The NAi (new website) hosted the book launch and discussion featuring Rem Koolhaas, Mark Wigley and Ole Bouman Monday night in Rotterdam (10-09-2007).
The three presenters first outlined their positions about the gulf region context, before sitting down to take questions about the book. As a possible strategy to diffuse the potential early judgments and criticisms of the crowd, Bouman asked the question, “Who has been to Dubai [or gulf] and seen it first hand?” Roughly not even 10% of the crowd raised their hands, and only half-heartedly at that. It reflects one of the weaker themes of the evening that ‘we should not judge’ the situation in the gulf region, especially in the UAE. When it came to the questions at the end of the evening, the presenters were at times defensive, and repeated numerous times that the books aims to suspend judgment and rather present a detached overview/reading of the situation. But this is not to say the evening wasn’t full of great ideas, polemics galore, and of course, the exciting subject of Dubai and the Gulf Region itself.[display_podcast]
More Photos can be found in our photo section.
Ole Bouman: Architecture and Social Change
Ole Bouman presented the most aggressive position of the evening, arguing quite easily that Dubai and the other wealthy emirates are surrounded by the “ring of pain” extending from Africa to the Middle East, to Central and South-East Asia. Encircling this pocket of extreme wealth is the misery and hardship of internal and external wars, civil strife, infrastructure collapse, environmental destruction and a bottoming-out of healthy conditions for society. In a very powerful way, he toured the surrounding region showing the utter destruction of certain countries listing:
- 9 o’clock Darfur
- 10 o’clock Palestine
- 12 o’clock Baghdad
- 12 o’clock Basrah
- 1 o’clock Asfahan, Iran
- 2 o’clock refugee camps in Afghanistan
- 2 o’clock Pakistan
- 3 o’clock slums of Mumbai
- 4 o’clock Sri Lanka (Civil War)
- 5 o’clock Indian Ocean (Tsunami)
Understanding the scale and intensity of the strife and destruction is the turning point for Ole. Architecture, knowing these terrible things, should think hard about the problems, and the often simple ways to remedy the larger problems. He didn’t argue that architects were to tackle the larger problems, given the “absurdity” of the task, but rather engage with the everyday solutions to very real human problems. As an example, he showed a winning project for the 2007 Agha Khan design awards. The success, he says of the Samir Kassir Square in Beirut, Lebanon, is because of its meaning within the context. The simple public space with its trees, is a complete contrast to the grey concrete and at times destroyed city surrounding it.
While Bouman certainly declared the urgency and necessity of architects to engage with this dilemma, he seemed to receive a perhaps unflattering title of preacher, and proclaiming a messianic mission, especially by Wigley. It was as if Wigley ridiculed the task Bouman believed in, suggesting an absurdity to his whole mission to improve the world.
Rem Koolhaas: Dubai in Theory and Practice
Enter Rem Koolhaas, and his attempts to give a bit more of an introduction to the book and region itself, as a counter to Ole’s more general global perspective. In many ways, Koolhaas’ lecture was fragmented, developing a number of interesting themes, that didn’t always connect. Starting with an interpretation of globalization and its economics, he then went onto the “earnest” history of architecture and urbanism in the UAE. He further aimed a refusal of Mike Davis’ position that Dubai is an “Evil Paradise”, and continued with a declaration of the already or imminent “collapse of iconography”. The last treat were photos of Rem interviewed on Al Jazeera -and the audience was clearly pleased with this.
This theme concerning the transfer of financial control from the established markets to the emerging markets was by far the most interesting. It especially concerns the idea of semi-democratic countries beginning to invest in established democracies. Traditionally, while the developed western countries of Europe and North America have largely had the greatest financial stakes in the rest of the world, this is reversing. It is a story you can read about in nearly every issue of The Economist and The Financial Times. The above slide illustrates the wealth of individual nations and their democratic status. It of course concerns the west, and our ability to control our own resources, companies, and markets when large stakes are bought-up by either dictatorship-controlled or semi-democratic nations.
In the book, AMO aims to highlight the early period of the extremely compressed history of architectural and urban design in the UAE. In contrast, they argue that it was western architects and urbanists that have recently contributed to the current situation of hyperbolic, iconic, and often kitsch projects. Can we perhaps interpret this to be such offices as Atkins Middle East -well documented in Al Manakh? The two above images are particular favourites of Koolhaas, showing the apparent seriousness and earnestness of understanding the urban issues and problems. Other references to back the argument of seeking design excellence in the gulf region from the period of the 1970s onwards leads to projects by respected western designers such as Alison and Peter Smithson, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and also the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. Of course the book goes into full details. In many ways there is strong grounds to argue that the region developed through its first “modernization” during the 1970s and 1980s with a seriousness of task. The unanswered question then, is how did Dubai design today arrive at spectacle and commercial hype?
In the most polemical part of Koolhaas’ talk is the refutal of Mike Davis‘ claim that Dubai is creating a condition of slavery for the workers, thereby creating an illegitimate condition, an evil paradise. This is a very sticky subject, and I do not want to get caught in-between the arguments. There is truth in what both Davis and Koolhaas is saying. The worker’s housing photograph was taken by AMO (or a local surrogate) when visiting a housing district. Koolhaas argues that the conditions are not that of slavery. He also claims that “we were the first to enter these areas” which might or might not be true. Koolhaas also argues that these housing conditions are typical of Asian situations, and that to “read this as slavery, is to misread the Asian condition.”
This is an argument which will always be balanced between the two sides, depending upon what standards we set. If we expect that the Dubai workers should receive the same standards as Posh Spice and David Beckham who own beach property in Dubai (Dubai World?) then clearly there is a problem. If however, we only expect “Asian conditions” for the workers who inevitably all filter into Dubai from the “Ring of Pain” surrounding the region, then everything is fine.
Koolhaas then jumped to the familiar subject of the “collapse of the icon” in Dubai. This has been presented world-wide, from Moscow to Montreal, and is not worth commenting on. The biggest criticism most people have is that the very notion of the “starchitect” is useless. Perhaps there is no legitimacy to “Starchitecture” at all.
Also presented were sketch masterplans of Dubai. They were beautiful plans that speculated what could happen in the desert region beyond the current developments. One massive oversight is the obvious fact that nobody builds in the desert now, and is unlikely to anytime soon. The current idea of Dubai completely revolves around water (a psychological element of survival). The OMA plans are obviously speculative, and served to show the size of what is possible -fitting London, Paris, Barcelona and many other cities into the vast desert. It is not a convincing future of Dubai -can we imagine many developers willing to extend Dubai into the sea of sand?
During the question period, one of the audience members pointed out that Koolhaas “let the cat out of the bag” in terms of his critique of Dubai. In the plan, states Koolhaas, we can see that “there is still hope for Dubai”. According to Rem, today’s practice of creating -at the hand of foreign architects- “enormous developments that focus on the tourism” and “creating endless coastal loops of resorts” is “utterly unsustainable”. The hope for Dubai is also that a new period of design will emerge. This is exemplified, Koolhaas adds, by the recent plan of Sir Norman Foster’s zero emission urban plan.
Clearly the biggest crowd-pleaser was the photo of Rem presenting Al Manakh on Al Jazeera television. You could feel his sense of pride.
Mark Wigley: Going into the Desert
Mark Wigley won the award for rubbing the audience the wrong way. While admitting “never having gone to Dubai”, he was happy to say that he “sends many people there.” He also wins the award for being the most defensive of the three speakers. At nearly each question he attempted to accuse the questioner of being judgmental. Repeatedly he argued that the book was not created to pass judgment on Dubai. It became utterly banal and boring. He states that, “The purpose of the book is not to dictate a path, but to open possibilities for the intelligent reader.”
One appreciated argument from Wigley was that it was the architects in Dubai, and not Dubai that was off course. This however seems like judgment. The rest of his talk focuses on a free-flow discourse about the desert and our perception of it. The desert represents the void of spatial definition, something that – in the West – we feel a need to attack and conquer.