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Accelerated Urbanism

June 24, 2007 10:00 by

real estate, Dubai

New building developments in Dubai, especially high-rises, are linked to the global network of trends, forces, finance and trading than relate to their locality and community. As such they are alienated from their geographic and physical location. Therefore a dose of self-stylization is necessary, like a surreal machine that reproduces its own identity. Buildings are self-referential and they are held together by virtue of proximity. On a barren landscape anything goes and anything is new.

This condition is a reminiscent of early modernists utopian visions where the new city refers to the present and projects to the future. The desert is not the killing field we are accustomed to see in newsreels in the last decade, but the setting of slick developments. There is a new urban and spatial perception of the desert, a renewed mirage, not unlike Las Vegas in Nevada. The new global city is developing from “scratch”: a real “tabula rasa,” the dream of any urban designer and architect as well as a real estate investor. This is about newness, clean, fresh with little residue of anomaly and deterioration. Buying architecture is like buying a product. Living in it is like acquiring any lifestyle you can afford.

Like any new city, Dubai has no density, no layering. Buildings are detached and isolated, and some communities gated. Even though architecture appears homogeneous its social reality is heterogeneous. This paradoxically becomes a haven for upper class buyers, seeking exclusive retreats.

Almost overnight, the city has become a juxtaposition of barren desert, 21st-century skyscrapers at extravagantly optimistic construction sites. The visual voyage through the city like in any contemporary cityscape operates like a continuous shift between eye and mind, as though differences no longer existed between the two. The city has definitely ceased to be a site: instead, it has become a condition. Perhaps it has even lost its site: it tends to be everywhere and nowhere. The urban setting as a large construction site is unique as it can always keep the promise alive and prepare itself for new users, the incoming international nomads: settlers, laborers, consultants, traders, in-transit business travelers and tourists, all seeking and challenged by newness.

This is an accelerated urbanism, unlike none before; it is immediate in its pictorial seduction. The urbanization process is streamlined, effective and fast. Dubai is the largest architectural experiment in progress, soon achieving a critical mass of mega expansion. This is symptomatic of approaches to development in many other regions in the world today. This ‘model potential’ makes Dubai an ideal case study of urbanization; in a sense, Dubai has become ‘required reading’. Yet, a critique needs to be articulated and new strategies proposed.

What is interesting is that this is a new city caught up in unprecedented conditions of the new century: globalization, accelerated technologies of imaging and communication, abundance of investment and mass tourism.

George Katodrytis, is Associate Professor of Architecture at the School of Architecture & Design, American University of Sharjah.

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