What Business Bay Dubai will look like—if it is ever completed.
Phoenix meets Hong Kong, Instant Urbanism, Go Go Architecture—none of it quite describes Dubai. The Burj Khalifa (see my previous post) is only the exclamation point to the tectonic uplift of real estate development that has created not just one, but several human-made mountain ranges rising out of the flat desert next to the Gulf. Flying out last night, it all spread out below me.
Burj Downtown District
The Burj Khalifa anchors the Emaar development that includes a large mall, thousands of homes designed to New Urbanist principles, and a host of 20- to 30-story towers. Right next to it a rival developer, Dubai World, is building Business Bay, a loose grouping of both residential and office towers that are half-finished and half-empty. One of the more modest ones is a beautiful effort by New York’s Reiser + Umemoto, its undulating white façade perforated in a random pattern to resemble an Arab screen. To the north of the Burj Khalifa, the slightly older Convention Center District stretches along Sheikh Zayed Road towards the traditional urban core around Dubai Creek. And 15 kilometers to the South, the Marina District is developing into a Hong Kong-like cluster of very closely spaced mixed-used towers rising up to between 50 and 70 stories, with one slated to go up to 120 floors from an amazing 110-foot-square footprint.
Why? How? What does it mean? What does it matter? These questions are especially relevant since Dubai’s economic implosion, which has seen rents and sales prices of both apartments and offices plummet by half and hundreds of cranes idled around half-finished skeletons. But work has not stopped, the villas still cost millions of dollars, Abu Dhabi invested an extra $10 billion to pull one of the developers, Dubai World, out of its tailspin, and Dubai has become a vast new city of almost 4 million people. And that may be the answer: the ephemeral wealth that has come from oil and gas has been fixed into three-dimensional form that, even if the returns aren’t quite there, has become a fact. Dubai is an act of self-conscious citymaking, a will to metropolitan status. Build it and they will come—and they have.
What are lacking are many of the amenities that make cities work, from public open space to mass transportation, from cultural facilities to sports stadia. Dubai is building some of them: a people-mover system just opened and has instantly filled up, mainly with lower-paid workers. The Burj Khalifa and its mall attract tens of thousands to its water feature, complete with dancing fountains, and promenades, though they are of course not truly public. It is Abu Dhabi, however, that is building the other stuff: the Guggenheim and Louvre branches and a Formula 1 race track (about which more soon). It looks to become the tourist Mecca to Dubai’s business hub.
The two are about 1.5 hours apart but growing together rapidly, and if ideas for a high-speed rail link come to fruition, it might all work. The Dubai airport has become a major hub, and the many resort hotels and speculative waterfront developments (such as the Palm and World islands developers created offshore) are attracting European vacationers. It ain’t all very logical or pretty—the Burj Khalifa is about the only truly beautiful building in all of this—and it is all very segregated by class and race, with hundreds of thousands of mainly Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan workers making it all work. But it is by now a fact, and a very large one. It is a landscape of sprawling facts oozing over desert and water alike. A hundred years from now, when the oil is all gone, this will be one large metropolitan environment that, though as illogical as Phoenix or Las Vegas, will have turned from mirage to home sweet home for millions for whom not just the Emirates' nomadic roots, but also its oil-based boom, will be just a memory.