Dubai: Architecture on Steroids

By Hunter Owens (Co-Founder, Editor In Chief, Columnist) [?]

Published: December 10, 2008 and Updated: January 31, 2009
Reprinted From The Windward Bridge
SkylineCaption: The Dubai Skyline, full of both cranes and smog.Source: U.S. Navy

Where have all the skyscrapers gone? I visit NYC pretty often, and one of my earliest memories of the city was how the skyline would always look a little different than when I last visited. Lately, however, the New York City skyline is stagnant. But in Dubai, there is so much construction happening that a satellite image of the city is almost outdated 20 minutes after they take the picture! Dubai is now home to the world’s largest building, residential complex, artificial islands (4 of them to be precise), indoor skiing facility, amusement park, marina, airport terminal, mall, and much more.

Dubai also tends to build its trophy properties incredibly fast. Dubai is pretty close to a city on crack; the Burj Dubai (the world's tallest building) is expected to be finished this year, and they started building just 4 years ago. In fact, the Burj Dubai's height was even kept secret so nobody would be able to build a taller building. It is currently 3 times taller than the empire state building, and still growing. It also has the world's fastest elevator, traveling at the speed of 18 m/s. The Burj Dubai looks like a standard, plain-ish (by Dubai Standards), postmodernist building that the world as come expect from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, the same architect that designed the World Trade Center in NYC.

Now Dubai is going to the dark side, literally, because famed Dutch architect Rem Khoolhas is building the Khoolhas Death Star, and it looks exactly like it sounds. It stands over 10 stories high as a mixed purpose building on an artificial waterfront. It will be hollowed out creating a large shopping mall in the center. However, I doubt this building will have an open exhaust port. This building is part of Khoolhas' "generic city," a concept where the generic building is wedded with the absurd and bizarre and inhabited by global nomads with no local loyalties. The generic city looks like a hybrid between downtown LA with the standard glass and steel skyscrapers and the absurd like the death star and the "L" building which looking like Khoolhas' own CCTV tower in China. The entire complex will be built on artificial waterfront created by importing sand and dredging it into the sea to expand the coastline. They're also building at twenty-five Story iPod shaped building in Dubai; however it looks like Apple was able to outrun the extreme pace of "progress" in Dubai, because the building already looks like their using the old iPod model. Or for fans of classical skyscrapers, how about the Al Kazim towers, two mock replicas of the Chrysler Building located on the world’s most crash prone highway. And just when it might seem like things couldn’t get any crazier, plans have been announced for the Dubai Vertical City, a 400 story, 1.55 mile high city that will be three times taller than the Burj Dubai, or ten times taller than the Empire State building.

However, many architects are expressing growing concern that Dubai's explosive growth may not be good for its future. Anne Burke, of Morphosis (a major architectural firm with experience in Dubai, headed by architectural legend Thom Mayne), says the main problem is that Dubai "lack[s] any coherent urban planning or infrastructural strategies. It is a free for all." Morphosis founder Thom Mayne also recently said that "There is no connected tissue [in Dubai]” and that “It might work today, but the prognosis is not good for the future." He believes Dubai's growth "is not going to work on many levels, from social to infrastructure and ecological. It’s going to be a disaster in ecological terms."

As part of his argument, Thom made the comparison between Dubai and Los Angeles. During the 1960's, Los Angeles had a huge period of unchecked growth due to a weak central government, much like the huge growth being experienced in Dubai today. As a result, no master plan was established to handle either water or traffic. Now, Los Angeles is paying the price for that, and Thom is worried that Dubai might end up facing similar problems in the future.

However, the lack of constraints on Dubain architecture isn't all bad. Even Anne Burke added that "some architects relish this lack of context and lack of constraint as an opportunity to design with complete freedom." In ten years we may look back at Dubai and marvel at the creativity and architectural feats which have grown out of this unregulated arena.

In addition to the future ecological, social, and infrastructural problems that Dubai may face, Mrs. Burke said "Personally, I also find myself conflicted with the manner in which they construct their buildings. The very poor are brought in to work for very little and live in extremely paltry conditions. For me, there is a social inequity that is quite troublesome." She hopes that Morphosis can complete a "highly responsible and responsive building that could serve as a model for the entire region in terms of design excellence and sustainability."

Dubai is trying to create a new world capital today with some of the best architects and engineers in the world. However, the complete randomness of its design threatens to undermine the emirate's grand plans.

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