Design in Dubai: Future Shock on the Gulf

If you enjoy the smog of LA, the traffic of Washington DC’s Beltway at rush hour, the blistering heat of Orlando in August, the retail pizzazz of the Mall of America, the cultural attractions of Midland, Texas, and the sensitive architecture of Las Vegas, you’ll adore Dubai. It’s Singapore with hummus. "Sim City in real time," as Greg Brandeau, CTO of Pixar so astutely observed.

Brandeau and I, along with a few hundred design luminaries from around the globe, were recently in Dubai for the first International Design Forum, an initiative created to jump start a conversation between the Arab world and international designers about the commercial and social impact of design in a rapidly changing world.

The conference attracted a glossy array of folks: Rem Koolhaas was there to launch a book, Al Manakh (which means ‘climate’ in Arabic), which is an annual publication that will weigh in on how the Arab world is responding to a period of urban hypergrowth – and where design fits in that transformation; and Karim Rashid showed up to present a studio on his designs (and serve as DJ at a late night party for the young ‘uns). Paola Antonelli, curator of the design department at MOMA; Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, international provocateur Oliviero Toscani (the man behind those provocative Benetton ads); Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury; Red Dot president Peter Zec; and Khalid Al Malik, CEO of Tatweer, the company beind such projects as Dubailand, Tiger Woods Dubai (the dhamp’s first golf course; and Bawadi, one of the world’s biggest hospitality companies, all served on panels debating the region's design — or lack of it.

Some of the bait offered early on to attract participants failed to materialize: Tim Brown of IDEO, Paul Saffo of The Institue for the Futture, Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International USA; designer Tom Ford; Target CEO Bob Ulrich; and Gucci Group CEO Robert Polet — all listed on the original docket (albeit with mysterious, unexplained **s), somehow managed to miss their planes.

International superstar architect Zaha Hadid, who actually managed to make it onto the final, printed program, was AWOL nonetheless. Her participation on these things has evidently become running joke — Zaha, the International No-Show — in design circles. At a dinner in New York during ICFF, Tony Chambers, editor of Wallpaper, estimated that she appears approximately twice for every 10 commitments she makes. If you're planning on attending a conference because she's scheduled to appear, buy trip insurance first.

Although snubbed by the Design Diva, the Dubai conference attendees stalwartly went about their business without her.

Much of the conference revolved around the concept of the Arab cities, and what their future might look like. Since the number of Arabs living in cities has grown by approximately 100 million in the past 35 years, it’s not an idle question. Certainly, Dubai is an example of the best — and worst — of how this hypergrowth might play out.

Dubai has gotten unprecedented press lately. You can’t pick up a travel magazine without seeing stories about the place: the shopping mall with the ski slope; the world’s tallest building, the crazy "Palms" project that makes Boston’s Back Bay landfill project a century or two ago look like kids filling a sandbox.

But you must remember that Dubai, despite the locals’ pride in its location along major ancient trading routes, was never much of a town. We’re not talking the road to Damascus here. Until recently, it was a sleepy little fishing village, with a sideline in pearl diving. Then came a string of ambitious sheiks who realized that, unlike their wealthy sibling Abu Dhabi, Dubai got shorted when Allah passed out the oil. And they would have to come up with some other shtick if they weren’t going to become another Yemen. So they looked around and realized that their biggest asset — apart from a location that put them smack dab in the middle of Europe, Asia, and Africa — was a stretch of nice beach, some warm water in the Arabian Gulf (don’t call it Persian!), and a lot of sand. If they managed to lure tourists to the place, they might have something.

With help from oil money from its petro-blessed fellow emirates, they started on a building boom that currently has monopolized 20% of the world’s construction cranes. Led by the visionary — and ambitious — Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the emirate is building a bunch of stuff, all prefaced by Guinness-sounding titles like "World’s tallest", "World’s largest," "World’s biggest" (you can’t drive down Sheik Zayed boulevard without somebody pointing out the world’s largest flag, although they confess that somebody else built the world’s largest flagpole…a source of some shame.) And the pool boy wanted me to know that I was swimming in the world’s largest fiber optic pool, although I never quite figured out what that meant. It was a nice enough pool, but there was no son et lumiere show that I could see. It’s easier, after all, to go for some standard that can be measured in meters, than one that is subject to a more demanding critical evaluation. We’re not seeing the world’s best of anything yet out of Dubai, just the world’s most gargantuan.

But the ploy worked. Some British travel hack dubbed the famous Burj Al Arab, the iconic building that looks like the sail of a traditional dhow, "the world’s first seven-star hotel." Of course, there is no such ranking, but nobody from Dubai called up to complain. And the hyperboles spread from there. Now everybody’s talking about Dubai. Everybody wants to go there. Emirates’ flights are oversold. The hotels are crammed with Germans and Australians and Brits and Japanese. It’s extraordinary.

But it’s most extraordinary because there’s no real there, there. It’s hard to find a city to compare to Dubai. It’s not a conventional beach resort like Nassau or Majorca (although, sadly, I heard somebody refer to the place as "the new Majorca") But it doesn’t feel like a real city either. Maybe that’s because so much of it is still construction scaffolding and cement trucks.

But it’s also because, despite the massive construction of luxury condos and a herd of goofy museums, the place feels oddly bereft of soul. It's Phoenix with beaches and fancier shopping (my hotel actually had a shop called "Rodeo Drive.) Beware any place whose major claim to fame is that it has the World’s Biggest Shopping Mall. The Mall of America isn’t in Minnesota for nothing. But unlike Minnesota, where you actually have to go out in nasty weather to ski, The Mall of the Emirates (which, to its credit, won the "Retail Destination of the Year" at the recent "World Retail Awards") does have a genuine indoor ski slope (which, btw, was built by a California company). Tired of skiing? Then doff your boots and head to Tommy Hilfiger, or Harvey Nichols. In Dubai, anything's possible, as long as your credit line holds up.

Tomorrow: The biggest sport in Dubai: shopping for real estate.
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