October 8, 2009
Cityscape Dubai should have been the ultimate moment for schadenfreude, the big word that has entered the Dubai popular vocabulary with a few pronunciations. However it seemed that Cityscape quietly passed by. People said they just could not manage to make it this year. Crisis, at least for the moment, lost its appeal as a rubberneck sport. If you did a scan of how people were categorized in the halls, it was mostly exhibitors versus the media. The two staring at one another in the absence of the element that makes Cityscape work: investors. As Cityscape’s opening approached there had been some major companies who had announced they would not participate but then made an almost simultaneous about-face.
They had enough time however to have an in-unison message: ‘Delivering’. Its solitary presence replaced the already limited vocabulary of earlier years: vision, future, next, exclusive, possibilities, pride, attitude. Instead of models of the future, developers showed models of their resume, models of completed projects dusted off, revised and transformed into trophies. At the exhibition of one of Dubai’s larger developers, I witnessed a booth attendee – one of the stewardess-uniformed women who populate booths but are never versed in the projects – receive orders from a nervous exhibition organizer. All of the trophy models needed a sign attached to them that read in big letters, ‘completed completed completed completed’. ‘Can you do that? Put a sign on every one of them that says “completed completed completed completed”?’ She nodded, though it was clear she did not know what to do. He turned to walk away. Three steps gone, he turned quickly around and said, ‘No. Put a sign on every model that says “delivered delivered delivered delivered”’. On message. The shared response was clear: delivered meant completed but it also meant handed over to the owner; it meant that development had become homes and offices.
Nakheel delivered the world. Last year Nakheel launched the world’s next tallest building, but this year its anchor was a giant model of nearly completed Palm Jumeirah, with signs posting its various components: ‘Delivering Hotels & Residences’, ‘Delivering the Monorail’, ‘Delivering the Fronds Villas’. You could almost read the booth as an afterward of a finished project: 1960 (’Birth of a Vision’) to 1999 (’Inspired by a Vision’) and then a chronology of Nakheel’s ‘Delivering’ that vision. Nakheel had, it seemed, completed Dubai by completing its projects.
Abu Dhabi’s Hydra properties had another strategy for evincing ‘delivery’: the engineer as broadcaster. Fitted with hardhat and a correspondent’s microphone, engineer Colin Hinds happily reported from site that work was on schedule. Cranes were swinging in the background and digging continued. Hydra’s on-site expert was there to prove that the project was being delivered. You could alternate your attention from the devoted expert to the shiny model. Your reality was going to happen somewhere between the two.
And who was this message of deeds really for? Angola for one. Displaying a map of northwestern Africa, (inexplicably) a Formula 1 race car, and a sign announcing ‘The Fastest Growing Economy in the World’, a firm called RS Capital was introducing Angola to the development game. It has oil, farmland and a population that needs jobs and houses. A Portuguese representative explained that they were not there necessarily for individual investors really; rather, they were scouting and courting big regional developers who ‘had little to do here’. With large scale relief models of Angola’s virgin green land and conceptual proposals with names like ‘Gardens of Eden’, Angola was offering Dubai a way out, a new start. And development was not the only offer. Agriculture and aquaculture were on sale. The representative explained to me the agricultural projects were meant only to feed local Angolans. I asked what interest a Gulf investor might have in that. It seemed there were also opportunities to invest and export the produce back to the Gulf. Angola was putting out all its cards, offering the kinds of all-encompassing deals that only G2G (government-to-government) negotiations can produce.
If Dubai’s developers were striking a new pose, Meraas played the role of the old new Dubai with the return of its Jumeirah Gardens project – fierce optimism. Launched at the 2008 Cityscape, its huge redevelopment project for Dubai’s Satwa neighborhood was terribly timed. Its executives admit as much, but now the story is pitched that the crisis gave them more attention, because the press had little else to report on and they were able to use the slowdown to refine their plan. It was said the project had been toned down, but the giant model still showed Satwa’s modest white villas replaced with the world’s next tallest tower, wide boulevards and canals. Other models showed how these new developments would supply all the necessary parking underground in a subterranean web that included metro lines, regional rail lines so that the streets above remained open for pedestrians, cyclists and trams. Jumeirah was not only a good investment, it was good urbanism. Who could argue?
A victim at Cityscape this year was the World Architecture Congress, an event that has never caught up with the audacity of its title. Its steep price tag is a deterrent to getting architects to attend. 2009 proved an even more difficult year. The hall never had more than 50 listeners. That was a real shame considering the public speaking talent of this year’s master of ceremonies, Peter Rees, the head planner for London’s Central Business District. The man seamlessly segued from one topic to another, easing into his own keynote address from the previous speaker’s conclusions without notes or a PowerPoint slide. You could listen to him for hours.
Mr. Rees’ keynote address (entitled ‘Wacky Banking + Wacky Architecture = Global Meltdown’) took as its launching point that the global crisis was an American-induced catastrophe. Not only the unscrupulous and greedy banks but the American consultants who sold the ‘wacky’ architecture to the rest of the world, and to Dubai. This was an assumption quickly called into question by the conference’s own schedule. Next to speak was a Britain-based architect, Will Alsop, who according to his introductions may or may not have already given up architecture to pursue painting.
Alsop did not indicate whether his talk’s title, ‘Icons In A Post Iconic Age’, was given to him or if he had suggested it himself, but one was left to wonder whether his resorting to painting was a reaction to the market’s decreased appetite for architects or for, well, icons. After being introduced as a former architect, Alsop intimated that he might not be out of the game just yet. It seemed, maybe, plans could change if a deal were brokered this week in Dubai. There was that recognizable but ineffable tone that architects can generate, where arrogance-fueled faith in the self meets an embarrassing hunger to win approbation (and new work). Mr. Rees and he both took pride in celebrating his irreverence and insistence on speaking his mind.
In addressing the icon, he showed his own collection. The problem was not the icon; it was ‘bad architects’. He spoke of architects and clients who wrongly believed that icon-making was a button – ‘pushing the funny button’ – that could whip up a dull design and give it the twist and curves it needed to stand out. How he made his own icons was not made clear, though at one point he presented a building in a Canadian city – which he described as being miserable (and therefore in need of an icon?) – whose first draft design was shown as a ‘before’ slide, prior to its metamorphosis (’you rough it up’). A forgotten Canadian town got its icon.
Still confused about his stand on the current health of the icon, I asked him about his experience in Dubai (’very little’) and whether the crisis had any effect on the meaning of icons especially in a city like Dubai where the notion has become an old trick. He disagreed that it was an old trick. Dubai still had no good icons. He didn’t say it directly, but I got the impression his tactics will remain unchanged and his ambition was not going to be quenched with watercolors.