Beautiful Cyberspace!

 M. Nabyl Chenaf

Published in 2A Magazine Issue # 8

One can probably, confidently argue that computers have contributed to what could be Man’s strongest abstraction of life since the alphabet, nevertheless, although the written word has denied life its multidimensional character, yet it has been an amazing vehicle for the most subtle shades of ideas, thoughts and feelings. In order to make meaningful statements, the written words have been organized in three ways first, words had to carry meanings (semantics). they also had to be put into a particular order (syntactic) and finally, they were also meant to generate behavior (pragmatics). Man elaborated on the three compartments mentioned previously to reach highly organized structures commonly referred to as poetry. The latter offers such a state of comfort and wellbeing, yet in total abstraction. The written word made use of metaphors, rhythm, tension and harmony and several other techniques not only to

convey a state of mind, but also to support and sustain highly regulated cultural value systems.

The analogy between literature and Architecture has always been widely accepted, for example, a century and a half ago, Victor Hugo (1831) wrote:

…architecture is becoming ever more tarnished, faded and dim. The printed word, that cankerworm of the edifice, sucks up and devours architecture which casts off its raiment and visibly dwindles away. It is shabby, poor and bare. It no longer expresses anything, not even the memory of another ages art. Confined to itself, abandoned by other arts because human thoughts abandon it, architecture recruits laborers for want of artists… Every trace of vitality, originality, life and intelligence is gone

(AAM edition, 1978).

In a similar way, Geoffrey Broadbent refers to architecture as a language and argues that symbols remain though the language may change” he also suggests that architects should be permanently seeking the poetry of space”.

Nowadays, in the age of virtual reality, buildings are simulated to the finest details. Walkthroughs and animation of all sorts can give a real feel of the place before anything is built. As a result design can be altered to suit the “flavor of the day” and more and more lay people invite themselves into the design process by trying very hard to create a match for some clichés by imposing on designers volatile images gathered from ephemeral and dispersed memories. The result is a patchwork to the taste of the client or worse, what could be accepted at the time as a “paradigm”.

As a result, in Dubai buildings are pleasurable to the eye as well as efficient machines designed and built under the scrutiny of meticulous engineers pushing the limits of hazard along with the limits of reason. They are skillfully empowered by the vision of a ruler who has made history by converting a large and vacant piece of land in the desert to one of global attraction. This is a man who truly believes that there are simply no limits for excellence” and many have taken up the challenge implicit to these words.

One interpretation of this challenge is, that every building has to be unique, an island in itself superseding anything preceding it, or in other words: a dream come true” for architects diving into an unprecedented font of eclectic styles, building techniques, new materials and technologies. The city of Dubai, now one of the fastest growing metropolitan cities in the world is paradoxically

giving little or no chance to urban planning as a vehicle that might anticipate the future of the city. The reality concerns the latter being reduced to the mere task of negotiating a compromise between the numerous developments which represent the nervous system of the local economy. Almost one crane out of six in the world is located in Dubai and the city is changing at a rate which makes the idea of commissioning an actual cartographic map completely obsolete. Hence the questions are: how is the city lived by people? How do the latter perceive it? How do people from different cultural backgrounds and nationalities relate to it and, by implication, to one another? Is there room for social interaction? What is the future for the second and third generations of “Dubaiit” or “Dubaiyans” (if such words exist)?

As a matter of fact, these questions have been the drivers for the writer’s research since arriving in Dubai a decade ago. Attempting to understand how people engage in the cognition of the built environment in Dubai, and exploring how people from different nationalities, age groups, and genders perceive a ‘mental map of the city, are the desired results of such an approach.

Dubai is undoubtedly full of architectural icons, metaphors and landmarks, which add a semantic value to the place. However, this does not seem to address the syntactic aspect, which is desperately needed for an easier reading of the city. It seems that architecture is engaged in such a race for excellence that the urban space has to be reformulated every time a new building is emerging out of the ground. One can argue that no matter how rich one’s

vocabulary is: grammar is still needed to make meaningful statements. Much in the same way, to a certain extent, urban design should negotiate a compromise between buildings in terms of mass, size, style, materials, colors,

ctc.

Social life can be stimulated and encouraged through urban and architectural spaces only if the latter have meanings. Therefore, it appears that it is time overdue that planners and architects learned to deal with the world of semiotics. E.T. Hall (1966), argues that we must begin seeing man as an interlocutor with his environment”.

Appleyard (1969) explains the predictive advantage, which he considered, could be gained from the understanding of buildings as a powerful tool for architects and planners to gain “control over that elusive communication medium, the urban environment”. Taylor (1973) also suggests that building is a cultural and historical product, which has to do with “values and systems of signification which the designer must address himself to”.

For that purpose, an attempt was made to investigate the way people in Dubai read, describe and visualize the city and hence identify the actual architectural and urban

“meaningful spaces” in the city such as “hot spots”, limits and “landmarks” (K. Lynch, Image of the City). To that effect questionnaires, informal interviews and other research techniques were used. These involved participant and non-participant observation as well as analyses of graphic and written documents.

Architectural landmarks in Dubai

Twenty-two names of buildings came out of the questionnaire answered by people from different age categories, gender and nationalities. The question was: name in rank-order five architectural landmarks in Dubai. A random sample was chosen for this questionnaire. The buildings mentioned are the following:

Burj Al Arab Emirates Towers, Wafi City, Mercato, the Twin Towers, AUD, NBD, Dubai Airport, Dusit Dubai, Royal Mirage, Jumeira Beach Hotel. Jumeira Mosque, Dubai Marina, Fairmont Hotel, Trade Center, Palm Island, Deira City Center. Creek Club and Golf Course, Media City, Gold Souk, New Hyatt Regency, and the Clock Tower.

The first observation is related to the impressive number of architectural landmarks compared with cities of the same size or even bigger, such as Riyadh, Jeddah or Kuwait city from the region, and Paris, London and New York on the world stage, the latter which barely incorporate half the number of definite architectural landmarks.

The numerous outstanding buildings or landmarks in Dubai are probably due to a permanent race for distinction in terms of quality standards since the involved authorities ensure that there is a fairly flexible interpretation of regulation, unrestrictive of any particular style or typology, which encourages creativity and originality, and above all sets the pace for excellence in a very healthy and transparent setting. The second observation concerns the differences noticed between the buildings mentioned above with regard to their size, mass, style and function Nevertheless, fifty percent of these buildings are towers of a similar size and mass with a high-tech. contemporary look or style displaying an extensive use of glass and steel while lit in a very exhibitive manner. Survey results seem to suggest that architectural landmarks in Dubai are perceived in the following rank-order: 1) Burj Al Arab (28% of respondents), 2) Emirates Towers (25%), 3) Jumeirah Beach Hotel (19%), 4) National Bank of Dubai (8%), 5) Trade Center (6.8%), Twin Towers and Dusit

“meaningful spaces” in the city such as “hot spots”, limits and “landmarks” (K. Lynch, Image of the City). To that effect questionnaires, informal interviews and other research techniques were used. These involved participant and non-participant observation as well as analyses of graphic and written documents.

Architectural landmarks in Dubai

Twenty-two names of buildings came out of the questionnaire answered by people from different age categories, gender and nationalities. The question was: name in rank-order five architectural landmarks in Dubai. A random sample was chosen for this questionnaire. The buildings mentioned are the following:

Burj Al Arab Emirates Towers, Wafi City, Mercato, the Twin Towers, AUD, NBD, Dubai Airport, Dusit Dubai, Royal Mirage, Jumeira Beach Hotel. Jumeira Mosque, Dubai Marina, Fairmont Hotel, Trade Center, Palm Island, Deira City Center. Creek Club and Golf Course, Media City, Gold Souk, New Hyatt Regency, and the Clock Tower.

The first observation is related to the impressive number of architectural landmarks compared with cities of the same size or even bigger, such as Riyadh, Jeddah or Kuwait city from the region, and Paris, London and New York on the world stage, the latter which barely incorporate half the number of definite architectural landmarks.

The numerous outstanding buildings or landmarks in Dubai are probably due to a permanent race for distinction in terms of quality standards since the involved authorities ensure that there is a fairly flexible interpretation of regulation, unrestrictive of any particular style or typology, which encourages creativity and originality, and above all sets the pace for excellence in a very healthy and transparent setting. The second observation concerns the differences noticed between the buildings mentioned above with regard to their size, mass, style and function Nevertheless, fifty percent of these buildings are towers of a similar size and mass with a high-tech. contemporary look or style displaying an extensive use of glass and steel while lit in a very exhibitive manner. Survey results seem to suggest that architectural landmarks in Dubai are perceived in the following rank-order: 1) Burj Al Arab (28% of respondents), 2) Emirates Towers (25%), 3) Jumeirah Beach Hotel (19%), 4) National Bank of Dubai (8%), 5) Trade Center (6.8%), Twin Towers and Dusit

Dubai (6%) and Mercato (4.5%).

The way people perceive these buildings is of a considerable interest to urban designers and architects alike because they can represent the key to a clear mental map of the city. An example of how architectural landmarks help restructure the city would certainly be the case of Paris.

If a reference to probably the most impressive urban action undergone in Paris by Haussmann is permitted, one could argue that once the architectural landmarks in Paris had been clearly identified, Haussmann linked them with large boulevards commonly called by the French: the “percees Haussmanniennes”. His actions were certainly controversial, brutal and unpopular in the mid-nineteenth century, but remarkably effective because he achieved what Napoleon III assigned him. By making Paris the modern city that reflects the requirements of the new “bourgeoisie” as well as a place that would attract both investors and tourists, some of these painful percees Haussmanniennes” are now the glory of Paris, such as the well known “Champs Elysees”. Since 1853, the date of Haussmann’s appointment as “Prefet de la Seine minister of the governmental department for Paris), rulers of France have never disregarded the impact of mental mapping and urban cognition on people’s attitudes towards their physical environments, other buildings have followed like La Defense, the Pompidou Center or the glass pyramid at the Louvre. The conclusion to be drawn is that an easy reading of urban spaces is likely to contribute enormously to the feeling of belonging to a city. No matter how functional and rational a particular space could be, people’s attitudes towards objects, events and persons are built according to both evaluative (objective) and affective subjective) considerations, which call for a certain level of congruence (McGuire’s Logical-Affective Consistency theory, 1960).

Neighborhoods in Dubai

First, people were simply asked to list the names of the different neighborhoods in Dubai which they can recall almost effortlessly. Trained interviewers were asked not to interfere but to report details such as the time it takes to name the first group of neighborhoods and when the interviewees start thinking before giving names. The initial purpose was not only to identify the neighborhoods

that are frequently mentioned, but also to weigh their presence in people’s cognitive system. Once the count was completed, four neighborhoods were clearly mentioned more frequently than the others. They are: 1 – Jumeirah,

2-Bur Dubai, 3-Deira and 4-Sheikh Zayed Road(fig 1.1). A further study of these neighborhoods was undertaken in order to analyze the way people read these urban entities and how they evaluate them according to their own criteria. People seem to be cognitively more aware of these four neighborhoods regardless of factors such as size, exposure and luxury. It is perhaps remarkable that some spectacular newly developed parts of the city such as “Emirates Hills”. “Dubai Marina”. “the Meadows”,”the Gardens”, “Madinat Jumeira”, as well as the famous “Palm Islands” and the other on-shore developments around Dubai such as Arabian Ranches merited no mention.

Obviously at this stage some educated guesses can be made, but it seems that time is emerging as a determinant factor since the neighborhoods mentioned above are also relatively among the oldest, Consequently they probably constitute the main structure of the mental map of the city of Dubai for most people from different age and gender groups, as well as cultural backgrounds. There seem to be other considerations which have relegated some prestigious neighborhoods to a lower layer of people’s mental map, such as the ownership status and the accessibility of these neighborhoods. Contrary to the old Dubai where only UAE and GCC nationals can own property, the newly developed estates offer the possibility of ownership to all, but in relatively remote gated community residential areas, which most members of the populace cannot afford and consequently subconsciously ignore. Paradoxically, in Deira, Bur Dubai, Jumeirah and Sheikh Zayed Road,

Conclusion

It seems that Dubai is becoming more of a beautiful cyberspace where people do not actually interact with physical space in a manner calculated to generate a social connection. It remains a challenge to bring them together in an effort to share a collective memory or to build one. It is imperative that architects and designers address this issue more directly by providing a variety of interaction levels in order to create a sense of community and identity. Dubai should not be looked at as a leisure resort or open air exhibition of architecture, but rather as a home which offers and houses a sense of belonging and stability: in short, a future for all constituents.

Dr. M. Nabyl Chenaf Associate Professor and Acting Chairman, Department of Interior Design AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN DUBAI

Bibliography • Appelyard, Donald (1968). In Dot Zero 5 (Fall). • Broadbent, G., (1980). Meaning and Behavior in the Built

Environment. • Hall, E.T. (1966), The Hidden Dimension, London, the Bodley Head • Taylor, M. (1973) Towards a redefinition of user needs DMG-DRS journal, 7, 168-72.