This is the city that oil built. Learning from Dubai

Aerial shot of Dubai Marina courtesy of Stanford University

Aerial shot of Dubai Marina courtesy of Stanford University

In Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown set out to visit a mirage city in the desert that, to most, seemed the antithesis of everything architecture ought to be. Yet their careful, calm study of Las Vegas’ shopfronts, casinos and facades forced architects and the public to acknowledge that a new type of urbanism was needed to understand or even ‘read’ the city of billboards.

They intuited that Las Vegas was not a space without city, but a previously marginal type of urbanism carried to its logical limit: a city in which the only architecture was signs – 2D and 3D images advertising products and experiences – and that these signs had an almost Pharaonic scale and reach.

To kick off Middle Eastern Urbanism week, I am asking whether we can learn from Dubai, a city transparently intended by its rules to surpass the extremely ancient and cosmopolitan cities of Istanbul, Cairo and Beirut as the most important point of contact and place of business between the Middle East and the rest of the world.

My brief time in Dubai transformed my prejudices – that this was nothing but a mall-airport built on a clandestine labour camp at chilling environmental expense – only insofar as it turned up the volume on them.

I do not think of Dubai as a ‘city’ because cities are delicate urban ecosystems that are made my the individual decisions and as the individual expression of many thousands of people, and Dubai is a centrally-planned machine for making urban-scale vistas without neighbourhoods in the Jane Jacobs sense (except rather hard-to-find ones, for migrant labour).

I do not think of Dubai as something to learn from because I believe that it is a feudal principality more than a modern state. The city is a lesson in project-management but not politics, because the hundreds of thousands of guest workers who make Dubai turn cannot change Dubai or influence Dubai because they are not citizens.

Trouble from them – or, say, unionisation – would be synonymous with instant repatriation. The difficulty of calling Dubai a ‘city’ in the broadest sense – the sense, I think, in which Future Cape Town enthusiasts mean the word ‘city’ – has led me to view Dubai as an emirate, ruled absolutely by hereditary sheikhs, and running – for the moment – almost exactly as it is supposed to.

However, I’m not sure that it ends there. Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s book is remembered precisely because it dragged an unenthusiastic architecture audience from the temple of Modernism and pulled them up close to the hissing neon tubes of the Nevada desert and insisted that here, too, was Architecture.

To me, again, Dubai is a city in which the Architecture is incidental; it comes out of single, sculptural projects usually constructed at truly planetary scale (our most obvious example is the Burj Khalifa). Architecture is not the point, however, of Dubai. The city is not a park full of thoughtful space-making; it is a billboard city in the desert that, like Las Vegas, is meant to be consumed at the speed of an elevated highway.

In a traditional city, space makes height: Manhattan’s skyscrapers are that way because the land they stand on has slowly soared in value from the initial $24 of beads that bought it from native American Indians to many tens of thousands of dollars per square foot.

In Dubai, what the theorists Logan and Molotch have called ‘place entrepreneurs’ hope to build high in the hope that sheer scale – the billboard quality of the building – will broadcast out across the desert that this is the place to value. The essential process by which individual humans allocate worth in the city – a process so organic and messy that property speculators make their entire living from anticipating it – cannot happen in Dubai.

Thousands of humans do not decide what form the city shall take: just a few do, in a room, to a deadline of the Sheikh’s and the sheikh’s people. This means that the intelligence of several thousand people is excluded from Dubai’s process of building itself. This, in turn, means that Dubai is not something we have to love or treat with great respect, because its entire urbanity is a single idea foisted on people.

To my mind, this makes it less important and far less worthy of study than the bitterest Mumbai slum, where, for all that the collective lot of the community wasn’t anyone’s choice, the form of the place, and its systems of water distribution, waste disposal and economic sustenance, is a testament to the ingenuity and genius of thousands of individual inhabitants. A super-slum like Mumbai’s Dharavi, for example, is a complex flux of land values, rising mini-industries and environmental catastrophes.

How almost a million people not only live there but eat and ablute and export and manufacture industrial products – this, remember, is a low-rise township – is something to learn from. Dubai only tells us what a managerial ethos can make from sand and oil.

Middle East Urbanism week shares insights and perspectives during Brett Petzer’s tour of the Middle East – specifically the Levant and the Arabian Gulf. From Petro Urbanism to the Arab Spring and more.

About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at

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