to Dubai but, Dubai has also adapted to it. It becomes the public space that Dubai never had. Infrastructure, while often concrete and steel, lays the ground for social and cultural changes.

Rem Koolhaas:
Our office remains obstinate in maintaining an engagement with the Gulf. While this is not strictly altruistic, there are elements of idealism involved in our constant preoccupation.

After 9/11 it seemed that America would separate itself from the rest of the world and that Russia, China, India, the Arab world, and Europe were condemned to each other, on the brink of engaging in new partnerships and intimacies. The difficulty is that we all enjoy very different political systems. What became clear, since 2001, is that while in ‘89 with the fall of the wall, the West simply assumed its continued dominance, this will not be the case. This harsh reality makes it even more compelling and urgent that engagement and communication persist between opposing political systems.

In the context of the European Union I have advocated for these engagements, advocated for communication in and with China, communication in and with Russia, and communication with the Arab world. As I’ve already mentioned, this advocacy within Europe is completely unsuccessful. The Atlantic world continues to separates itself through its relentless anti-Islamic rhetoric. Recently, a notorious Dutch politician spoke in Times Square, expressing frightening words of this nature. One of the chairmen of the German bank has resigned over a similar statement. The combined wisdom and rhetoric of these European leaders is too appalling for words. We are facing an incredible moment of extreme political mediocrity, to put it positively. Europe has assumed a nearly racist polemic. A country like Switzerland forbids minarets, and this speaks for itself. Even high-brow media is taking part of it and because we are talking about Islam, this is considered to be merely dumb and not offensive, as it would be were criticism aimed at other populations.

I don’t think that strangeness Dubai's strangeness is unique. It is, rather, a strangeness which more and more of our cities will show and accommodate. Many new cities seem not to be permanently inhabited and the nomadic status of so many citizens will perhaps cause a situation where no city will be inhabited with the kind of density we remember from earlier iterations of city.  This evacuation of the city and the simultaneous evacuation of the countryside will be one of the big themes of the next decades.

We are committed to working as much as possible in the Gulf and on projects able to capture its unique aspects. If a city like Dubai is so profoundly unserious and if it so marginally determined by planning in a classical sense of the word, what are then the devices and the mechanisms that could somehow define its future? We propose a real-time planning and urbanism. Planning could become a process of permanent improvisation.

Dubai enabled us to experiment with preservation, maybe not in the classical sense of the word, not necessarily preserving masterpieces or beauty, but preserving a dignified and beautiful form of very intricate life. At this the current moment in the Arab world, the drive for development is abating, and there are other issues, of how to keep what is there and how to think of preserving not only cities but also the physical conditions of the city. One of those poisonous side-products of preservation is that it radically changes the nature of what you had wanted to preserve. Our heart is always with the original, but as architects, the moment we touch it, or look at it, or even think about it, it has the tendency to turn into this altered condition, the latter. We are looking for ways out of that dilemma.