Hovering over Dubai is a cloud called nemesis. The first time I saw the place two years ago through a plane window, its towers were hovering in the heat over the desert, gulping up water and energy and fussed round by reputedly a quarter of the world’s construction cranes. Even then the vision was unmistakable: of Ozymandias and his “vast and trunkless legs of stone.”
When prices go up, buildings go up. When prices come down, buildings tend to stay up. Until recently visitors to Dubai returned gasping. This was truly a city designed from start to finish by autocrats and architects. It was the last word in iconic overkill, a festival of egotism with humanity denied. It was an architectural chorus line of towers, each shouting louder and kicking higher. People were ants.
Dubai must have as many publicists as it has towers. Business and travel journalists in need of a freebie can just call. So, too, did a stage army of British writers who went to last month’s Dubai International Festival of Literature, pretending to discover that it was not a free country — and practices censorship — only after being installed in their luxury rooms. A “tower of Babel” of a place “with neither charm nor character,” declared an ungrateful Germaine Greer.
Even as the property market turned sour last autumn, the vast Atlantis hotel, built for US$1.5 billion with a whale shark in its swimming pool, was spending US$20 million on its launch party. Yet still the newspaper supplements and television contra-deals spluttered their superlatives. Every time the builder of the tallest tower in the world, the monster of Burj Dubai, sees the local ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Maktoum, he is told to add more stories for fear someone else may build an even taller one.
The stockmarket is down 70 percent on 2005’s level, and construction has ceased on half of the unfinished towers that stretch out into the desert. Eighty percent of the population of Dubai are passing migrants who are there, like gold-diggers of old, only for the cash. The cash is going and so are they, leaving expensive cars in the street and at the airport, many fleeing possible imprisonment for debt.
Consider, meanwhile, the city of Detroit. Here was another that rose on the shore of an inland sea, fueled by the cult of hypermobility. With the implosion of the motor industry it has gone to seed. Houses are pictured boarded-up or selling for a dollar. Dogs roam empty streets. Wind howls through vacant shops. The unbelievable has come to pass. The love child of America’s greatest postwar passion is preparing to die.
Detroit is part of a great country that has shown itself capable of rescuing even its rustbelt municipalities. But this depends on finding people who will live in a place from which most have fled. Luckily, much of Detroit is of low-rise plot housing that could be transformed at least into Bohemian neighborhoods, like ruined New Orleans.
No such option is available to Dubai. It is the ultimate Corbusian city, rigid in format and old-fashioned in conception, based on the grids and set squares of super-planners, and on grand symbolic buildings rather than intimate streets. It cannot respond to demand and supply for land and property, let alone to the wishes of free citizens. Human scale is confined to the Las Vegas-style replicas of Florence and Venice adopted by hotels that realize guests will not come if slapped constantly in the face by modern architecture. One business that cannot afford inhumanity is a hotel.