Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Dubai’s darkening sky where the crane gods are eerily still
For longer than I can remember – six months at least – I’ve wanted to write on Dubai as a ruin. Not that I’ve been there, and one does normally avoid slagging places one hasn’t actually eyeballed. But Dubai is the folly of our time, the ultimate money-bubble mirage. So reality is hardly the point and Dubai, I figured, was fair game.
Besides, the piece was to be speculative, amusing in a sandy, breezy Ozymandias kind of way. Now, suddenly, the skies have darkened over Dubai. I reckon if I don’t write it now I’ll be doing the portrait from life, as in still.
Until some time around last Tuesday week Dubai was the new Mecca, to which architecture’s nomadic hill tribes flocked, eager to prostrate themselves before the towering crane gods.
And I mean gods, plural; for a couple of years some 40,000 of them – a quarter of the world’s cranes – bobbed on Dubai’s skyline. It became fashionable to shrink your Sydney practice to a cyber presence and flip across the world, pouring your expertise onto hot sand in return for a vast untaxed salary, perpetual air-con and a couple of low-rent servants in the broom cupboard, reassuring yourself constantly that Dubai was closer to Paris than Sydney.
Just for a while, you understand. Just to pay off the mortgage. Dubai, the oilless emirate, was conceived as the business end of Abu Dhabi’s more oleaginous cultural empire. (Abu Dhabi, you recall, has been buying job lots of pret-a-porter Louvres and Guggenheims for years.)
For design-types, Dubai jobs, like those in Shanghai, meant magnifying your thought processes by 1:10,000. That’s where computers are so handy – just keep hitting the “paste” key and one ensuite (or walk-in closet or four-car garage) becomes a city-full. And for a while the bubble held. Dubai, it seemed, might just prove capable of compressing the entire trajectory of urban growth, from fishing village to globalopolis, into a single decade.
Even after the GFC surfaced, Dubai considered itself immune.
Now Dubai is cancelling 1500 work visas a day. (This is not known for sure because Dubai generates no official statistics, just street talk). But even from without some things are clear. The “amazing Dubai job opportunity” ads now link only to error messages and passers-by report that once-frenetic building sites are eerily still.
In streets where none should walk, expats wander dazed, wondering how to fund property purchases that have lost 30 per cent in three months and whether the prosecco will be chilled in Dubai’s debtors prison. The airport is fringed with abandoned Mercs and Beemers, many with maxed-out credit cards taped to the windscreens. Emirates has even put on a second daily flight to Brisbane, and one might assume the planes are returning light. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding may proclaim its motto, “Open Doors, Open Minds,” but right now it seems they can’t open the doors fast enough.
The sheer audacity of the thing exacts a certain grudging admiration. Take 400,000 desert hectares – smaller than burnt Victoria – and borrow $123 billion to plant the world’s richest horse race, tallest tower, most decadent tourist-gratification program. It’s hubris on a breathtaking scale.
Admittedly, the kilometre-high tower is on indefinite hold. The world’s first air-conditioned beach planned – I kid you not – for Palazzo Versace, where a refrigerated lagoon was to lap on refrigerated sand beneath a refrigerated breeze may never, now, be built.
Dubai already has the world’s tallest tower, the $31 billion Burj Dubai, almost three times the height of Q1. It has snow-skiing on 50 degree days and World islands – which look like marsupial embryos – retail at $30 million.
Dubai signed Kyoto in 2006. It spawned a polyglot conga line of consultant-courtiers but changed reality not a jot. So it’s hardly surprising Dubai became universal slang for “seriously, irresponsibly, irredeemably crass”. Perth’s now-defunct waterfront vision was lampooned as “Dubai-on-Swan”, so perhaps it’s only fair that Dubai should evolve as Sylvania on Steroids.
Dubai’s demise will be seen as jolly bad luck; less slap on wrist than slap on back. But it’s more than that. The presumption of building a five-minute city to vie with Paris or New York by copying the coloured shapes is stupid, dangerous and wrong. The British expat architect Nic Jacobs defends Dubai against charges of blitzing local culture with terra nullius revised: “Just two generations ago,” he says in self-justification, “the Emirates were nomadic Bedouins with no urban tradition”.
In fact, Dubai does have an old town, a peninsulate gaggle of narrow two-storeyed streets where underpaid Indian workers now subsist. But the point is bigger again. Cities are not just collections of concrete and wealth. You can’t just take desert, add water and Sheik ya Booty.
Dubai is a beautiful parable – as beautiful as those silvery buildings rising from the dust, and as ephemeral. Let your mind’s eye mummify them, gaunt and sculptural amid wind and whistling sand. Let it decipher the pedestal inscription; “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”