Skyscrapers or Souks?
April 27, 2008 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Two visions of the ideal city rise in the Persian Gulf: "Waterfront City will probably be where a lot of Middle Eastern investors will put their money—and where international architectural stars will build their putative landmarks—but if little Masdar develops successfully, it may hold much more important lessons for us all."
posted by Non Prosequitur (23 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, that Waterfront City is butt-ugly and boring. Masdar sounds interesting. And that commentary is worth about 2 cents. LOL
posted by PigAlien at 9:33 AM on April 27, 2008

I can't see the building that is going on in the Gulf states as anything but the most incredible human hubris. I don't understand why, as things are obviously in danger of growing dark, that we build the largest edifices to human pride. The Roman Emperors put on the most spectacular games just as the Empire was beginning to teeter and sway; the Easter Islanders carved the largest moai just as their environment was beginning to collapse. I understand investing in infrastructure, but this isn't it: building mile-high hotels during peak oil and indoor ski slopes in Saudi Arabia is utterly insane.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:44 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's seems more like dreams of rich but patriotic people who imagine their conservative Muslim countries entering the modern world, but sadly these are just dreams, nothing more. Oil will get you money & attention, even if your people are bat shit insane, but you can't suppose such an economy with such a population.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:37 AM on April 27, 2008

A monorail-like "personalized rapid transport system" snakes diagonally through the city and links Masdar to a metro line that runs to the center of Abu Dhabi as well as to the airport.[slide 8].

This would make it the first city with PRT, no? A few, um, dreamers, have proposed one for here in the Minneapolis. I think it's been proposed in Duluth too. But then, it doesn't take a lot to propose something.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 11:46 AM on April 27, 2008

It's because of peak oil. They know their cash cow is going to go away some day. What else can they do to keep rolling in the money? Hm. Who else needs a tractor to rake in all the cash... Las Vegas! That's an arid desert, too.

They're trying to shift the economy to a tourism/playground basis while they have the money to build it before the oil runs out.
posted by ctmf at 11:58 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Clumps of tall shiny buildings really turn me off sometimes because of the strange dissonance I've experienced while walking past them, a few hours after the regular workday, full of personal worries and issues.. like what's the point of being in a wonderful-looking place if life sucks?

The other thing about this type of construction is something I recall reading in Naomi Klein's No Logo way back when, I don't recall what she called it but a sort of 'removal of social spaces on the streets'.. there's very little density left in terms of variant things, it's not like you can be walking along and stroll up to a small store and ask for directions, all that you get is block after block of fancy walled-off buildings. I can't quite specify this issue clearly enough but it really resonates with me, the notion that city spaces need to have 'gaps' for normal human activity to be humming around it. This is why I love pedestrian cities.

Work-at-your-office-park-and-drive-back-out-to-your-suburb just seems to fray the social connections that more organic cities/lifestyles offer.

The other issue is that this type of "let's build an efficient city off the top of our heads" is something that's been done a lot for the last century or so, sometimes as spectacular disasters. Sure the roads are wide but nobody wants to live there.

cf. Steven Pinker:
Le Corbusier was frustrated in his aspiration to flatten Paris, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro and rebuild them according to his scientific principles. But in the 1950s he was given carte blanche to design Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, and one of his disciples was given a clean tablecloth for Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Today, both cities are notorious as uninviting wastelands detested by the civil servants who live in them. Authoritarian High Modernism also led to the 'urban renewal' projects in many American cities during the 1960s that replaced vibrant neighborhoods with freeways, high-rises, and empty windswept plazas.
City planners believed that people's taste for green space, for ornament, for people-watching, for cozy places for intimate social gatherings, were just social constructions. They were archaic historical artifacts that were getting in the way of the orderly design of cities, and should be ignored by planners designing optimal cities according to so-called scientific principles. Le Corbusier was the clearest example. He and other planners had a minimalist conception of human nature. A human being needs so many cubic feet of air per day, a temperature within a certain range, so many gallons of water, and so many square feet in which to sleep and work. ... Ornamentation, human scale, green space, gardens, and comfortable social meeting places were written out of the cities because the planners had a theory of human nature that omitted human aesthetic and social needs.
posted by Non Prosequitur at 12:12 PM on April 27, 2008 [9 favorites]

And where will they get fresh waster for all the inhabitants?
posted by robbyrobs at 12:16 PM on April 27, 2008

Masdar is no more green than Waterfront. Any entirely new-build city is a immense splurge of resources, and if there's no pressing human need for said city - and there isn't in either of these cases - those resources are wased. A new-build green city is a contradiction in terms. Waste, fabulous, glittering waste.

Fearful Symmetry: That Palm Jumeirah article is great. I had always thought that there was something very JG Ballard about the Palm project(s), and learning that the sea around them is crawling with hostile life really rams home the impression. It can only be a matter of time before the bridge to the mainland is blown and the orgy of sex and pet-eating begins.
posted by WPW at 12:53 PM on April 27, 2008

ctmf: They're trying to shift the economy to a tourism/playground basis while they have the money to build it before the oil runs out.

Which is lunacy. The middle east is probably the least suitable place in the world to build giant shiny tourist attractions. First of all, the stability sucks, so they're likely to be taken down by a terrorist or another country. Second of all, the culture there is possibly the least suitable in the world. I know that when I think of a place to relax, I don't think of relaxing in a culture that will throw their incredibly strict and barbaric book of law at you for the slightest offense, including things that weren't even your fault (like that guy who go thrown in jail because he had a tiny molecular trace of pot on his shoe - which he probably just stepped in.) Third, I don't see the religious extremism and terrorism going down anytime soon. There's going to be occasional tourist massacres down there and there's nothing the governments can do to prevent it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:16 PM on April 27, 2008

You're probably right about the stability part, but I haven't noticed the oppressive "strict and barbaric book of law" being much of a problem when I've been there (10-ish times). It seems like they save that for the locals, and let the visitors do whatever-TF they want. Kind of like cruise ships that have strict rules for crew that the passengers never see.

Or, I've been very lucky not to get caught, or know anyone who has (one sensational news story notwithstanding.) It's not like I was sneaking around, though.
posted by ctmf at 1:30 PM on April 27, 2008

It seems to me that most cities need some sort of reason, usually an economic one, to exist. Real, functional cities don't just spring up out of nowhere because a bunch of real estate developers got together and decided it would be a good place to have a city, and people certainly don't move to such a place because there's lots of shiny new buildings waited to be inhabited. So what exactly is the point of these cities? I've wondered the same thing about Dubai, but it's at least conceivable that the region might be able to support one giant synthetic Las Vegas-style entertainment mecca. But several of them? Seems very unlikely, to say the least.
posted by decoherence at 3:27 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

The architecture office I work for in London has designed one of these towers, with construction due to start in the next few months. It's a bizarre looking thing, like something out of Flash Gordon or the Wizard of Oz. Imagine a daffodil or a crocus ossified into a skyscraper, and that's pretty close.
The director who designed it has a rather peculiar vision, but apparently in the Middle East anything goes: the more florid and extravagant the better.
posted by Flashman at 4:38 PM on April 27, 2008

Better than the U.K., where you can't get anything built that doesn't look like it's been sitting in Prince Charles's basement for 150 years. :P
posted by Tlogmer at 5:17 PM on April 27, 2008

As this recent post by stbalbach shows, the UAE isn't alone in this ambition. Saudi Arabia is doing the same thing, with six 'economic' cities.

Regardless of the viability of such projects, the nerd in me yearns for them to be completed and functioning, so that I may skip from one to another living out some sort of dystopian fantasy. I'm also a sucker for the concept art. Would I put my money into it? No. But I'm glad to see all those petrodollars going to good use.
posted by cosmonik at 5:19 PM on April 27, 2008

It's a shame that urban development on the scale of China or the Middle East doesn't happen in North America. Other than the tools of war, does anything dramatic get built in the US? With little to no new urban development, North America has become the Europe of old with crumbling bridges and roads and no dreams of the future.
posted by cmacleod at 6:01 PM on April 27, 2008

Masdar is no more green than Waterfront.

nah that's bollocks, you've let your cynicism get ahead of yourself there. Masdar is not a city anyway, it's tiny, but if they're building em, they need to learn the lessons that Masdar will provide.
posted by wilful at 7:42 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, in the cities of the future, everyone sure is rich!
posted by humannaire at 8:19 PM on April 27, 2008

Masdar looks like a good place for the super-rich to wait out the food riots of 2031-2037.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:28 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's telling that three of four renderings of Masdar are from street level, while all the renderings of Waterfront are from distant helicopters. Which view are most of the inhabitants going to be looking at, day in and day out?
posted by alexei at 11:16 PM on April 27, 2008

Mitrovarr, first of all, this is Dubai we're talking about -- not Sadr City. It's got money and good security and isn't likely to be invaded by anyone anytime soon. It's stability you can bank on, and indeed, it rivals other cities (NYC, London, Frankfurt, HK, Tokyo) for international banking.

Second, the people coming to Dubai are people from Islamic (or related) cultures. If you've somebody with money in Cairo, you're going to have a condo in Dubai. Even more so if you're somebody with money in a less cosmopolitan city like Karachi or Rabat (no offense). It's a place where -- especially if you have money -- you don't have to worry so much about the religious police. So you can serve alcohol at your parties and mingle with the opposite sex. In fact, that's a large reason people go there. It's the Islamic Vegas.

It seems to me that most cities need some sort of reason, usually an economic one, to exist.

This is probably a more concrete concern, but keep in mind that population in the Middle East is growing, whereas everywhere in the West it's flat or declining. In the US immigration barely keeps it climbing. And even so we've built suburbs out of the cornfields the last several years. There's a speculative aspect to all of this, but I think the demographics are in many ways there. They're planning a city for people who aren't even born yet, in other words. It's a bit like the way your school district has property outside the city limits that they can build elementary schools on someday.

In any event, the Middle East is not thinking recession, they're thinking boom. A twenty to fifty year boom.
posted by dhartung at 1:45 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

What is the elevation of Dubai? Well, sadly there are no hurricanes in the gulf. It's the hurricanes that make sea level rise fun.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:18 AM on April 28, 2008

Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles and Planet of Slums weighs in with: "Fear and Money in Dubai".
posted by xod at 11:47 AM on April 28, 2008

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