In recent years Dubai has become synonymous with a ‘skyscraper city’ or a ‘global melting plot’. Its development pattern is often compared to Shanghai or Singapore, where urbanization followed rapid economic expansion and spread before it could actually be fully planned. Criticized as having an unsustainable growth pattern based on imported ideologies from the west, one does question what the real identity of Dubai is. In just three decades its population tripled. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of foreign expats born in the city increased by 500%. With Emiratis’ making up 9.4% of the population, it is the city with the highest percentage of expats. This explosive period led the city to invest in infrastructure to accommodate the growing migrants and keep up an image to ensure the influx of people. Noticeably this did not lead to the development of informal communities as it has in other parts of the globe. Dubai created the symbol of modernization or internationalization for itself as we know it today – communities of tall glass clad buildings, massive highways, the tallest building in the world, the largest shopping mall in the world (by floor area), ski slopes, beach fronts, luxury hotels, gated communities, man-made islands, a newly built ‘downtown’. Suddenly nothing is impossible anymore. This is the realization of the vision the rulers of Dubai.
Has architecture had the room to be able to evolve with such a rapid pace of expansion? The historical area is limited to a small percentage of the city with nobody living there anymore and most new residents almost never visiting it. Buildings from the modernization era in the 1990’s are slowly disappearing and giving way to tall skyscrapers that have become the norm for new construction these days. So what is vernacular in this case? What define its identity – architecturally and culturally?
Surely there should be more to what the eye can see. It truly is a global melting pot being the home to approximately 200 nationalities today. It is almost on every list of ethnically diverse global cities making it the home of almost 3 million people. It is a city where communities from different parts of the world live together and bond creating their own version of ‘local’ culture. Having friends and colleagues from the other end of the world is ubiquitous for residents, who go through day to day life almost without acknowledging it.
I would like to borrow an anecdote from Charlie Koolhaas, a Dutch photographer whose fascination with Dubai led her to create the exhibit titled ‘Dubai Next’ in Weil am Rhein in 2008. In her talk at Het Nieuwe Institute in Rotterdam on 15th June, 2017 she described her experience interviewing construction workers in Dubai. Among stories of degradation and deprivation, there were also stories of bonding. It is unique to have Muslims and Hindus from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India living in harmony and forming a community of their own. Among the inequality there emerges a tolerance for other nationalities and religions.
‘Two couples crossing each other on the beach without ever acknowledging each other show the evidence of religious tolerance’. Source: Charlie Koolhaas
Dubai doesn’t explicitly embrace its past and has grown without really evolving. Dubai adapted to events around the globe and created its own identity – that of the ‘global city’. Unlike its neighbors – within the country and outside it – it was the first to create this image of the modernized Gulf city leading to the coining of the term ‘Dubaization’. This is defined as ‘the act of building a city which relies on spectacular, non-contextualized architecture’. The influence of this continues even today, both positively and negatively. Although its flaws are confronting, there is no denying that it challenged the boundaries of the image of a Middle Eastern city.
In conclusion, I would like to refer to another picture from the exhibit of Charlie Koolhaas. Among Starbucks and H&M in a mall lies the Chinese exhibit of the explorer Zeng He symbolizing the amalgamation of modern western capitalism and a radically historical symbol in a public space. These unlikely coincidences occur very often with passerby’s almost never noticing it in the most unlikely place – Dubai.
Image: Emirates Mall, Dubai. Source: Charlie Koolhaas