An Intermediate Environment

Sinclair Webster

Construction seems to be the motor of the Dubai cconomy. “Build and they will come has been the motto of its entrepreneurs who show no signs of reduced appetite in the face of the current threat of recession which is affecting some parts of the world. It is said that all the land up to the border with Abu Dhabi has a development planned for it. The advertising hoardings show spectacularly shaped towers and various residential communities. Is what we are shown what we are going to see built? “Let’s have no more towers,” onc architect in Dubai said recently, we have cnough of those.” He could remember open land where the Emirates Towers now stand. “And that was, what? Ten years ago?” he mused. We were looking at a model that showed a development, modishly twisting both in plan and section. The space between the buildings seemed to have been generated by an abstract acsthetic that placed these

The glitter and the general feel is almost context free. Only some of the more astute posters suggest that you have arrived in the Emirates and not some part of the USA. “Marhabbah.” However the smiling faces offering the welcome are those of oriental girls, from south-east Asia. Just where have you arrived? By now of course there have been some other clues, the occasional security guard, the visa clerks, and so on.

Our visitor may be immediately swept into an airconditioned safety cocoon by someone sent to meet them or into a hotel’s courtesy car, but if he were determined to take a taxi, he would have to press through welcoming crowds that are many people deep and it is hot. But the people in the main are not Arabian. Our visitor could be excused for thinking this could be Karachi – the faces, the heat, the hint of humidity.

The taxi journey only increases the sense of dislocation. Our visitor will be taken past US style concrete, glass and steel malls, although many advertising hoardings will be exhorting distinctly European and sub-continental messages.

Eventually the taxi will bring our visitor to an hotel, probably after an easy ride along Sheikh Zayed Road

where a glittering avenue of high-rise towers in every architectural, indeed whimsical style imaginable awaits. Arrival is deceptively easy, coming from the airport, but Dubai holds some surprises for our visitor when he moves off to join colleagues in their offices or tries to get to the other side of the road. This is when the fundamental truth about Dubai begins to coallesce:

There is no continuum of space or experience. Everything exists in discrete fragments, which may be good in themselves but which do not particularly relate one to another. Dissatisfaction is beginning to show in the context of graffiti which appear from time to time in that underpass under Sheikh Zayed Road. If it actually connected usefully. then perhaps the despairing daubs would not appear. It is a small mercy that at least the underpass is safe to use, unlike in some cities.

There is no logical link between the traffic system and the buildings it purports to serve. There is no link between you as a pedestrian on the pavement and you in the vehicle on the road. The two systems slide by one another. interfacing only through some abyss of a parking building and crossing each other at that one tenuous point. And so you, as the visitor, transit from one venue to another, from

the hotel to the Emirates Towers, perhaps to the unlikely “Ski Dubai’ winter box in the Mall of the Emirates… and morph from biped to voyeur and back again.

There is virtually no link between the outside of the buildings and what goes on inside. Facades that imply curtain walls are often blind and conceal washrooms.

If our visitor is a pensive type, he might muse that somewhere in the rush to build and to be modern, the values of traditional building have got lost or are at best misplaced and is no better illustrated than a respect for the pedestrian. In the traditional city that could be found in Deira or in Muharraq in Bahrain or in Wakrah in Qatar the citizen could make a transit from the unrelenting void of the desert through streets that maximised the opportunity for shade and shelter to public spaces – mosque, madrassa, souk – finally to the dwelling. The city defined both cultural institutions and the home. It protected its inhabitants from the hostile trackless wastes of the sands or the seas. Whatever the function, there was a continuity of form and architectural language, while the scale of the buildings could change. Peter and Alison Smithson, both English architects and theorists, gave this a name by defining a typology, the mat building.” What is significant here is that the whole city should be regarded as one building. Dubai on the other hand has substituted this with a city based on affection plans, recognising title and utilities. In other words, it sets the individual development above the city as a place meant for all its people.

Our visitor may have been lucky enough to have visited two of the better buildings in town, the Emirates Towers. From the upper floors there are wide sweeping views back

towards the creck or out into Sheikh Zayed Road. Arriving at certain times of year the towers can make striking images by apparently floating in a sea of mist. But that mist creates a false image, a famous mirage of an urban continuity that does not exist. However it seems to exist perfectly in a 6 x 4 rectangle which you, the visitor can control, either by photographing it or by looking out of a window that “frames the view”. In doing this, there is an echo of the eighteenth century dilettante travelling to predetermined viewpoints and using their special frames to sec, hence appreciate the artistic merits of the view” Architecture is thus transformed from a built environment into a magical landscape. However when the mist evaporates or when he returns to street level, the visitor will be alienated from the dream and will revert to being a ‘no-account pedestrian dwarfed by the vertical built environment.

There are some fine examples of modern architecture in Dubai, most notably the same Emirates Towers, where the interior malls and public spaces are executed with panache. consistent with the strong external modelling. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the architects were Canadian and well used to working in a harsh environment of their own. But the spaces are not just internal: the cafe terraces and the gardens at the base are among the most pleasant outdoor spaces in the city

When the hospitality industry embraces discrete wealth the results can be cqually good -for example, the Park Hyatt Hotel. Here the external architecture reflects the internal spaces and the quality of the artefacts used in the décor is outstanding. There is just a hint of North Africa in the cooking as well, but the rooms are pure mainstream

modern and well thought out. Only the lighting design disappoints in a series of subdued diffused moods, particularly in the main circulation spaces.

Our visitor would find it hard to find the old Arabian urban culture. The new Dubai has packaged this memory as yet another fragment, made digestible in a few hours. He could be taken out to Bab Al Shams and there he might admire a walled fort enclosing a courtyard, with all elements looking very authentically mud-coloured. And, yes, to confirm any expectations of tradition, there is a genuine tent near the front entrance where he can repose on cushions and enjoy Arabian coffee. On entering the courtyard, he will be offered an opportunity in the form of a falcon which will sit on his wrist while yet another illusion is captured, in this case a photographic image to show the folks back home.

It is too easy to state that foreign architects do not understand the culture while accepting the rip-roaring atmosphere of Dubai as an opportunity to offload their most self-indulgent and occasional puerile fantasies. It is a truism that design is the result of a dialogue, so there is a serious suggestion that the owners are simply abandoning their heritage. There are good designers who have worked in the region and have made architecturally significant comments on tradition. The Omrania designed Diplomatic Club in Riyadh is a poetic restatement of the idea of an oasis, the green core encircled by its sheltering wall. Another example from Riyadh is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Danish architect Henning Larsen. It would appear that Larsen recognised the primacy of interior space as a response to the harsh external conditions, focussing the building’s spaces on a central atrium – as found in “every Riyadh’. Where the building meets the exterior environment he carried out a reinterpretation of the traditional window, rotating it through 90 degrees to make an embrasure in the external wall which became a seat, while still moderating the light that was allowed to penetrate into the room.

Perhaps the issue here is that these two examples are both public buildings rather than ones procured by entrepreneurs. By nature individualist, the latters’ fingerprints are reflected in similar architectural statements wherever they are encouraged to occur. With the result that the space becomes anonymous, then the sense of place is lost.

In the traditional city there was no need to consider the public realm because it took care of itself mainly because of its scale. Environmental control was incidental to the space left over between buildings and the scale of those

channel spaces derived from pedestrian and animal traffic. Now we have a city that is made up of artefacts divided by the access system. The two have been separately considered and separately optimised to maximise either visual impact or flow. Amenity has not been considered. Perhaps it is a time for a new paradigm to evolve?

Many decades ago, Frank Lloyd Wright came up with a model for what he called Broadacre City, which derived from his observations of the “imperial “city of the west. Chicago had a similar role in the expansion of US commerce to that being played by Dubai in world commerce today. The vision was based on the experience of the urban environment for every man. Later, Lionel March systematised the vision mathematically and came to several very surprising conclusions about density and the space needed for human settlement in “Homes Beyond the Fringe”. The same density could be achieved in a linear, folded courtyard scheme as could be created by a highrise at its centre. “Think Line, don’t think blob” became a motto of the Cambridge mathematically influenced Land Use Centre, now the Martin Centre. What it meant is that every citizen could live in the equivalent of an eighteenth century town house with road access to a “mile high” urban centre within a 15 minutes drive and with a public open space for recreation the size of Parkers Piece, a well known pubic space in Cambridge, at his back door. The unconstructed parts of Dubai-to-come could offer a similar blend of amenity and urbanity.

And as for the existing recent city of towers, what is to happen? The new rapid transit system, the Metro, will provide air-conditioned stations and foot bridges across the roads linking the pedestrian with grand towers such as the Shangri-La Hotel. Perhaps there is room for an intermediate environment between these points and the buildings along the frontage? In Capetown the public realm in front of buildings in the downtown area is well designed with high quality paving and planting. This has been consolidated in the last ten years, just as Dubai was evolving. Because the public authority was unable to afford spending money on this type of space when there were more pressing problems to address in the townships around the city, the private entrepreneurs decided to take matters into their own hands. Is it unrealistic to think that the proud owners of the urban towers in Dubai would not take the opportunity to improve the amenity local to their buildings? In this way, the public space would become as much a statement of individual prestige as the buildings, and hence consistent with the fine traditions of a very Islamic charitable act.