After Abu Dhabi, the next stop on the tour was Dubai… the almost mythical Emerald City in the Arabian Desert.
I’d also seen plenty of photos of this city, of course, and heard so much about it. From what I’d read and seen, I thought it was fairly small - a short strip of new, glass high-rises arranged along the main expressway, surrounded by a few residential neighborhoods. Instead, it turns out that the place is huge. That short strip of towers is actually fairly long, and seems to go on forever. Then, when you finally do come out of it, you notice there’s another cluster of towers in the distance… and another one beyond that. I guess three million people take up a lot of space!
Like Abu Dhabi, there is a sense here that everything is brand new and there are construction cranes everywhere. Vast new tracts of land are being carved out of the desert regularly, for new developments. And it seems like every new development is in Phase 1 or 2 of an extremely ambitious, multi-phase project that will eventually be 10x larger than what is currently built.
Unlike traditional cities, these master-planned developments seem to exist as independent, stand-alone communities rather than part of a civic fabric. Investment appears often to be the product of a joint private-public partnership.
The advantage to this method is that it allows for much more ambitious and innovative ideas within the development. I find it fascinating because outside of Asia and the Middle East, you really don’t find many examples of this anymore. In the post-WWII period, governments throughout Europe, North and South America launched ambitious plans to re-invent our cities and how we live. Examples include Milton Keynes in England, La Défence and the “villes nouvelles” around Paris, Brasilia, Don Mills in Toronto, and even Albany, New York.
Today, those ideals of how to re-invent communities and civic spaces have largely been abandoned in the west… replaced by a sort of cynicism about development that is more piecemeal and far less ambitious.
But some developing countries like China and the UAE have continued to embrace this idea about creating better ways of living through master-planned architectural developments. The goals are still about improving community and ways of life, but also include new, 21st century ambitions like creating carbon-neutral footprints (such as Masdar in Abu Dhabi).
The other key difference is that these new developments are initiated or supported by private development money, rather than public money, as was generally done in the West in the post-War period. Still, in many ways, I see these projects as the successors to those ambitious, failed utopias. It remains to be seen whether these models will find more success in the long term. In the meantime, they are fascinating and well worth exploring. I love the idea, and exploring them was fascinating.
There is a darker side, though, and a certain risk of creating “islands” of wealth that don’t interact with the larger city, alienated from the general population. The most healthy and dynamic cities have traditionally been those with a true urban fabric, and a diverse mix of people at all socio-economic levels interacting in close physical proximity.
Still, Dubai has made a lot of investment in its city (or cities, as it were), creating civic projects like the marina district as a public community space, and the super-sleek elevated light rail line to link the various communities. And even those new developments in the UAE, the general public is encouraged to visit, explore, and spend time.
This private-public partnership has also created a lot of wonderful cultural spaces, such as the Jameel Art Centre. This space is one of the first contemporary arts institutions in Dubai. It's situated on the Dubai Creek, just upstream from the old city center in an area that had not previously been developed. The centre’s multiple gallery spaces are home to curated commissions, projects, and solo and group exhibitions, drawn both from the Art Jameel Collection and through regional and international collaborations.
The Jameel Art Centre is intended as a hub for educational initiatives and cultural events, and includes an open-access research library dedicated to artists and cultural movements of the Arab world. It also includes project and commissioned spaces, a roof-top terrace, writer’s studio, members’ lounge, restaurant and shop.
The building itself is a specially-commissioned, three-storey, multi-disciplinary space designed by UK-based Serie Architects, in collaboration with Wael Al Awar and the team at local Dubai-based ibda design.
The centre is clearly inspired by the local architectural vernacular of the region, in much the same way as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, with a series of white cubes that create both a neutral space for the art to be displayed, and also interesting courtyards and opportunities for indoor/outdoor space.
These courtyard gardens are even located on the upper floors of the building, so the visitor never completely loses connection to a sense of place.
And speaking of Dubai Creek, it is here that the old city centre is located. When people think of Dubai, they always think about gleaming new towers and malls sprouting out of the desert. And that is certainly part of it. But there is an old city with a traditional urban fabric that is worth exploring. When I travel, I love to see how people live their daily lives. So I will often want to seek out markets and grocery stores and hardware stores and places where daily life happens. I love seeing the differences and similarities.
In the case of Dubai, that area is mostly around the old fort and suq (market) on one side of the creek, and Deira on the other. Much of the historic 18th and 19th century city center had previously been razed. But recognizing the need to connect with its past and architectural and social heritage, much of it was recently recreated using traditional building techniques. It now hosts the Sikka Art Festival, which our delegation visited and was hosted by the organization, who offered us a wonderful meal and tour.
Immediately surrounding that area is the old fort, the government ministry buildings, and a lot of older, mid-rise office and residential buildings from the 60s through the 80s. It felt good to explore a part of the city with a bit of history, that was less polished.
So yes, clearly not everything is shiny and new in Dubai, and that’s a good thing. There are also examples of where the city is starting to preserve and re-use existing spaces, such as Alserkal Avenue. This warehouse district has been converted into a series of art galleries, cafes, and even a classic car showroom.
At its center is Concrete, a new event and gallery space designed by Swiss architects Herzog & deMeuron. The building is simple and understated, and perfectly complements the existing surrounding warehouses.
Clearly, Dubai has started to realize that preserving its past is also essential to creating a sense of identity.
A short drive from Dubai is the Emirate of Sharjah. Sharjah is known as a more conservative city than its glamorous neighbor to the south. The city is known more for its mosques than its shopping malls. But the city also has a long-standing claim as a center of culture and tourism.
There are many museums here, and the city holds a biennale for both art and architecture. These events are held in a series of exhibition spaces in the traditional city center.
It’s beautifully restored and immaculate. It’s a perfect backdrop for the art.
There’s even a Rain Room! This installation was created by artists Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass, and has had temporary exhibits at various locations, such as MoMA in NY, the Barbican Centre in London, and LACMA in Los Angeles.
It's essentially a pitch black room with a strong spotlight at one end, and water cascading from the ceiling, as if it was raining heavily in the room. Visitors walk through the rain without getting wet, thanks to sensors that detect your presence and stop the rain in your location. The sensors are slow, though, so if you walk quickly, you will get wet.
The Sharjah Art Foundation constructed a purpose-built visitor centre located in the city's residential area of Al Majarrah to house the permanent installation of Rain Room. The exhibit was inaugurated last year. It is part of the Sharjah Art Foundation Collection and the first of a series of artist-designed permanent spaces planned for Sharjah.
Also, the city center is older and there are not the same master-planned developments and communities that you see in Dubai, or even Abu Dhabi.
While most of the group spent the day exploring the art biennale, fellow photographer George Byrne and I went out into the town to see what we could see.
Turns out there are lots of great mid-century modern buildings in Sharjah. It is easy to see this town becoming a destination for classic modernist architecture.
Unfortunately, it appears that development is also starting to hit Sharjah pretty hard. So there’s a lot of pressure to demolish these buildings and build larger towers in their place. Hopefully, the city will put some laws in place to ensure that enough is preserved before it’s all lost and the city loses its character. As other places like Palm Springs have learned, there is a business case for preservation, and it can become a destination for tourism.
We ended our official tour of the UAE with a visit to the Etihad museum, which located at the site where the accord was established between the Emirates to create the new State in 1971, as the period as a protectorate of the United Kingdom was coming to a close (Etihad means essentially 'United' or "Alliance" in Arabic).
This museum, designed by architects Moriyama and Teshima in 2016, is meant to emulate the parchment that the leaders of the separate Emirates signed to form the UAE. The museum is arranged next to, and underneath, the original circular building where the accords were negotiated and signed. They are also adjacent to the original government palace, which is a modernist building that is still preserved today.
Much of the museum is underground, including permanent and temporary galleries, theatres, event spaces and archival facilities.
On my final day before leaving Dubai and the UAE, I had to try what seemed to me to be the most Dubai thing possible… I went snow-skiing.
Yes, there is an indoor ski area in Dubai. It was a lot of fun, albeit completely surreal. Of course, it’s not going to replace skiing in the Alps or even Mammoth. But it was great fun, nonetheless. The place was full of Europeans, actually… lots of kids in ski schools, with European instructors speaking to them in French, Spanish, German, English, etc. Apparently, it’s common for the expats living there to send their kids to ski school at this place so that they are ready when they get back to the old country.
Anyway, the whole experience was wonderful, and I look forward to returning, as there's still so much I just didn't get a chance to see or do. I want to also have more time to do proper photography.
I am forever grateful to Meridian and the UAE Embassy in DC for arranging the whole thing. Special thanks to Haitham, Dana, Terry, and Lindsay for being wonderful guides and hosts.
And a huge shout out to my fellow delegates... you guys were awesome and really made the experience special. I believe that we've established life-long friendships from this experience together.
This visit has given me a much deeper understanding about - and appreciation for - the country. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.