Saturday, 15 December 2007

Strange buildings

Dubai has become a mad wonderland of architectural dreams and nightmares. An unprecedented (and unecological, for what it's worth) building boom has spurred architects on to come up with ever more stunning, ever more ambitious buildings.

The Pearl for instance is now touted as "a city in a building".  It's in a way a take on the Grand'Arche de la Defense, but has two openings instead of one - a cheap shot or vaulting ambition? I'm not sure which.

Dubai already has buildings in progress shaped like chess pieces; the Red Queen would have loved this Wonderland...  there's a wave, a sail, ridiculous references in some cases. There's a megalomaniac attraction to sheer size - the tallest, widest, biggest, most of everything.

What I find worrying about the subtext though is that Dubai is creating architecture that turns it back on reality. Microcosms. Malls where you go to experience the inside. Places where you never need to emerge into the 'real' world at all, where you can go from air conditioned car park to air conditioned shops to air conditioned restaurant to air conditioned flat. The 'wild wadi water park' isn't a real wild wadi, like the lovely Wadi Shab in Oman - it's a fake jungle in a mall.

And getting back to La Defense; the great thing about the Grand'Arche is that it belongs there; on that huge axis that runs through Paris, reflecting and subverting the Arc de Triomphe. It's not a 'historically sensitive' building in many ways, but it is rooted in a historic landscape and takes its theme and meaning from that history.

Dubai's buildings, on the other hand, break with any Arab past; which is an interesting architectural tradition, and ecologically interesting too with its wind towers, natural cooling systems. The new buildings are revolutionary, not necessarily in a good way.  And they have no reference to anything that came before.

Dubai could become a stunning metropolis. But equally, in twenty years' time it could look as dated - and as kitsch - as the end of the pier show in Great Yarmouth.

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