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Dubai, the City as Corporation$

Ahmed Kanna

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780816656301

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816656301.001.0001

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“Going South” with the Starchitects

“Going South” with the Starchitects

Urbanist Ideology in the Emirati City

(p.77) Chapter 2 “Going South” with the Starchitects
Dubai, the City as Corporation

Ahmed Kanna

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that contemporary architecture, especially, although not exclusively, in its guise as so-called starchitecture sometimes manifests a retrogressive move that widens rather than bridges the gap between its progressive political self-image and its sometime collaboration with political forces. Specifically, it is by “going south” to the global south, that contemporary architecture recreates the myth of the autonomous architect, the aesthetic genius unencumbered by local context and history. In other words, by going south, architects escape politics, and they, in turn, help local elites do so as well. The space and built environment—despite being within the realm of architecture—find themselves intrinsic and subservient to political agendas. Starchitecture in particular reinforces the ideals of authenticity and local culture, in encouraging modernity while simultaneously establishing stereotypes and many other such instances of polarization.

Keywords:   starchitecture, contemporary architecture, global south, politics, modernity, architects

Most companies start with a clean sheet of paper. Ours was a city.

—advertisement for EMAAR

Every place has its own identity, and we have to create … a beautiful identity for Ras al-Khaimah. Naturally, environmentally friendly.

—Khater Masaad, assistant to the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah

Driving along Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road near the World Trade Center interchange is an uncanny experience in architectural remembrance.1 A wall of skyscrapers, one to each side of the highway, gives the passerby the claustrophobic impression of traveling through an interminable tunnel of mirrored glass. Writing for the New Yorker, Ian Parker put it perfectly and cuttingly: “The highway has become a wall across the city: a kind of round-the-clock mugging of Jane Jacobs” (131). Parker’s comment reminds us that in spite of the critical tradition initiated by Jacobs, modern architecture has yet to bridge the gap between its progressive political self-image and its sometime collaboration, if more by virtue of its immanent logic than active commitment, with politically regressive forces. What Margaret Crawford observed twenty years ago about American architecture remains strikingly unchanged in the contemporary global south.

As individuals, most American architects sincerely assert that they are deeply concerned about issues of social and economic justice. Yet, over the past twenty years, as a profession they have (p.78) steadily moved away from engagement with any social issues, even those that fall within their realm of professional competence. (27)

Parker’s observation and the drive down Sheikh Zayed dredge up specific images from architecture’s past, such as Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City. With its walls of skyscrapers on either side of an immense thoroughfare, the Contemporary City bears an uncanny resemblance, if only for the duration of the flash of recognition, to its Dubai avatar. Jacobs and others (Holston 1989; Scott 1998) have correctly perceived the pernicious logic of modernism’s myths of reason, the autonomy of aesthetics from politics, and the cult of the expert. In this chapter, my contention is that contemporary architecture, especially, although not exclusively, in its guise as so-called starchitecture sometimes manifests a retrogressive move away from the insights of the Jacobsian critical tradition. Specifically, it is by “going south” to the global south, that contemporary architecture recreates the myth of the autonomous architect, the aesthetic genius unencumbered by local context and history. In other words, by going south, architects escape politics, and they, in turn, help local elites do so as well.

By politics, I mean something more than the truism that the built environment and monuments play an important role in state and elite political agendas. The acts of architectural representation and the visualization of space are intrinsically political, and each connects to and advances specific politics of representation. Moreover, the process is dialectical— just as architectural representation influences and shapes the spatial and cultural politics of states and elites, so do the latter structure and shape architectural representation. The politics of architectural representation are obscured by the myth of the autonomy of the architect. This myth is central to the modern tradition, but in fact it is much older, originating in the second half of the fifteenth century. It arose in parallel with the secularization of Europe and the reinvention of building as “design,” in which built space became, primarily, visualized space. This was a turning away from what Henri Lefebvre has called “monumental space” and towards “abstract space” (1991/1974). Space increasingly became an object to be visualized and abstracted from its more complex, multi-layered, and symbolically imbricated social texture (to, again, adapt Lefebvre). Vision arose over and above embodiment (Frampton 1991; 1998; Lefebvre 1991/1974). For Kenneth Frampton, this was a sort of insidious forgetting of the tactile “capacty of the body to read the environment in terms other than those of sight alone” (1998, 31).2 In other words, the rise of visualized space was an effect (p.79) of the ascendancy of the artes liberales over the artes mechanicae, of the architect over the master craftsman, in late fifteenth-century Europe (1991, 17–18). As Frampton puts it, these developments resulted in the emergence of a discourse on architectural design as “a specifically modern, innovative, nontraditional procedure,” carrying an assumption that the architect is a member of a specialized guild or even class of individuals outside and above the sphere of the everyday and of mere “building,” whose mission is purely the elaboration of aesthetic form (17).

Since the 1970s, this has been reinterpreted in such a way as to result in the equation of architecture with fine art, a “revival of drawn representation” through which architects have sought to enter the art market (21). This is often called architectural “postmodernism,” and its origins lie not only in the deep history and immanent logic of the artes liberales, but also in the specific conjunctures of the post-1970s period. Innovations in structural engineering enabled builders to put up edifices largely without input from architects, in turn increasingly confining the latter to competition over façade design and silhouettes (McNeill, 23). The 1980s witnessed the apotheosis of laissez-faire ideology in Reaganomics and with it the endorsement of conspicuous consumption, showiness, and display, all parts of a postmodern cultural dominant (to adapt a phrase from Jameson 1991) that trickled down to architectural practice (McNeill, 23). Architecture became reduced to architectural representation, architectural projects to monumental sculptures (Frampton 1991, 21). With this came a type of architectural critique that fixated on the formal and conceived of architecture as detached and ironical, a “silent witness to all the weaknesses, indulgences, and self-absorption characteristic of modern culture” (Ghirardo, 9). As Diane Ghirardo has put it, “as disengaged voyeur, architecture first and foremost came to be understood as an exercise in meaning, meaning that issued from the architect and emerged in the architecture, for example, in the form of witty comment upon earlier conventions” (9–10). The question of “what is built for whom?” is ignored or consigned to secondary status (15). This is the question that I will put to starchitecture and Emirati urbanism in this chapter.3

By noting the ways that the representations deployed by architects and other urban experts— urbanists, in Lefebvre’s terminology—are applied to specific sociocultural and political contexts in the global south, we notice an intriguing set of shifts. Something interesting seems to occur when predominantly Western-trained architects and experts traverse the space between cultural worlds with which they are familiar and ones with which they are not. Their self-styled radical or reformist aesthetic aims (p.80) suddenly begin servicing the not-entirely progressive aims of local elites. Claims about sensitivity to local cultural and ecological worlds somehow become appended to Orientalist stereotypes. A narrow focus on architecture as the exclusive concern with experimentation in aesthetic form becomes a means of collaborating in the erasure of local histories and the reaffirmation of the claims local elites make on the politics, histories, and spaces they already dominate.


Along with China, the contemporary Arabian Gulf is undergoing an urbanization of massive proportions. Possessing a disproportionate share of the world’s proven oil reserves, the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council were devoting hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars to construction projects before the financial crisis of 2008, which did indeed slow construction, especially in Dubai, the economy most affected by the crisis (Brown 2008).4 Like China, architects view the Gulf, whose member states are run by tiny elites disposing of immense wealth and have nearly nonexistent labor and environmental regulations, as a liberating place in which to work. No Gulf country has been as aggressive in advancing top-down, large-scale, institutional urbanism (Lefebvre 2003, 79) as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The rhetoric of government officials, architects, and the media, what Lefebvre has called urbanists (2003, 156–60), employs various discourses of progress and architectural radicalism to justify such projects.

Following places such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Kuwait, which pioneered the practice of using big name architects in the Gulf, individual emirates of the UAE, especially the wealthiest two, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have recently tapped so-called starchitects in a large project of urban entrepreneurialism (Broudehoux).5 The list of the famous firms that were “rushing” (Brown 2008) to participate in the UAE’s architectural “Xanadu” (Fattah 2007) was a who’s who of global north starchitecture: Tadao Ando, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas/ OMA, Jean Nouvel, Skidmore Owings Merrill (already a veteran on the UAE scene), Snøhetta, and many lesser names. Looked at in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, in which many brand-name projects, such as Hadid’s Dubai opera house and Koolhaas’s Dubai Waterfront City, have either been cancelled or put on hold, this rush seems only to have been a brief flash of collaboration between the Emirati and global (p.81) urban worlds. Serious scholarly observers have dismissed the Emirati use of starchitecture as superficial and merely profit-driven6I.agree with this, but regardless of its motives or “depth,” the politics of starchitectural representation during this brief, precrisis moment remain of significant interest to the study of cultural politics in rapidly developing, globalizing cities. Moreover, such representational politics take on new meaning in an Emirati, and especially Dubai, context in which the main players in urban development are the family-states with their history of antireformism (see chapter 1).

The case of the master-planned Dubai Waterfront City (now on hold because of the economic downturn) is symptomatic of starchitecture specificially, and urbanist ideology more generally. Commissioned in 2007 by Nakheel and designed by the ubiquitous genius of contemporary global urbanism, Rem Koolhaas and his Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the project in its rectilinear plan is conceived as a 6.5 square-mile artificial island off Dubai’s coast and is expected to be home to approximately 1.5 million people (Dilworth). The project is symptomatic of urbanism in the UAE and, perhaps, global south urbanism, in three ways. First, one notices a great deal of “culture talk” associated with it (see introduction). Referring to Al Soor, one of the Waterfront City’s neighborhoods, OMA’s website says that the project employs,

The vernacular qualities of historic Arab settlements: an intriciate (sic) and varied composition of shaded buildings and alleyways where privacy is embedded and public interaction inevitable. The name Al Soor, meaning The Wall, refers to a large inhabited wall on the western tip of the site, jutting out into the Gulf. The dense building clusters, irregular streets, and pedestrian paths connect a patchwork of delights in this town, all of them walkable: beachfront resorts, souks, canalsides and waterfront promenades … and, across the water directly opposite, Waterfront City’s second elemental geometric icon, the Spiral. This is an 82-storey coiling tower evoking classical Arabic architecture and serving as a beacon for the entire development.7

Second, there is talk of sustainability. The tall, densely spaced buildings, it is claimed, will create shade to reduce the need for air conditioning and encourage people to walk instead of drive, and it will connect with the city’s monorail system (Dilworth).

(p.82) Finally, the project supposedly reflects the architect’s radical politics. Observers have, for example, connected the project to Koolhaas’s “Generic Cities” theory (Koolhaas 1978), in which cities consist of repetitive buildings centered on an airport housing “a tribe of global nomads with few local loyalties.” Generic cities supposedly critique late capitalism by “find(ing) optimism in the inevitable” condition of commodification (Ouroussof).

Renzo Piano and Richard Roger’s Centre Pompidou arguably initiated the era of starchitects in the mid-1970s, establishing a prototype for urban development in the context of the emerging neoliberal consensus of the times. The Centre Pompidou showed how cities could recruit foreign architects to spearhead projects of urban renewal centered on spectacular spaces of consumption (McNeill; Zukin). According to Sharon Zukin, clients also saw this patronage of foreign talent as a way to display their sophistication and flare for the innovative. Since then, the starchitect has become a species of architect whose mere name is so enveloped in the mystique of genius that urban elites the world over now consider the commissioning of a building by a brand-name architect to be a municipal priority, regardless of the aesthetic or design quality of the project, its expense, or the demands it makes on local resources.

The rise of the starchitect as a global player indicates a quantitative if not (arguably) qualitative change in the urbanism of the last quarter century. Downtowns have become transformed from contexts primarily for functional centrality to centers of symbolic capital.8 With the development both of information and design technologies, it has become possible to design increasingly radical and flamboyant (or “iconic”) buildings and to disseminate images of this photogenic architecture instantaneously on a global scale. Images of downtowns replete with aesthetically fanciful buildings, instantly consumable for their vividness and superficiality, are now standard implements in the advertising toolkit both of established major urban centers and, like Dubai, cities attempting to establish a cutting-edge reputation for themselves. (How this fixation on the iconic will change in the post-crisis context is yet to be seen.) Starchitecture, which privileges the role of the architect as aesthete and genius of pure form and which elevates a few notable architects, investing them with almost superhuman powers of theoretical and aesthetic insight, is well suited to the demands of cities on the make. This is especially true in societies with little popular participation in the political sphere.

The invocation of dialectical theory (“finding optimism in the inevitable”) in connection to the supposed radicalism of Koolhaas’s architecture (p.83) is intriguing. Arguments in dialectical theory about the mobilization of the materials of everyday mass culture for projects of radical critique are not new (Adorno 2005; Bloch; Jameson 1974; 2007; Lefebvre 1991/1947). Koolhaas’s architecture is a soi-disant variant of “immanent critique,” an architecture that, some have argued, makes visible the limitations of late capitalism by exposing its logic from within (Jameson 2003). But some questions remain, including these:

  • In what specific ways are such projects radical?

  • How do they relate to elite power and elitist agendas for urban spatial production?

  • Can such elite projects be reconciled with architectural and urbanist discourses of progress?

  • Do they critique prevailing clichés and stereotypes about urbanism in the local contexts in which they are commissioned, or do they reaffirm such stereotypes?

  • Is starchitecture sensitive to the ways it excludes and includes, or is its approach to this issue simply a return to politically naive truisms about the autonomy of the architect?

Urban expertise, such as starchitecture, (what Lefebvre calls, with deceptive simplicity, “urbanism”) is both a political and an imaginative process (2003). The production of space is a social process involving the confrontation and negotiation of various practices (architectural, institutional, and quotidian) that is determinate, embedded in concrete relations of power. Urbanism is thus an ideology and a set of discourses consisting of representations deployed in specific projects of the imagination of the urban. While the bulk of my analytical attention will seem to focus on starchitects, primarily because this group presents the most complex and contradictory case of urbanism in the UAE, I should emphasize that the term urbanism has a much wider application in my critique. Not only architects and planners, but technocrats, bureaucrats, and intellectuals more generally are involved in urbanism. I therefore follow Lefebvre in applying the terms “urbanism” and “urbanist” specifically to the intersection between local elites (the family-state and allied landlords, development firms, and various official and quasi-official technocrats and intelligentsia who share the family-state’s and developers’ spatial ideology) and transnational actors such as journalists, academics, and, not least, architects who work in the UAE. All of these might be called, after Gramsci, traditional intellectuals, manipulators, and disseminators of hegemonic representations, in this case of urban space. I have chosen to broaden the geographical (p.84) context from Dubai to the wider UAE because urbanist projects in the latter can better contextualize those in the former. Obviously, each emirate of the UAE will have certain peculiarities. But urbanist projects and ideology across the UAE share enough similarities to make situating Dubai in its national context worthwhile.

Selective, ideological notions of history and culture are particularly visible, and the recourse to clichés particularly salient, in the case of starchitects “going south.” For example, a sympathetic reviewer of Koolhaas’s Waterfront City proposal notes that “the plan’s geometric grid gives way to an intimate warren of alleyways, like a traditional souk” (Ouroussof), a cultural justification for the project also, adopted by OMA itself. As I show in this chapter, urbanists almost automatically reach for such cultural stereotypes when writing about or theorizing spaces in non-Western societies.

An effect of this dependence by architects and other urbanists on cultural and historical clichés is the erasure both of their own power and that of the local elites with whom they collaborate on urban projects. Unaware of its social and political determinations, urbanism reproduces some of the more elitist traditions in architectural history. Starchitecture, as mentioned, reduces architecture to pure aesthetic experimentation, in turn cloaking itself in the rhetoric of radicalism while unwittingly playing handmaiden to local hierarchies of power. This is ironic for two reasons. First, compared to less brand-name practitioners, starchitects are less dependent on client patronage and are therefore more autonomous than their more pedestrian colleagues. They therefore have more agency over which projects to take on and are less dependent on satisfying clients’ desiderata. Zaha Hadid puts it this way:

The avant-garde segment has quite a bit more space to maneuver than the mainstream commercial segment. This is because our work is considered to be a kind of multiplier. Economically our buildings operate as investments into a marketing agenda—city branding for instance…. [Our projects] are paid for by funds that have been extracted from the cycle of profit-driven investment … as designers we can enjoy and utilize the relative distance from concerns of immediate profitability to further our experimental agenda. (McNeill, 18–19)

The second irony is that prominent firms, whether led by starchitects or not, are increasingly interested in issues of local and cultural sensitivity. (p.85) Such firms, according to Donald McNeill, are, like law firms, “strong service” providers, whose services include both international expertise and “local knowledge and cultural sensitivity” (13). McNeill adds that cultural understanding is central to networking and bonding between firms and non-Western clients (39). Two assumptions are operative in Hadid’s and McNeill’s comments. First, that avant-garde design is inextricably connected to investment and city marketing (as Hadid implies), and second, that cultural understanding is a matter of transnational marketing, with the attendant bodily, linguistic, and spatial practices that help architects “bond” with local contacts (as McNeill suggests). Some critical anthropological questions should be raised at this juncture:

  • Whose “culture” and what representations of it are being referred to here, and how are they deployed in the complex interplay between architects and other urbanists, such as clients, states, and state bureaucracies?

  • How are these representations of culture shaped by the marketdriven logic of urban entrepreneurialism and articulations between local elites and global urbanists?

While the rhetoric of starchitecture increasingly highlights cultural and local sensitivity, in practice it has tended instead to resort to cultural stereotypes and an almost total erasure of local power relations. Another irony, more specific to the UAE context, is that starchitecture does not overcome local urbanist discourses polarized between romantic notions of authenticity and local culture, on the one hand, and modernity, on the other; rather, starchitecture intensifies this polarity.

Urban Entrepreneurialism: Global and Local Urbanists Meet

Although architects and clients in the UAE frame projects within discourses of cultural sensitivity, ecological awareness, and aesthetic and political progressivism, such discourses tend to be ex post facto justifications of a specific politics of space. The intersection between global architecture and local power produces depoliticized stereotypes both of architectural history and of local history.

Anne-Marie Broudehoux argues that recent urbanization in China is dominated by “urban entrepreneurialism.” Her insights can also be applied, with minor modifications, to the UAE. Broudehoux notes the manipulation (p.86) of the landscape to transform it into a “cultural resource that can be capitalized upon and repackaged for new rounds of capital accumulation and consumption” (383). Moreover, “designer buildings have become essential tools of city marketing. Motivated by what could be called the Bilbao effect,9 cities around the world have embarked on a competition for global preeminence by building the tallest, most daring, and most technologically advanced buildings” (384–85). Broudehoux discusses the less well-publicized facts—from private-land confiscations by the state to forced internal emigration to public revenue losses—that are the social costs of urban entrepreneurialism. She also points out that this phenomenon has similar results independent of the formal political system in which it takes place (albeit taking an extreme form in China).

The urbanist production of depoliticized space and ahistorical culture precedes the arrival of starchitects in the UAE and is today a wider reality, although starchitects and their signature projects have a unique power to give such spatial representations an authoritative imprimatur. An early example of global-local urbanist interconnection from Dubai shows well the uses of historical and cultural stereotyping. In 1960, the then ruler of Dubai, Rashid Al Maktoum, commissioned a master plan for the city by British architect John Harris. A 1971 archival document I was able to access at a Dubai library in 2004, a modification of the 1960 plan, reveals cultural-representational and spatial logics that anticipate those of the more recent strachitects (Harris).10 The document is, of course, a description of and a prescription for Dubai urban development. Less obvious, however, is the fact that it is more than a simple technical exercise. Rather, it makes unwitting assumptions about Dubai culture and history that resonate with more recent starchitectural and urbanist representations.

The 1971 modified plan begins with a history of Dubai—how the town was founded as a settlement by an offshoot of the Bani Yas tribe (the rulers of Abu Dhabi), how it became a haven for merchants in the Gulf, how liberal and visionary the rulers were, and so on (4–6).11 To the reader unfamiliar with local history, it is a very bloodless, somewhat optimistic account of elite ingenuity and good policies through the ages. Those familiar with local history will recognize the foundation myth of the Al Maktoum embedded within this historical account. For example, there is a frequent conflation between the ruler and “Dubai,” which comes to be represented as an extension of the ruler’s will and agency. British imperialism is euphemized as “the British presence” and as a consensual relationship between Dubai and Britain (6, see chapter 1). The local political system Harris calls “traditional Arab desert democracy” (8). This “grants the (p.87) leader ultimate authority…. His Highness the Ruler directs and controls all development personally with the help of informal committees and representatives of all the interests concerned in each project” (8).

This is quite similar to the tendencies of the starchitects more recently commissioned by Rashid’s son and successor Muhammad. The analogy is not perfect, however. According to Yasser Elsheshtawy, who has looked more closely at the relationship between Harris and Rashid Al Maktoum, Harris was a modest and competent practitioner, not a preening “theorist” or self-styled “genius.”12 That Harris was far from a brand name architect was intentional. Rashid had someone like him in mind because in the 1960s the Dubai ruler could only afford to hire a relatively unknown architect. Moreover, according to Elsheshtawy, and unlike elsewhere in the Gulf, Rashid and Harris did not want to raze the old town and replace it with a modernist grid. Rashid and Harris wanted instead to integrate the old city with the new infrastructures and developments envisioned for the 1970s and thereafter. (One should, as well, avoid the temptation to homogenize the family-state. Rashid’s vision and intentions for Dubai, while perhaps broadly similar to those of his successor Muhammad, were far more aesthetically modest than those of his son. Rashid was more concerned with modern infrastructures, Muhammad with global imagery and urban entrepreneurialism.) Harris, for his part, seems to have been genuinely sympathetic to local people, to local architectural vernaculars, and to Dubai’s urban traditions. He was also serious about reconciling urban planning with local lived realities. The Dubai of the 1970s, according to Dubayyans to whom I spoke, had successfully integrated the old urban center with the new modern plan, a testament to Harris’s ability.

Nevertheless, we must distinguish the intentions of the author of cultural and spatial representations from the structural forces that constitute the possibility of those representations. There is in the modified plan of 1971 a tendency to assume the naturalness and wisdom of the absolute monarchy, to neatly divide the traditional from the modern as well as a related affirmation of the trajectory undertaken by the family-state, and to culturalize the traditional as intrinsically linked to an almost autochthonous local society. The effect is (inadvertently and without any malicious intent toward local people) to affirm one interpretation of local history and culture—the ruling family narrative—as the authentic narrative. In this alignment between apolitical expertise and the family-state, there is a strong resonance between the unassuming Harris and the more recent starchitects.

(p.88) An example of the latter, and a more overtly ruling-regime friendly case, comes from Eirin Gjørv, the director of the PBS film The Sand Castle, which aired in 2007. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed by the film’s producers for contextual background and one of my articles is listed as a resource on the film’s website.)13 Though excellent in many ways, the film, which is about an architectural competition to build a city from scratch in the emirate Ras al-Khaimah, also exhibits the flaws of contemporary urbanism, specifically, the lack of serious interest by urbanists in the ways that power articulates with cultural representation. In the filmmaker’s notes section of the website, Gjørv remarks on “the Sheikh’s (i.e., the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah’s) openness” to the presence of the film crew and the film’s subjects, who are architects from the Oslo firm Snøhetta (Wide Angle). Gjørv’s account of her experience strongly echoes Harris’s from over a quarter century before, emphasizing the ruler’s liberalism and entrepreneurialism and euphemizing the global architect–local elite relationship as a meeting of like spirits.

We had the exclusive opportunity to follow some of the most outstanding architects of our time as they work[ed] with the progressive and powerful men of Ras al-Khaimah, working to create change at a speed we rarely have seen before. Though the main characters in the film have very different cultural backgrounds, they all share a creative desire that builds bridges despite cultural differences. This joint creativity made it possible for our small film team to get close to the characters throughout the year as we documented a process that reflects the entrepreneurship found in this Middle Eastern corner of the world. (Gjørv)14

Other recent intersections between architects and local elites have led to a (perhaps retrograde) redefinition of architecture as well. In the UAE the starchitect enacts some of the least egalitarian traditions from the history of modern architecture. The iconic and monumental quality of buildings demanded by urban entrepreneurs has often been noted (Broudehoux; Parker 2005). This is usually interpreted (correctly) as part of the capitalist transformation of urban space into commodified space. There are, however, reasons for iconicism and monumentalism that have more to do with the history of architecture and the formation of architects as self-styled artists exclusively concerned with aesthetic form than they do with capitalism (p.89) per se. In a scathing critique of high modernism, Lewis Mumford referred to Le Corbusier’s urban plans of the 1920s and 1930s (the so-called Contemporary and Radiant cities) as “pathological,” exhibiting a Victorian obsession with bigness, a Napoleonic dream of centralization, and a Baroque insensitivity to time and functional flexibility (Fishman, 258–59).

Buildings, in this view, must manifest “authority” (237). They are the expression both of the architect’s and of the state’s genius (Scott 1998, 56). They represent a “geometric order [that is] most evident, not at street level, but rather from above and from outside, … in short, a God’s-eye view, or the view of an absolute ruler” (57). Frank Gehry described the Saadiyat Island project, a large arts and museums enclave in Abu Dhabi (for which he is designing Abu Dhabi’s branch of the Guggenheim Museum), in the following way, “It’s like a clean slate in a country full of resources…. It’s an opportunity for the world of art and culture that is not available anywhere else because you’re building a desert enclave without the contextual constraints of a city” (Fattah 2007).15 When Gehry talks about a “clean slate,” he cannot mean this in the literal sense, because there is at least one source of constraint, the client. For example, when the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta proposed a convention center design to their client, the ruler of the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, it was rejected because it was not iconic enough. As the assistant to the ruler put it as he literally sent the Snøhetta team back to the drawing board,

In the end, you know, if you see history, the people who built the places, big places, what they have built, all these crazy kings, … if we take Ludwig, he built this Neuschwanstein in Germany. It is a crazy place, but today everybody is visiting it…. Versailles, everybody is visiting it; Tour Eiffel, everybody … it is a grandiose, something which impresses people. I think you can create more than this; … this is a costly structure, with the same cost, you can make something much more grandiose. (Wide Angle Transcript, 12)

The Production of Space as a Clean Slate

When we started there was nothing but sand, birds, and sky. Today, lakes have replaced the sand. Tall towers reach out to the stars. Golfers sink birdies on world-class golf courses…. We (p.90) were the first to see the dream of Dubai as a modern, world-class city. And we were the first to see it through. We’re changing Dubai’s future.16

When Gehry and other urbanists mention the “clean slate,” they are referring to the wider social world in which architect and client operate. It is a space evacuated of history (as human struggle) and culture (as richlytextured everyday practice). Such space in turn becomes the arena for the unlimited creativity of the architect-genius. Henri Lefebvre argues that the elitist collaboration between state, market, and architect is a major obstacle to the breakthrough to the urban revolution, in which space is liberated from “the imperialism of know-how” (2003, 59). Class urbanism creates inertspace, space as nothing more than a container for objects, be they animate or inanimate, and for fetishized “needs.” The city, in this view, becomes “a simple spatial effect of a creative act that occurred elsewhere, in the Mind, or the Intellect” (28). Most disturbingly, “ever since its origins, the State expressed itself through the void: empty space, broad avenues, plazas of gigantic proportions open to spectacular processions” (109). Lefebvre’s insights from over forty years ago are surprisingly perspicacious even today in the context of urban entrepreneurialism in the global south.

The case of Dubai is instructive. Like Los Angeles, it is developing into an extreme version of the polycentric city. Since the early 1970s, when it had a definite center around a natural inlet, the Khor Dubai (Dubai Creek), the city has exploded into its present form. Dubai’s post-1990s sprawl into its surrounding hinterland, the area often called New Dubai, has been characterized by disconnected enclaves with their own amenities, security details, and infrastructures. The further from the traditional town center one goes, the more this is the case. Iconic architecture is not, moreover, always intended to announce Dubai as a world city but to signify the family-state’s or the landlord’s power, vision, and so on. Another aspect of Dubai urbanization is that land is not at a premium. Instead of, for example, clearing out entire neighborhoods for urban renewal, the city simply expands outward into the undeveloped terrain on what is, for the given moment, the existing city’s hinterland, creating new poles for urbanization. This situation gives the impression that urbanism is simply about the unconstrained willing into being of new buildings and enclaves. In reality, a specific kind of city is created, in which space becomes increasingly fragmented, subject to privatized instrumentalities of control, and mobility without the use of superhighways becomes impossible. Therefore, Dubai (p.91) sprawl is not a simple product of technical requirements, nor is its landscape a canvas for politically innocent aesthetic experimentation. Sprawl enables and consolidates the political power of landlords and the class power of wealthier city residents. This reality is not reflected in starchitectural and urbanist discourse.

According to the conventional narrative, over the course of his career Rem Koolhaas has at most been permitted only to observe cities that seemed to demonstrate his theory of the Generic City. For a brief moment before the financial crisis, it seemed that he would finally “get a chance to create his own version,” as one fawning reviewer wrote of his Waterfront City (Ouroussof). The reviewer continues: “Mr. Koolhaas’s design proves once again that he is one of the few architects willing to face the crisis of the contemporary city—from its growing superficiality to its deadening sterility— without flinching.” In this narrative, only Koolhaas and his aesthetic quest are relevant. The local context where he intends to apply this vision—Dubai as a real, concrete city—is replaced by the cliché “the contemporary city” and endowed with abstract qualities, “deadening sterility,” and “superficiality.” (Sterile to whom and superficial by whose standards?) The willful obliviousness of the architect, whose only experience of “the city” is managed by a local urbanist elite, is valorized as “unflinching” and courageous. The architect sacrifices himself and jumps into the void to rescue this “pathological space” (Lefebvre 2003, 157).

This conventional understanding of the architect is shared by other starchitects. For example, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects describes the UAE in this way, “We are trying things out for the first time which we wanted to try out, but couldn’t…. We have found an unusual degree of receptiveness to new ideas in the Gulf” (Brown 2008). For Schumacher, “the Gulf provides a research and development lab for the architectural industry.” PBS’s The Sand Castle describes the Ras al-Khaimah competition between Snøhetta and Koolhaas’s OMA as a race to “invent a city on the sand dunes” of the UAE (Wide Angle). “The coolest thing about building in the desert,” says Snøhetta’s Kjetil Thorsen in one of the film’s opening scenes, “is the desert!” The scene cuts to a meeting at the firm’s Oslo office, in which Thorsen dumps a mound of sand on the table, presses a ruler into the mound, and says: “This is a section of the site…. This is the hillside. This is the water. And take something like this [the ruler]. And just make an imprint into that landscape. And that’s the city” (Wide Angle Transcript, 1).

Once the clean slate is produced, a set of needs can be created. These needs, in turn, become identified with the so-called authentic local culture. (p.92) The former dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at the American University of Sharjah, UAE, one of the Gulf region’s top architecture schools, claims that “the experience of the vacuum, of the void” was central to the culture of “the Bedouin” (BBC Radio 3). He goes on to assert that contemporary UAE architecture is the Emirati culture’s attempt to lift itself out of the void, to create a sense of permanence. Emiratis do this by emphasizing the colorful, extraordinary, and decorative in architecture, he argues. One of his colleagues agrees, suggesting that since the mid-1990s, Emiratis have looked to architecture to define their identity (BBC Radio 3).17

The Discourse of Sustainability: Power in a Shade of Green

Identity, conceptualized as a bounded culture’s need for social cohesion, becomes reified, deployed as justification for urban entrepreneurialism and the politics of space in the contemporary UAE. One good example of the ways in which reifying spatial and cultural representations promote elite interests is the discourse of sustainability in the UAE.

Over the past five to ten years, the notion of sustainability has emerged as a priority for UAE urbanists. This is ostensibly a salutary development. The UAE is one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of fossil fuels and emitters of greenhouse gases. “If the world lived like each individual in the UAE, we would need 5.5 planets” (AME Info 2005). Abu Dhabi, the federation’s largest emirate, is the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases, per capita (Vidal). Moreover, UAE urbanists have recently referred not only to issues of ecological impact, but to economic viability and social equitability as goals which, they argue, their projects, not least, starchitectural brand-name projects, will help them achieve.

Urbanists in the UAE are beginning to make noises about each kind of sustainability—ecological, economic, and social. A 2007 workshop at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which I attended, was devoted to the theme of sustainability in the Gulf (CMES).18 The workshop’s organizer, a prominent Boston architect with a great deal of experience in the Gulf, declared in his opening remarks that in the context of rapid development, it is a moral, professional, and aesthetic quest to formulate a program of sustainable architecture. Among those in attendance were leading American and British specialists in sustainable architecture and two representatives (non-Emirati Arab expatriates) of a large Abu Dhabi–based real estate developer, Sorouh. What struck me about the discussion over the workshop’s two days was the abstract, technical framing of problems (p.93) of sustainability, and the conflation of orientalist or other ethnocentric stereotypes with locally situated problems of environmental impact that the UAE seemed to present. While expressing concern (doubtless sincere) for the sustainability of UAE architecture and urban development, many of the assembled experts almost automatically resorted to stereotypes about culture, politics, and economy to frame their urbanist programs.

Contrary to the technocratic, abstract myth of architecture fashioned by high modernists (Fishman, 238), “culture” is at the center of urbanist discourse on the UAE. The aforementioned workshop organizer attempted early in the proceedings to distance himself from Miesian modernism, which, he maintained, eliminates culture, considering it to endanger the purity of form. Culture, he went on, should be thought of as a passage from childhood to youth to maturity to old age. “Youth is the search for identity”; the UAE is a culture still in its “youth.” The mission of architects is therefore to provide this youthful culture with its identity. “We are dealing with societies (those of the Gulf) that need iconography.” He then proceeded to a slideshow of a recent project in Qatar, a 70-story building called “the Intelligent Tower.” The tower, he argued, has a cultural inspiration, referencing the garden of traditional Arab houses (the tower has roof gardens that, he maintained, symbolize “traditional” house gardens).19 The building is also an iconic structure, modeled on the cypress tree or sār, which is “a cultural symbol.” It is self-fertilizing, incorporating the male and the female, as well as personal freedom and longevity or eternity, values that the architect sees as rooted in Gulf culture.

I deal with orientalism and culturalism in more detail in the next section. For the moment, I would like to focus on how UAE urbanism, in the guise of expertise on sustainability, erases local specificity and implicitly legitimizes the elite production of space. Like the Harris plan modification of 1971, with its uncritical uses of “Arab democracy” and conflation of the Al Maktoum foundation myth with the history of Dubai, the participants at the Harvard workshop generally conflated elite narratives of space and locality with local space and culture per se.

In the ideological and discursive work of sustainability, the development of large leisure and retail enclaves does multiple duties, allegedly contributing to economic, ecological, and socio-cultural adaptation. Architects and real estate developers working in the UAE often make the argument that such enclaves, and most notably their “themed” or iconic architecture, are a rational, long-term adaptation to the economic demands of globalization. As one architecture professor at the American University of Sharjah argues in a paper on Dubai as a “global city,” urban entrepreneurialism is (p.94) what globalization is “all about” (Mustafa). At the 2007 Harvard workshop, the two representatives of the Abu Dhabi real estate developer Sorouh made a similar case for their enclaves. These were necessary for Abu Dhabi to join the global economy; developing such enclaves was a matter of urgency because the emirate was already behind. Abu Dhabi suffered 30 years of stigma “that they never developed anything.” The political leadership is committed to moving forward, they said. Primary among Sorouh’s desiderata are sustainable buildings and planning, they claimed. However, “with all this pressure to deliver, something has to give, and yes, sometimes we have to compromise.” Interestingly, as an aside, one of the presenters added, “We only follow what (Western consultants) tell us.” The implication was clearly that any deviation from the developers’ sustainable ideal was the result of outsiders’ extra-ecological (i.e., monetary) influence. Thus, the implication, often repeated by local UAE urbanists, is that the ruler, the landlord, or the real estate developer is agentive when the narrative is positive (Arab democracy, liberal policies, the UAE’s visionary urbanists) and that they are passive when projects manifest flaws.

In spite of narrow-minded Western consultants, UAE developers are creating sustainable urbanism, according to the Sorouh public relations men. They gave the example of Nakheel, the Dubai developer that is owned by the ruler Muhammad Al Maktoum (and for which one of the Sorouh men had previously worked). Nakheel (famous for their brash iconicism, exemplified by projects such as the World, an archipelago of artificial islands mimicking the world map) “caters to a wide spectrum of society,” by which the Sorouh man meant, simply, many nationalities. His implication was that this catering to diverse nationalities is somehow equivalent to “sustainability.” Other Nakheel projects, such as the Ibn Battuta mall, a giant amusement park and shopping mall whose theme is based on the famous Arab traveler’s journey from North Africa to China, blends cultural and heritage elements, thereby allegedly contributing to “cultural sustainability.” In doing so, the Sorouh men argued, it also provides a valuable educational service. (This is a common theme of Nakheel’s public relations; see chapter 3.)

“Sustainability” has recently become a theme shared by UAE urbanists and starchitects. Political, along with the aforementioned ecological, cultural, and economic, notions of sustainability are prominent here. As a member of the management consortium for Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi put it (echoing the Sorouh public relations men that Abu Dhabi is “moving forward”), the emirate’s rulers are “very conscious here that [the (p.95) arts and culture enclave at Saadiyat Island] can change the cultural climate in the region…. To be able to add high culture at the high end of international culture, this [is]a tremendous change” (Fattah 2007). Meanwhile, press materials for Norman Foster’s Masdar (“the Source”) project in Abu Dhabi, “the world’s first sustainable city,” list “equity,” “fair trade,” and “fair wages for all workers who are employed to build the city” among the priorities of the developers (Vidal).20

If the social reality of labor practices in the UAE is considered, the point about equity and fair wages is particularly difficult to take seriously. The 2006 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the UAE construction sector is a scathing critique of labor exploitation in the UAE construction sector, which is composed exclusively of foreign workers (see chapter 1). As I argued in the previous chapter, the abuses detailed in the report are systematic and structural, directly connected to the Dubai state’s ruling bargain with local corporations and tacit protection agreements with foreign private interests. Not coincidentally, starchitects depend on these laborers to make their projects realizable within accelerated timeframes and at immense scale. These workers constitute the real social basis for the socalled industry laboratory celebrated by starchitects such as Schumacher. Among other things, the report, entitled “Building Towers, Cheating Workers,” details widespread corruption among labor recruiters and employers, and practices such as expropriation of workers’ passports and nonpayment of wages for months or even years, as well as the inertia of UAE state authorities in intervening on behalf of workers. The report also suggests that risk in the UAE labor market is borne almost entirely by the workers. Employers find various ways of evading serious government oversight (labor recruiters even more so). Worker revolts and suicides were also reported by HRW (as they are, to some extent, in the UAE press). Approximately one in five of the nearly 2.75 million migrant workers in the UAE (2005 estimate) is employed in the construction sector (7, see chapter 1). These workers are largely illiterate and from impoverished rural backgrounds. They are housed in dilapidated labor camps far from the city limits. The camp I visited in 2006–7, called Sonapoor, the Hindi word for “city of gold,” actually a small town consisting of the camps for numerous construction companies, is at least five kilometers into Dubai emirate’s desert interior. School buses transport the workers back and forth between work sites and the camps. For daily necessities, the workers shop at overpriced camp shops selling goods marked up even from the prices charged at upscale Dubai shopping malls. Although there is some anecdotal evidence (p.96) (supplied mostly by the local press and therefore of limited reliability) that conditions in Dubai camps have improved (owing, among other things, to efforts such as HRW’s), conditions in other emirates, according to a credible local source I interviewed, remained as of early 2007 abysmal (intermittent electricity, lack of infrastructure, and non-payment of wages, to cite a few examples).

As discussed in chapter 1, the permanent UAE representative to the United Nations argued against HRW’s recommendations for reforming the construction sector. In a letter to HRW, he claimed that laws applicable in the western countries cannot be applied to workers in the UAE (70). For the ambassador, there is apparently no contradiction between drawing on the prestige and expertise of western starchitects while rejecting western human rights laws. The same can be said of UAE urbanists. A good argument can be made that with ventures such as Masdar, famous architects such as Foster are using the symbolic power of their names in genuinely progressive ways, ensuring that projects bearing their imprimatur contribute positively not only to a state’s reputation but also to the social relations prevailing within that state. One should not gainsay the counterargument to the one I am making here, that if all architectural projects followed Masdar’s lead, UAE urbanism may be far the better. It remains unclear, however, how far-reaching Masdar’s sustainable innovations will be (simply an isolated enclave of relatively good conditions or encouragement to other projects to do the same) as well as how local authorities will seek to contain the project’s progressive labor policies. However, even the most charitable reading of Masdar, which discounts the opportunism usually characterizing the sudden discovery of sustainability and justice by state-elite formations in the context of the recent global image economy of “green” symbolism, does not have a good response to the question: Are enclaves, with all that they imply in terms of elite political control, economic inequality, and the top-down rule of expertise, the best possible solution to contemporary urban problems that starchitecture can propose? Moreover, witnessing the repackaging by urbanists, such as Sorouh and Nakheel, of large enclave spaces of bourgeois gratification as “green projects,” one cannot help but recall the following insightful observation by Donald McNeill (made in relation to similar efforts to “green” airports).

As an envelope, yes, green airports are a possibility. But only if one ignores what is happening out on the runways and link roads and car parks that surround these light green structures. Indeed, (p.97) turning these environmental disasters into things of beauty has a parallel with some of the debates over the use of architectural monuments to prop up unpopular political regimes. (144)

In the UAE, the emergence of green ideology and the propping up of the political regime are not only analogous. They are often part of the same process.

The Spatial Re-Orientation of the East: Urbanism’s Dubious Anthropology

Urbanist projects in the contemporary Gulf often begin with references to “culture.” As we saw in the case of both OMA’s Dubai Waterfront City and Doha’s Intelligent Tower, this recourse to culture talk (Mamdani) is justified by urbanists as a progressive, positive critique. The architect or expert divines the supposedly authentic core identity of the society so that she may build in a more organic or humanly responsive way. This is certainly a laudable intention. But in practice things are more complicated, because most of the time urbanists end up reifying local culture rather than responding to it, in the process creating justifications of elite control.

Instead of perceiving the invented nature of the correlation between national identity and specific cultural icons, such as camels and traditional sports, dhows (Indian Ocean sailing vessels), desert landscapes, and Gulf national dress (Khalaf 1999; Onley 2005; 2007), urbanists usually take these icons at face value, assuming that they are expressions of authentic Emirati culture. One of the seemingly interminable debates through which UAE architectural practice is framed polarizes Emirati culture between tradition and modernity. The former is equated with authenticity, the latter with its opposite. Amr Mustafa, an Arab expatriate who teaches architecture at the American University of Sharjah, maintains that Dubai’s architecture is generally inauthentic, aping foreign postmodernist styles, which is in turn a result of the nonparticipatory nature of urban development in the city (Mustafa). Echoing Harris’s reference to “Arab democracy,” he recommends “the tribal system” of the UAE as the basis for a more participatory public sphere. In this he ignores the inconvenient fact that “tribalism” is largely an invented identity of the post-1971 or nation-building era.21 This formulation of authentic Emirati culture is ubiquitous among urbanists in the UAE, both local and foreign (BBC Radio 3). Among other things, it underpins recent projects of so-called heritage revival in various (p.98) emirates of the UAE and other Gulf states (Khalaf 1999; 2000). Even those who reject the valorization of authenticity or vernacular in the Emiratibuilt environment do so, almost exclusively, in the terms set by this traditionmodernity debate. In this debate, tradition signifies supposedly autochthonous aesthetic forms and cultural values, and modernity signifies the rejection of these and the embrace of western, especially neoliberal, notions of progress (see discussion in chapter 4).

The Boston architect who led the 2007 Harvard seminar echoes Mustafa’s sense of ennui with the region’s “modern” architecture and counsels a revival of the “traditional city” as an antidote both to urban anomie and to contemporary Gulf cities’ disproportionate ecological impact. “You have to follow in the footsteps of your grandfather,” he argues, holding out “the privacy-seeking, security-seeking world of the courtyard” as a model for future architecture. Sustainable architecture, for him, manifests a “coincidence between architecture and spiritual beliefs.” For this architect, “spritual beliefs” turned out to be exclusively (medieval, or, more accurately, “medievalist,”) Arab and Persian in provenance.

Even immensely talented architects such as Tadao Ando and Jean Nouvel (both like Foster, Gehry, Hadid, and Koolhaas, winners of the Pritzker Prize, the profession’s top honor, and the latter the designer of Paris’s stunning Institut du Monde Arabe, a building of deep sensitivity both to the local urban context and to the Arab experience) cannot avoid the occasional use of culture talk. Taking the Emirati state’s heritage revival project at face value, Ando incorporates the icon of the dhow as a signifier of the Arab authenticity of his Abu Dhabi Maritime Museum. (It is notable that this pan-Indian Ocean sailing vessel is converted into an Arab one in this narrative.)

Dhows, Arab sailing vessels with triangular or lateen sails, float over the voids of the interior space and help create an intense visual experience by relating objects to one another and to the museum architecture as a whole. Below ground, there is a second space—a reception hall with an enormous aquarium. A traditional dhow floats over the aquarium and is seen from different perspectives. (Arcspace)

Nouvel’s comment on the Saadiyat Island, where his and Ando’s projects will be located, points to an urbanist notion of landscape as almost the opposite of urbanscape, landscape as a repository of the primal, the authentic, and the intuitive.

(p.99) The island offers a harsh landscape, tempered by its meeting with the channel, a striking image of the aridity of the earth versus the fluidity of the waters. These fired the imagination towards unknown cities buried deep into the sands or sunk under water. These dreamy thoughts have merged into a simple plan of an archaeological field revived as a small city, a cluster of nearly onerow buildings along a leisurely promenade. (Arcspace)

For my final example, I return to the film The Sand Castle by Eirin Gjørv, which recounts the competition to build a new capital for the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah (Wide Angle). The film is in many respects a good example of urbanist ideology as it pertains to developing countries in the early twenty-first century, exhibiting a perhaps inadvertent loss of critical perception as urbanism encounters the cultural other. In form and in content, the film tends to romanticize both the figure of the architect and that of local culture.

The film opens with a shot of the desert. As the audience takes in the landscape, a mu’adhdhin calls the Muslim prayer. As the adhān (call to prayer) continues, the scene shifts to a close-up of Kjetil Thorsen, head of the Snøhetta team, kneeling in the sand and sketching an imaginary city as his colleagues look on. After a short vignette (the mound of sand on the conference table in Oslo, described above), the film returns to the UAE to give more atmospherics. A scene from a Bedouin dance, performed for all visiting dignitaries and at heritage museums as an example of authentic Emirati culture, is followed by a scene from a performance of the rimāya, traditional rifle shooting, another recent invention of the Emirati heritage industry which is, however (the film implies), like the adhān and the dance, evidence of Emirati cultural “authenticity.”

The camera then shifts to a position behind the four Snøhetta architects, the film’s protagonists. They are depicted walking in the desert. The viewer senses that they are searching for something in vain, something not quite concrete or definable. A close-up of Thorsen’s face comes next, indicating a sudden discovery: “Beautiful! Landscape, landscape, landscape, landscape!” (Wide Angle Transcript, 4). To emphasize the centrality of the landscape, the next two shots are again from behind the four architects. The viewer follows them as they climb a hill overlooking an immense, empty desert landscape. The last shot in the sequence is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Traveling above the Clouded Sea, with the travelerarchitects’ figures shrouded in darkness as they gaze out into the distance.

(p.100) As the architects contemplate the ineffable Emirati Landschaft the narrator intones, “the Snøhetta team is not alone in delighting in the romance of the desert and bidding for the capital’s master plan” (4, emphasis in the original). This brings Rem Koolhaas into the action. The landscape is also central to his attraction to the UAE. “It’s heart breakingly beautiful” (4). As Koolhaas says this, the camera shoots the landscape through the windshield of the jeep he is riding through the desert. The soundtrack kicks in with Arab flute music. The shot through the windshield continues, again emphasizing the landscape. As the windshield frames the shot, the audience is given the impression that the landscape is divided into four bands—the blue-white layer of the sky above the tan layer of the desert above the silver strip of the car’s hood above the black band of the dashboard. A different way to frame the previous, Friedrich-esque reading of the landscape, but the message is the same—the landscape is primal, consisting of simple, bare colors and emptiness. The Koolhaas vignette is completed with a close-up of the architect’s face as he sits on an airplane gazing at the urbanscape of Dubai (the architect as a brooding genius attempting to penetrate from above the essence of the landscape in which he will realize his vision).

There are various other representations of the landscape and the figure of the architect, but each advances the unfailing message—the local culture is steeped in “tradition,” iconically represented by exotic, aesthetic expressions of identity; the architect and his local elite client are visionaries who will excavate the landscape’s hidden potential, transforming it from its intuitive, primal immanence into its concrete final shape. As the film closes, the narrator says, “Ras al-Khaimah today still boasts a pristine Arabian Desert landscape of sand and rock. Soon a new city will stand here, an architectural landmark to attract the world’s businesses to this ambitious 21st century kingdom” (21). The final shot has Kjetil Thorsen, standing in an immense desert landscape at dusk, asking Khater Masaad, the ruler’s assistant and main handler of the Snøhetta team, “Can you see it already?” (21). “Yeah,” says Masaad, “I see it already. Yes” (21).

Culturalizing Spatial Politics

Although I am clearly skeptical of the phenomenon of starchitecture, this chapter should not be read as an indictment of individual starchitects, still less of architecture tout court. Nor do I believe that architects alone created starchitecture. The emergence of the architect as a marketable (p.101) commodity (something with which, to be sure, individual architects are complicit) is a complex phenomenon, connected with the rise of urban entrepreneurialism in the era of neoliberalism. It goes without saying that, at their best, the starchitects discussed in this book can be by turns visionary, challenging, and deeply sensitive to aesthetic experiment and to the local conditions where they work (see Barber; Glancey; Lubow; Templer 1999; Tusa). Moreover, for many starchitects architecture is, or should be, socially conscious in ways that, set beside their more aesthetically radical projects, can seem prosaic. Here is Hadid speaking to an interviewer, for example: “What I would really love to build are schools, hospitals, social housing…. I wish it was possible to divert some of the effort we put into ambitious museums and galleries into the basic architectural building blocks of society” (Glancey). Gehry’s first job was in public housing, a job he took, he says, because of his left-wing politics (Tusa). It is paradoxical that most starchitects would likely express solidarity with Gehry and Hadid yet not only work on politically dubious projects, but promote them as progressive.

Rem Koolhaas is, as is often the case with him, an example of the complexities and contradictions of contemporary starchitecture. Celebrated, justifiably, not only for his talent as an architect but also for expanding the profession’s definitions of design and even of architecture itself, Koolhaas has cultivated a persona which he and his admirers situate within modern western traditions of radical cultural critique. For example, he criticizes the profession for being politically “lobotomized” (Freund), elitist, and out of touch with “the world” and “the other” (Lacayo; Lubow). A main theme of works such as Delirious New York and S, M, L, XL, as well as of the projects he led on the Pearl River Delta, Lagos, and shopping, is the embrace and critique from within of the supposedly generic and commodified character of cities and urban regions during the past three decades. This idea has a venerable pedigree within radical thought. Ernst Bloch, a founding figure of Western Marxism, argues that everyday cultural forms and modes of expression can conceal elements of radical critique of the status quo, an idea that would influence the thought of Adorno and other Western Marxists (Bloch, see also Jacoby; Jameson 1974; 1991). Henri Lefebvre reached similar conclusions in turning Heidegger on his head and composing a Marxist “critique of everyday life” (1947/1991). Yet Koolhaas’s results are, at best, radical in a highly idiosyncratic way, requiring a great deal of interpretation even by Blochian standards to discern their radicalism. One example was the ill-starred Venetian Hotel Guggenheim project in Las Vegas. Intended by (p.102) OMA as a transformative collision of high art and leisure space, the project has become, less than ten years after its conception, a theater whose main function is the daily staging of The Phantom of the Opera (Hawthorne). Another is the collaboration with the Italian fashion designer Prada, which was drawn to Koolhaas as a result of his book on shopping.

Capitalizing on the insight that people spend more money in spaces that are not seen as purely commercial, Koolhaas has designed the Prada store in New York to be adaptable to cultural performances…. OMA is reformulating not only the space in which you shop but also the way in which you shop. The office team compiled a list of annoyances in shopping and devised many clever improvements. (Lubow)

Is this radical critique or merely expertise making the prevailing power relations more efficient in securing their domination? These examples suggest at least that the line between political engagement and political accommodation is a blurry one and that encomia to the inevitability of neoliberalism may be different from immanent critique.

Particularly marred by a facile and dubious reasoning are Koolhaas’s invocations of the other, culture, and related themes. Responding to an interviewer’s question about the future of architecture, Koolhaas once asserted that,

With globalization, we all have more or less the same future, but Asia and Africa feel much more new. I’ve been doing research on China recently, investigating cities that emerge suddenly, in eight years or so, seemingly out of nothing. These places are much more vigorous and representative of the future. There, building something new is a daily pleasure and a daily occurrence. (Heron)

Singapore, he goes on, has succeeded by “removing any trace of authenticity…. And many Asian cities are like this now, seeming to exist of nothing but copies.” Elsewhere, he tells us that Asian markets and African cities remain spontaneous, alive, and richly social, while in the West these have lost their spontaneity, have become more regimented and cold, “You could say that the shopping project is … about nostalgia for a pre-modern condition” (Sigler).

(p.103) Thus, although Koolhaas argues for an architecture that is more open to the world, such public utterances in practice end up increasing the gulf between architecture and its everyday contexts. Instead of a genuinely worldly architecture, we are presented with a way of conceptualizing space that relies on clichés about culture and globalization. Far from urban space becoming more open-ended and spontaneous, this approach strengthens power’s claim over, and identification with, space.

The alignment between global expertise and local elite interests favors an apolitical representation of local culture. In Dubai, in which architecture and images of a hypermodern, Westernized urbanity are central elements in the political project of the family-state to represent itself, depending on context, as vox populi, modernizing, or authentically Arab, starchitects and other urbanists are key producers of hegemonic cultural representations. Maktoum urban projects, along with those of other large firms (e.g., the Futtaim and Saif Ahmad Al Ghurair) are routinely presented in public as, on the one side, visionary and futuristic and, on the other, exemplary of the respective firm’s noble, merchant Arabian roots, a background which in turn (it is argued) enables the firm to successfully meld the “modern” and the “traditional.” Such representations redound to the credit of large holding company CEOs, such as the ruler himself. As the filmmaker Gjørv put it, the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah is creative, progressive, and, not least, powerful. Performances of Emirati culture by powerful men and their bureaucratic instruments (assistants, institutions, media) are conflated with Emirati culture and history in toto. Of course, such uses of Emirati culture are not unique to starchitects nor are they new.

In the late 1930s, the British Political Resident conveyed to the Dubai ruler, Said Al Maktoum, his opinion that instead of a more popular majlis, the ruler should “associate his people with himself in his government according to immemorial Arab custom by formation of a Council” (Davidson 2008, 36, emphasis added). Popular participation and “progressive tendencies” (35) were certainly not part of “immemorial custom,” according to this logic. To his credit, the ruler refused and acquiesced in his people’s demand for a more participatory government. In turn, the (albeit short-lived) majlis left a significant modernizing legacy from which Dubai citizens still benefit today (see discussion in chapter 1). The articulation between conservative politics and reified constructions of culture, however, would become a more permanent feature of the political and cultural milieu of modern Dubai and other parts of the UAE. The framing of local culture as an (p.104) essence residing in a supposedly autochthonous “Bedouin” society, as a mystery which can only be articulated, oracle-like, by selected representatives of the ruling family, and, not least, as ethnically Arab, would become useful in the post-independence period. This is a period in which the ruler and his allies would attempt to negotiate the contradictory claims made by different constituencies—critics of the modernizing trajectory, on the one side, and, on the other, proponents of the path chosen by the post-independence rulers Rashid and Muhammad. The latter constituency would appropriate the family-state’s Westernized, market absolutism (Kanna 2010a) and reframe it as an apolitical, Arabized neoliberalism (see chapter 4). The former, the critics, would appropriate the regime’s representations of Arab authenticity and, like their compatriots in the neoliberal camp, reproduce apolitical constructions of culture. In an earlier time, their critiques might have taken a different shape; these critics might have been anti-colonial reformist nationalists. It is a testament to the triumph of the ruling bargain ideology that criticism of Dubai’s version of modernity today tends to take, instead, an ethnocratic and religiously conservative form. It is to this tendency, what I call the “neoorthodox” persuasion, that I now turn.


(1.) This chapter is based on my “Urbanist Ideology and the Production of Space in the United Arab Emirates: An Anthropological Critique,” in Mc-Donogh and Peterson forthcoming. I am indebted to Gary McDonogh and Marina Peterson for close, critical readings of the earlier version. Thanks also to Hassan-Uddin Khan, Suha Özkan, and Marc Treib for engagement with and critique of a version of this chapter presented at the Roger Williams University International Fellows conference in July 2008. Yasser Elsheshtawy has been a longtime interlocutor on matters architectural in Dubai and the wider Arab world. His deep knowledge of Arab cities and his sharp engagement, especially with this chapter but also with the larger project of this book and various related papers, has been invaluable. Last but not least, I presented a version of this chapter in October 2010 at the University of the Pacific anthropology research colloquium. My thanks to Laura Bathurst, (p.232) Annlee Dolan, Bruce Labrack, Sarah Mathis, and Analiese Richard for their critical comments.

(2.) The recuperation of the tactile and bodily reconnection with space is a primary aim of what Frampton calls “critical regionalism.”

(3.) There have been various approaches to grappling with this question. Exemplifying one approach, writers such as Frampton, Jameson, and Adorno have critiqued architecture’s aesthetic assumptions and probed its experiential, subjective ramifications. They have asked questions such as what are the meaning, genealogy, and politics of the concept of the “aesthetic”? Others, such as David Harvey, Sharon Zukin, and Ghirardo take a more urban-sociological angle, asking questions such as how do “expenditures for museums, skyscrapers, concert halls, and other objects of bourgeois gratification come at the expense of important and necessary” projects? (Ghirardo, 15). Lefebvre’s approach represents something of a middle ground, inquiring both into the structural conditions by which urbanization has come to be a dominant feature of modernity and into modernity’s experiential domain. Yet another approach is that of the so-called Los Angeles School (Dear; Soja 1989; 1996), which has rightly emphasized the indeterminable, “indefinite and constantly shifting spaces of postmodernity” and the “peripheries rather than centers, alternative rather than dominant narratives and a multiplicity of ways of knowing” (Short, 49–50) characteristic of the city in late capitalism. This sensitivity to indeterminacy and diversity is something less in evidence in the work of Marxists such as Harvey and Lefebvre (see introduction).

(4.) The GCC countries are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. See the introduction and chapter 1 for a discussion of the effects of the 2008 financial meltdown.

(5.) Thanks to Yasser Elsheshtawy for pointing out the non-Emirati precursors. Personal communication, June 17, 2009.

(6.) The scholars to whom I spoke did not want to go on the record.

(8.) Thanks to Gary McDonogh for pointing this out.

(9.) Or, following Zukin, the Pompidou effect.

(10.) The original 1960 plan, it seems, is in the private collection of John Harris’s family. I was not aware of the earlier document when I came across the 1971 document. Thanks to Yasser Elsheshtawy for bringing the existence of the earlier document to my attention. Research based on Elsheshtawy’s access to the 1960 plan and interviews with Harris’s family appears in Elsheshtawy 2009.

(11.) The document is not originally paginated. The paginations here are my own and begin with the page preceding the table of contents.

(12.) Personal communication, June 17, 2009.

(13.) In 2010, I interviewed Gjørv, whose views on her experiences making the film turned out to be, unsurprisingly, far more nuanced than what she has (p.233) written about the same subject. She would not, however, go on the record with her comments.

(14.) The speed of the realization of projects and the extremely short time-frames that local developers demand of architects are often noted and positively evaluated in urbanist accounts of UAE architecture, but rarely is the social context mentioned—a deregulated labor market consisting of cheap foreign labor drawn from the immense surplus labor pools of the Middle East and South Asia (see Human Rights Watch 2006 and Kanna 2007).

(15.) Gehry’s talk about the local society being a “clean slate” resonates in striking and unappealing ways with another project in which he was simultaneously involved—a Jerusalem project of the U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center carrying the Orwellian name “Museum of Tolerance,” for which Gehry was until recently the chief architect. The land on which the museum is planned is an ancient Muslim cemetery called Ma’man Allah. Construction has already begun, unearthing scores of bones, according to Saree Makdisi. Even the head archaeologist at the site, an Israeli, has sharply criticized the project. Gehry recently announced that he was withdrawing from the project, ostensibly to focus on other, more urgent commitments.

(16.) Advertisement for EMAAR, which appeared in Gulf News, March 28, 2004.

(17.) To be fair, the dean’s theory is not uncontested by architects working in the UAE. Another colleague of his, to whom I spoke, gave an opposite theorization of UAE architecture—it is a triumph of impermanence and consumer space, said this architect. Like the New York Times’s Ouroussof, this architect argued that Dubai was an example of the Generic Cities theory (Koolhaas 1978). The architect, who saw Dubai as an example of successful urbanism within the frame of generic cities, attributed this success to the city’s rejection of permanence, continuity, and vernacular and emphasis on what he called “spontaneity” and “the psychology of attraction and enjoyment.”

(18.) All references to the Harvard workshop in this chapter are indicated by CMES.

(19.) See the following website for images and plans of the Intelligent Tower: http://ardalanassociates.com/projects/tower/

(20.) Those interested specifically in Masdar should consult Moser.

(21.) This is to say nothing about the fact that the majority foreign population of the UAE is excluded from the Arab-Tribal framing of the identity of the nationstate.