Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

Dubai landscape

27/06/2012

I just passed through Dubai on the way from London to Delhi. A flying visit of just two nights, but an appropriate way of experiencing this city – resembling, as it does in many ways, one big airport departure lounge.

Since the end of the ten year construction boom which ended with the financial meltdown of late 2008, Dubai has become an allegory of financial hubris, and a favourite subject for western journalists in self righteous mood. The evident unsustainability of building a city of air conditioned skyscrapers, indoor ski slopes and vast malls in a desert, the exploitation of the mainly Indian and Pakistani workers who’ve built the whole thing…

 


Despite all this – I actually quite like Dubai. It’s a strange city. It is at once unlike anywhere else, while it aspires to be a bit like several other places all over the world (Its whole marketing strategy seems designed to distract you from its actual location). The skyscrapers signify its desire to be a global city in the mould of New York (despite the absence of the same pressure of limited space and high land value that was the rationale for building upwards in New York); the plethora of branches of this or that famous restaurant or shop in London, Beruit or Sydney. Much of the architecture is incredibly vulgar. The landscape in between is a tangle of highways, flyovers and irrigated road verges. But you can’t fault Dubai’s rulers for their lack of ambition and vision. It’s a phenomenon of early twentyfirst century global capitalism: a city created from globalised money, by a globalised workforce, on a strip of desert by the sea.

There is enough hyperreality here to keep a Baudrillard or an Eco in theories for quite a while.  This sense of unreality is enhanced by the fact that most views of the outside are through tinted glass, looking out from airconditioned space, whether vehicle or inside a building. When you go outdoors, the real climate of the Gulf hits you as a muggy blast of humid air.

The visible landscape in Dubai is generally of two kinds: newly developed roads, buildings and ornamental, irrigated planted landscape in between; or undeveloped desert.

Here and there you can get glimpses of something else – the urban landscape that used to exist here before the building boom. At the foot of Downtown Dubai, the planned district around the base of the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, there are low rise housing compounds dating from as long ago as the 1970s. There’s even a farm. The sight of sheep and goats wandering around in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa is highly surreal – and you see a lot of surreal things in Dubai.

Nothing grows here without irrigation – except for the Ghaf tree (Prosopis cineraria), an Arabian native that survives because of its long taproot which reaches down to groundwater below the soil surface (up to 35 metres, apparently). Even cacti and succulents need irrigation. There’s some interesting cactus planting around the base of the Burj Khalifa.

Even looking at it, it’s clear that the tower’s designers have stretched the limits of skyscraper design – not least in terms of the lift technology needed to service a building this high. The Burj’s tapering, slender shape appears to maximise the height it can reach while minimising the mass that the foundations need to support. Viewed at the base, its footprint is actually quite small. The footprint of the very uppermost floors (it goes up to 160) must be barely that of a single room.

From the viewing gallery on the 124th floor, you can feel the building sway. Dubai looks like an architectural model below. Despite the great height, the view lacks the drama and scale of going up say, the Empire State Building in New York. Unlike the Empire State, the Burj doesn’t emerge out of a forest of skyscrapers but stands relatively isolated from Dubai’s main cluster of skyscrapers along Sheikh Zayed Road.

You can see the abrupt transition from brand new mega development to a more traditional landscape of residential compounds. There is something other than long-term ‘organic’ urbanisation going on here. These developments have not just come about through ‘market forces.’ They are the creation of an act of will by the rulers of Dubai: an ambition to create a global commercial centre in a fraction of the time it took cities like London, New York or Tokyo to achieve such status.
Dubai can be criticised on a number of grounds: its profligate use of water and energy, the vast disparity between the priviliged Emiratis and expats who run the place, and the army of generally poor foreign labourers who swelter in 40 degree  heat for six days a week, with virtually no employment rights. These things cannot be denied.

 

But they should also be placed in context. Next to the regional giants of Saudi Arabia and Iran between which the UAE is sandwiched, Dubai is a cosmopolitan and open place, where as long as you remember where you are, you can feel (relatively) free. For the army of Asian immigrants who keep the place running, it’s a place of opportunity, stability and (within certain well policed boundaries) relative freedom. This city is built on exploitation, it’s true. A lot of its new development is vulgar – although the Burj Khalifa is actually rather beautiful. And you could say the same about the armies of exploited labourers and workers who built nineteenth century London and New York. Like Dubai, they were pretty vulgar and every bit as exploitative in their day too.
 

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