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January 25 2012

Hollywood's love affair with the skyscraper

Nine of the world's 10 tallest buildings are now in Asia – and Hollywood wants to jump off all of them

Aerial shots over Manhattan's forest of skyscrapers. Yellow cabs crawling like ants through the city grid. The hero stands on a ledge 20 floors up, provoking a street theatre of police cordons, firetrucks, news crews and onlookers. Meanwhile, in a top-floor office, a corporate villain admires an architectural model of another shiny skyscraper. Elsewhere, an acrobatic thief hangs precariously in an elevator shaft, dropping a spanner that goes clanging down innumerable storeys to the ground. The ominous ping of an approaching elevator spells danger. The hero and villain finally meet for a climactic rooftop showdown.

These scenes could be from a hundred Hollywood movies or more, but in fact they're from just one: Man on a Ledge, an enjoyably silly new thriller that at least sets out its stall in the title. You can guess most of its plot from those generic snippets, but Man on a Ledge is just the latest piece of proof that movies love skyscrapers and skyscrapers love movies. They always have. In fact, they're practically twins. The exact date of birth could be disputed, but it's safe to say that while rising land prices and advances in steel were pushing buildings upwards in Chicago and New York at the end of the 19th century, inventors like Edison and the Lumière brothers were realising they might be on to something with their moving-picture machines.

Where would the movies be without the thrilling cinematic images tall buildings provide, both inside and out? The alone is estimated to have featured in more than 250 movies. Then there's their crashingly unsubtle metaphorical value. It doesn't take a genius to fathom the symbolism at work with, say, the diminutive Tom Cruise scaling the world's tallest building in the latest Mission: Impossible, or a rampant King Kong roaring from the top of the Empire State Building; or San Francisco's TransAmerica tower looming priapically in the background of Basic Instinct as Michael Douglas gets into a lather over Sharon Stone. For most of the 20th century, it was simple: the home of the movies and the home of the skyscraper were the same place. These two distinctly masculine enterprises worked together to broadcast America's virility to the world. But the marriage now has complications. In metaphorical terms, the attacks of 9/11 hit the US where it hurt, and the current financial crisis hasn't helped.

Where the skyscrapers have gone, the movies have had to follow – and nine of the world's 10 tallest buildings are now in Asia. That recent Mission: Impossible benefited greatly from the use of Dubai's 163-storey Burj Khalifa (over $500m at the box office and counting). Dubai hasn't done badly out of it either. When the Burj Khalifa opened two years ago, the emirate had an image problem, what with its economic and architectural bubble bursting. But Mission: Impossible seems to have fixed that. According to the movie's producers, the first time they visited Dubai, they said: "We have to come back here and shoot a movie." But Dubai was also a hefty financial backer of the film, and using the Burj as a major location appears to have been a condition. So the building, designed by US architects SOM, not only featured in loving closeups, inside and out, but Dubai also got to hold the world premiere of this "local" film – bringing Cruise, celebrity special guests and the world's media to the Dubai film festival last month.

Whenever a new Asian skyscraper is completed, it seems, Hollywood rushes to get there and jump off it. In the preceding Mission: Impossible, Cruise also leapt off a tall building, this time in Shanghai. Before that, in an indication of how quickly the gimmick can date, we had Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in 1999's Entrapment, dangling off Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers, then enjoying a brief reign as the world's tallest buildings. You could say the process of America's corporate emasculation began as far back as 1988, with Die Hard (surely a high-point in skyscraper movies): although set in Los Angeles, the film decided to rename its hijacked building the Nakatomi Plaza and make it Japanese-owned (in fact, it was the city's Fox Plaza).

As Die Hard reminds us, skyscrapers are movie shorthand for "faceless corporation", usually going hand in hand with overbearing evil and phallic overcompensation. Man on a Ledge is no different: predictably, the ledge he's on is owned by the chief baddie, the one with a model of a skyscraper (his next one). For good symbolic measure, he also smokes a huge cigar. Yet, for all that they celebrate the manly tumescence of tall architecture, such movies are invariably on the side of the little man (and we're not just talking about Cruise here). The juxtaposition of a lone individual and a gigantic edifice often tells you all you need to know about a movie's intentions.

In the silent era, skyscrapers were something of a fad. There's the much-imitated image of Harold Lloyd hanging off that clock 10 storeys up in 1923's Safety Last! Lloyd made a string of high-rise movies, such as High and Dizzy, Look Out Below and Never Weaken. In most, his little man rises to the summit, overcoming the emasculating forces of urban life. His myriad successors have done the same. In 2008's Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, in which French tightrope walker Philippe Petit conquers the Twin Towers, the little-man thrill is the same, albeit enhanced by such an emotionally loaded location.

Which brings us to the other thing that's changed about skyscrapers. The destruction of the Twin Towers was the final nail in the coffin for America's skyscraper-and-movie marriage. In the immediate aftermath, the towers were digitally removed from up-and-coming movies like Spider-Man, whose scenes of the superhero swinging between skyscrapers suddenly looked very out of date; and now they have to be digitally reinserted into New York movies that are set in the past.

In 2004, the architect Rem Koolhaas wrote: "The skyscraper has become less interesting in inverse proportion to its success. It has not been refined, but corrupted; the promise it once held … has been negated by repetitive banality." You could say the same thing about Hollywood. Just as the high-rise has nowhere to go except upwards, so movies like Man on a Ledge find themselves stuck on a familiar narrative track, running from street level up to the inevitable rooftop showdown.

In the 1960s and 70s, architectural groups like the metabolists and Archigram proposed alternatives to the boom in towers, while Britain's Leslie Martin and Lionel March argued that they don't solve urban density problems. Koolhaas, who was a screenwriter before becoming an architect, presented his own anti-skyscraper in the form of Beijing's CCTV television headquarters, which effectively folds a tower in half and brings it back down to the ground.

If there is a crisis, both industries are in denial. The genre-movie production line churns on, and the skyscrapers keep going up. There are a few more security measures beneath the skin of the Freedom Tower, which stands where the Twin Towers once stood, but externally its generic-looking design says: "Nothing's changed." Upcoming movies like the rebooted Spider-Man also seek to reassert the primacy of the New York skyline in the face of all this competition: Norman Foster's Hearst Tower is a key location in the movie.

And some of that competition is now coming from London, thanks to its belated stab at high-rise kudos with the Shard. Looming large over the city, Renzo Piano's 87-storey tower seems destined to figure in the new era of "more commercial" British movies the government is calling for. According to the Shard's marketing agent, they've been receiving filming requests at the rate of about one a week. So far they've turned them all down, they say, but you can just picture Colin Firth struggling to express himself to Keira Knightley in its lift, or Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise fighting it out on the rooftop to see who gets to use it first, James Bond or Mission: Impossible. Meanwhile, back in real life, details of the next 007 novel have just been released. It's set in Dubai.


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March 23 2011

Talking about a revolution

Dubai's art fair and biennial are using current protests to make the sparks fly between art and politics

Last week saw the opening of Art Dubai, the Middle East's biggest art fair, and the Sharjah Biennial in Dubai's neighbouring emirate. On the same day, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) sent troops to help crush the resurgent protests in Bahrain. Though the troops are probably from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates – a key member of the GCC – is now participating in the Arab spring, but on the wrong side. Suddenly, Art Week and the well-respected Sharjah Biennial assumed exponentially more meaning. The bubble of the art world didn't burst – the art fair and the biennial are patronised by Dubai and Sharjah's ruling families respectively – but the membrane between art and politics was infiltrated in ways alternately impressive, opportunistic, courageous and frustratingly inadequate.

Dubai's art scene is booming, even if the city is not. Its art fair is now in its fifth year and has 82 galleries – up from 72 last year – hailing from 43 countries, mostly from the "central world", of which Dubai claims to be the capital. The fair took place in the halls of the Madinat Jumeirah hotel, next-door to the iconic sail-like building of the seven-star Burj al Arab. On the opening morning, I latched on to the entourage of Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, taking a tour of the fair. Sheikh Mo clearly appreciates the entrepreneurial spirit of the fair and the cultural cachet it gives his maligned city, the victim of seemingly insatiable schadenfreude since the crash two and a half years ago. (The latest screed, maybe the most hysterical and myopic in the new tradition of Dubai-bashing, comes from AA Gill in Vanity Fair.)

Front-line art

I deviated from the sheikh's tour to take in the booth of Artspace, one of eight galleries from Dubai at the fair. It was the "revolution" booth, with several works referencing Egypt. Khaled Hafez's mural-sized canvas features collages of soldiers and protesters in Tahrir Square on a background of blobby pixels and dribbles of paint. "From the front lines," whispered a voice behind me as I leant in to the painting. The voice belonged to Hafez himself, who explained that the piece started off as an abstract colour field. But with the revolution unfolding as the paint dried, he transformed it into a tribute to his protesting comrades in Cairo's art scene, creating an "open source" collage of their snapshots of the action.

Hafez, 47, has long made politically charged paintings and video work. "My generation spent so much time blaming and criticising," he said. "But it never crossed our minds to spend 18 days in Tahrir Square simply demanding what we want." Artists of the younger generation were acting as citizens first, aesthetic ciphers second, which seems to be a good model for how to be a political artist in revolutionary times (American art critic Ben Davis wrote very eloquently on this recently).

Artspace showed another insta-response to revolution: a painting called Bye Bye Hosni, by the Moroccan artist Zakaria Ramhani, of a protester with a huge Facebook-like button on his back, tearing down a poster of Mubarak. It's an uncomplicated statement of solidarity, but in the context of the art fair feels opportunistic and overly media-friendly – a too-perfect metonym of the revolution.

Only a handful of the galleries at Art Dubai are recognisable to the many people here on the bandwagon of the western art fair circuit. Assar Art Gallery from Tehran is one of the unknown galleries that makes this fair more exciting than the big daddies. Assar's standout work was a mock stain-glass window by Iranian artist Roxana Manouchehri, featuring an intricate mixture of Arabic and Gaelic text, Christian saints and Islamic iconography. The gallerist told me Manouchehri was inspired by a recent trip to Ireland. When I asked her about the situation in Iran, she told me that she teaches at the University of Art in Tehran; Sane Jaleh, the student killed in the recent protests and absurdly claimed by the government as a victim of the protestors, was one of her students. It was another moment where the bubble burst for a second, only to reform when the next sheikh or high-heeled gallerista swished by.

Bahrain itself makes an appearance at the fair in a series of beautiful photos by Camille Zakharia at the Lucy Mackintosh gallery, from Lausanne. Zakharia documents the ramshackle fisherman's huts and piers that jut out from Bahrain into the Gulf. The photos are part of the Reclaim project that appeared at the Venice architecture biennale last summer, investigating how rampant land reclamation around the island city state has cut off entire neighbourhoods – both Shia and Sunni – from their traditional relationship with the sea. These endangered shelters – hang-out spots for drinking tea, playing games and watching TV (one has a satellite dish precariously rigged to it) – are a touching picture of vernacular life in Bahrain, a mental background on which to project the current violence. The Reclaim project was initiated by Bahrain's Ministry of Culture, run by Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa. She was supposed to give a lecture on the project at the fair, but pulled out at the last minute.

"It wouldn't be appropriate for us to appear at an art fair at a moment like this," Noura Al-Sayeh, head of architectural affairs at the ministry and curator of the Reclaim project, told me. But she was keen to point out that "art shouldn't be undermined as frivolous or unnecessary. Its function is to fill in the gaps in a radicalised society."

Implied politics

Escaping the strange bubble of the art fair, I took a bus to Sharjah, a conurbation of Dubai about 10 miles to the north, but much older and with something Dubai lacks: a large, well-established art museum. It has been almost completely taken over by the biennial – the 10th since 1993 and featuring 76 artists. The only hint of the "festivalism" familiar in most biennials here is a pretty innocuous-looking replica rocket, in surrender-flag white, pointing at the sky in front of the museum. The rocket is a Cedar 4, made by a group of scientists and mathematicians in the 1960s. They launched rockets not for military purposes but merely to study the science of trajectory and ballistics. The Cedar 4 was resurrected, and a film is being made about it by Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The project is political only by implication; Hadjithomas, hovering nearby, would only say that "this was a project made by dreamers" and she wanted to "bring back" the importance of such people.

Predictably, the politics at the biennial was slower and more considered than at the fair, which can respond faster to current events and with less intellectual burden. A mesmerising video by no fewer than four artists – Jane and Louise Wilson, Shumon Basar and Eyal Weizman – tells the story of the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas officer assassinated by Mossad in Dubai last year. Similarly strategic is the selection of Harun Farocki's 1993 film Videograms of a Revolution: a documentary of the Romanian revolution in 1989 stitched together from home videos and lost TV footage, which shows a heroic act of aggregation that the likes of Facebook and YouTube now do for us.

Meanwhile, a very direct political action took place that morning as Sharjah's Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed al-Qassimi was having his inaugural tour of the biennial. Outside the museum, a groups of artists including Ibrahim Quraishi handed out pieces of paper bearing the names of Bahrainis killed in the protests. "We in the artworld are not living in a vacuum," Quraishi told me by phone after being released from the interrogation that swiftly followed. "We didn't do it for show, but to have people carrying around these names with them all day," he said. Quraishi was only released after five hours of questioning by the Sharjah internal security forces and after giving assurance that he was not trying to bring down its ruling regime. Solidarity feels good, but the effect of Quraishi's action may be counterproductive. Haig Aivazian, a co-curator of the biennial who was also taken for questioning, told me: "I would support a gesture of solidarity, but this one was not effective. The very small margin of freedom that the Sharjah Foundation has created for the biennial has been compromised."

A more constructive act of solidarity emerged the next morning over another pertinent issue in the region: migrant workers' rights, in this case for the new Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry. Walid Raad, a Lebanese artist participating in the biennial, announced a boycott by a group of 130 artists, curators and writers unless the Guggenheim Foundation ensures construction workers are given fair conditions. "Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers," Raad said. "Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same respect as those working with cameras and brushes." The Sharjah Biennial is implicated as its chief curator, Suzanne Cotter, is also chief curator of the new Guggenheim.

Human Rights Watch reports have documented rampant abuses on Saadiyat island, where the Guggenheim will stand alongside a Louvre outpost designed by Jean Nouvel, a national museum by Norman Foster and a Zaha Hadid-designed opera hall. Workers are forced to repay extortionate recruitment fees, have their passports revoked upon arrival, and are subject to fines if they quit. Maybe the local Gulf News knew the artists' declaration was coming: the day before, they ran a puff piece with the headline "Cosy home for Saadiyat workers", reassuring readers that everything is rosy on Saadiyat, which literally means "island of happiness".

Art and politics are an awkward pairing at the best of times. But Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial, however awkwardly and with whatever compromised means, are bringing the invigorating oxygen of cultural and political debate to the region. Let's hope it continues, inshallah.


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April 04 2010

World's tallest building, Burj Khalifa, reopens observation deck

Dubai skyscraper reopens deck two months after elevator malfunction left tourists stranded 120 stories above ground

The observation deck of the world's tallest skyscraper reopened on Sunday, two months after an elevator malfunction that left visitors trapped more than 120 stories above ground forced it to close.Dozens of tourists lined up on Sunday for tickets to take an elevator to the 124th floor of the half-mile-high Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The deck of the Burj Khalifa was shut in February after an elevator packed with visitors got stuck between floors for 45 minutes, before rescuers dropped a ladder into the shaft so those inside could crawl out. Two months later, it is still unclear what caused the elevator to fail.

The accident proved a major embarrassment for Dubai, whose rulers hoped the Burj Khalifa, which officially opened in January, would be a major tourist draw and buoy the Gulf city state as it struggles to revive its image as a cutting-edge Arab metropolis amid nagging questions about its financial health.

At 2,717ft (828 metres), the tapering, silvery tower ranks as not only the world's highest skyscraper, but also the tallest freestanding structure in the world.

The tower rises more than 160 stories, though the exact number of floors is not known. The observation deck is mostly enclosed, but it includes an outdoor terrace bordered by guard rails and is located about two-thirds of the way up.

Two elevators, with up to 15 people each, whisk people up to the observation deck daily, running every half hour from 10am to 9pm.

Most visitors who paid the 100 dirhams ($27) for the three-minute ride to the deck, which boasts a view of Dubai's glimmering skyline, the sprawling desert and the emirate's Gulf shore, either didn't know about February's elevator malfunction or did not mind the ride's bumpy start.

"We feel fortunate to have gone up," said Sheetal Gulati, a tourist from the UK who is on a three-day trip to Dubai. "The view is very nice and worth seeing."

Emaar, the state-linked company that owns the tower, had little to say about February's accident. The company said nothing about an elevator malfunction at the time of the accident and did not provide details of any repairs or maintenance work on the elevators before the viewing deck reopened Sunday.

Burj Khalifa was designed by Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which has a long track record for engineering some of the world's tallest buildings, including Chicago's Willis Tower, the tallest in the US and formerly known as the Sears Tower.

The observation deck was the only part of the tower that opened in January. Work continues on the rest of the building's interior and the first tenants are expected to move in soon. - Associated Press


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March 23 2010

Destination Dubai

Debt woes and a sprawlingly diverse programme haven't stopped this year's Dubai art fair from showing some exhilarating art – just don't expect any nudity

Much more exciting than the recent completion of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (renamed at the last minute as a shout-out to Dubai's creditors in Abu Dhabi) was the relatively uncelebrated opening of the first sections of Dubai's metro system. The idea of the "public" has never been prominent in Dubai, but that may be starting to change. The city's incredibly diverse ethnicities, used to encountering one another only in strictly hierarchical service situations, are now being squeezed together in rude proximity for the first time. The only nationality I did not see on the crowded train, as we glided along elevated tracks beside Sheikh Zayed Road, were Emiratis.
 
I start with the metro because it's an unsung triumph for a city that you'd be forgiven for thinking – if you read the Daily Mail – or indeed certain commentators in this venerable publication – is slipping into the Persian Gulf like something out of Roland Emmerich's 2012. Thanks to bailouts from its big brother in Abu Dhabi, it isn't. And its confidence – or at least defiance – is returning as a result. Even its art fair (who buys art in this economic climate?) enjoyed a surprisingly successful fourth edition in the Disney-like luxury of the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel last weekend.
 
Art Dubai is not like western art fairs: it doesn't have the quality that connoisseurs are accustomed to at Basel or London's Frieze. No works featuring nudity or obvious political content are allowed (of which more later); there is an exclusive "women's day" for the sheikh's wives to roam around and add to their collections; and it has more accompanying exhibitions, installations, talks, tours, prizes and passion than one person could possibly absorb. In short, it feels like Dubai is trying to prove something here. Perhaps that it does indeed possess the culture that it is derided for lacking?
 
Showcasing 72 galleries, the art is from 31 countries – mostly from what Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai's leader, calls the central world: the Middle East and Asia, of which Dubai still wants to be capital.
 
So someone like Javier Peres, the hip LA and Berlin gallerist who's right at home at a fair such as Art Basel Miami Beach, felt like a fish out of water the first time he participated in Art Dubai. "I had to look up where the United Arab Emirates was on Google before coming here," he said. "I admit my stupidity." By the second day, though, he had already made more money than he did at the recent Armory Show in New York, mostly by selling a few Dan Colen paintings. As for the rest of the works on show, mostly from the Middle East, Peres said: "I don't know how to look at it. If I respond to it instinctively, with my gut, fine. But I don't understand it."
 
That's true of a lot of art in galleries such as ATHR from Jeddah or even the Middle East-dominated New York gallery Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller (which reported such rapid sales that "we haven't even had time to invoice"). But, amid the newness of the fair, there are moments of familiarity. A squat toilet by Iranian artist Behdad Lahooti is an obvious homage to Duchamp's urinal, except Lahooti has charged his with political meaning by covering it with conjugations of the verb "to be free" in Farsi. Tehran's Aaran gallery sold the piece on the first day for $4,700, to French collectors.
 
Over at the Third Line gallery, Dubai's local powerhouse, a diptych of black holograms by Babak Golkar create the illusion of a circuit around the Ka'aba; the piece is called From God to Malevich. At Sfeir-Semler gallery, which has branches in Hamburg and Beirut, Etel Adnan's stunning, Andreas Gursky-style photographs of the Golan Heights are loaded with anger and cold-eyed beauty.
 
As a western visitor to the fair, then, it's hard to put aside familiar frames of reference. But the lesson of Art Dubai might be that such regional groupings and divisions are increasingly irrelevant, anyway. Artists everywhere share similar influences, and work in multiple locations. We all dip in the same pool.
 
This might also explain why Art Dubai has managed to survive the fact that some of the several heavy-hitting galleries that attended last year, such as Haunch of Venison and New York's L&M, chose not to return this time around: the collector base is sufficiently broad to absorb local difficulties. "We don't fear the crisis," says gallerist Ulrich Semler. "It's not important for us, because we sell to England, the US, Turkey, Saudia Arabia, Lebanon. We don't have any local collectors." However, plenty of new faces graced the fair for the first time this year – sheikhs, ultra-wealthy collectors from the Middle East and Ukraine, and the US mega-collectors Don and Mera Rubell.
 
Still, the variation in quality here is massive – excitingly so. Hunar, which was Dubai's first fine art gallery, opening in 1998, displayed, among lyrical paintings of horses and mysterious dishdasha'd figures, a bronze bust of Sheikh Maktoum by British sculptor Carolyn Morton. It was commissioned, according to the gallerist, as a tribute. Only if appropriated by an artist such as Jeff Koons – it seems like the kind of kitsch/sincere object he'd love – would it accrue the level of conceptual value expected at most art fairs. In the meantime, it's a healthy challenge to have to swallow art that is made with no other purpose than pure glorification.
 
Another local gallery, Isabelle Van Den Eynde, showed a big, sloppy, jovial painting by young Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh, of a chaotic picnic in the middle of a busy roundabout. I assumed – or wished – that this thrilling scene, reminiscent in spirit of Manet's Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) or Jean Dubuffet's The Busy Life (1953), was in Dubai. Here is the vibrant public life, the cross-contamination, that the city has been allergic to. But it actually depicts Tehran, not Dubai, on the 13th day of the Persian new year, when everyone eats together, outdoors.
 
The gallery was also showing work by Haerizadeh's brother, Ramin. Or at least it did, until Dubai's state censors – the same guys who diligently black out nipples from issues of the Sun destined for British tourists – removed it from the fair. They also slapped a big white sticker over the hundreds of issues of the art fair's daily newspaper that featured Ramin's work.
 
I took a break from the fair to visit the Haerizadeh brothers in their 42nd-floor penthouse at Dubai Marina, overlooking the artificial archipelago that is the Palm Jumeirah. The duo arrived in Dubai last year, shortly after appearing in Charles Saatchi's exhibition Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East. The provocative nature of that show earned them a visibility they'd never had before in Tehran – including threats that were convincing enough to make them leave immediately for Dubai.
 
"We came here as exiles," Ramin says. "And now we have a problem with censorship here as well." The work in question was a political collage in which the Shah's wife, Farah Pahlavi, pays a benevolent visit to a classroom. Instead of school children, though, Ramin had inserted multiple images of himself, with his massive beard, wearing a chador and gleefully munching on pieces of paper with the empress's image on it.
 
Several gallerists privately warned journalists against overestimating the importance of censorship in Dubai. But the significant problem of the Haerizadehs' situation is that Dubai, potentially a beacon of relative freedom and opportunity for the Middle East and Asia, has now become unstable for them. If Rokni's brilliant new series of paintings, depicting the torture currently going on in Iran's prisons, were discovered in his studio, he'd have to go into exile again – this time to London. "We are thinking of becoming fugitives," he half-jokes.
 
In March 2008, a year after Art Dubai began, the newly-formed Dubai Cultural and Arts Authority announced plans for a permanent cultural infrastructure for the emirate. Khor Dubai was to be a 22km tract of culture, boasting 14 theatres, 10 museums (including a museum of Middle Eastern modern art), 11 galleries, nine libraries, seven "cultural icons", seven arts and cultural institutes, and an opera house. All of this is now in deep freeze.
 
That's part of the reason why Abdul Raheem Sharif turned his modest old house (they do exist in Dubai) into The Flying House, a spontaneous, overflowing mini-museum for local artists to display and preserve their art in the absence of a proper institution to do it for them. Local artist Hassan Sharifi's works dominate: he obsessively accumulates Arte Povera-type junk and stores it on shelves and in glass cases. It will be a shame when this place, and the delightfully unpretentious Dubai Museum in the old town, which features historical dioramas and relics, are superseded by a starchitect mega-museum.
 
What Dubai is left with, in the meantime, is actually much better: a burgeoning grassroots cultural scene in the industrial Al Quoz district, which will soon be accessible from the fair by metro (admittedly with a couple of taxi transfers). Young galleries such as the Third Line, Carbon 12, Traffic and Ayyam are all sticking out the crisis here. "Dubai has always been the little guy," says Hetal Pawani, director of Jamjar, a gallery studio space and sometime yoga venue. Pawani is one of the city's apparently limitless supply of ambitious, self-confident young women who are basically running the art scene here. "We've always been bottom up," she says, "and then the policy would emerge later. There's a clear distinction between Dubai and Sharjah, with its biennial and art museum, and Abu Dhabi, which has its big plans." (These call for a cultural island featuring franchises of the Guggenheim and the Louvre.) "In Dubai," says Pawani, "we have to do things ourselves."


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Reposted bykellerabteil02mysoup-aa

February 08 2010

Mystery as Burj Khalifa shuts

Electrical problems blamed for closure of viewing platform but unknown if rest of tower is affected

The world's tallest skyscraper has unexpectedly closed to the public a month after its lavish opening, disappointing tourists headed for the observation deck and casting doubt over plans to welcome its first permanent occupants in the coming weeks.

Electrical problems are partly to blame for the closure of the Burj Khalifa's viewing platform, the only part of the half-mile high tower that has so far opened. But a lack of information from the spire's owner left it unclear whether the rest of the largely empty building – including dozens of elevators meant to whisk visitors to the tower's more than 160 floors – was affected by the shutdown.

The indefinite closure, which was imposed on Sunday, comes as Dubai struggles to revive its international image as a cutting-edge Arab metropolis, amid nagging questions about its financial health.

The Persian Gulf city-state had hoped the 828m (2,717ft) Burj Khalifa would be a major tourist draw. Dubai has promoted itself by visitors with over-the-top attractions such as the Burj, which juts like a silvery needle out of the desert and can be seen from miles around.

In recent weeks, thousands of tourists have lined up for the chance to buy tickets for viewing times often days in advance that cost more than $27 apiece. Now many of those would-be visitors, such as Wayne Boyes, a tourist from near Manchester, England, must get back in line for refunds.

"It's just very disappointing," said Boyes, 40, who showed up at the Burj's entrance today with a ticket for an afternoon time slot, only to be told the viewing platform was closed. "The tower was one of my main reasons for coming here," he said.

The precise cause of the £960m ($1.5bn) Dubai skyscraper's temporary shutdown remained unclear. In a brief statement responding to questions, the building's owner, Emaar Properties, blamed the closure on "unexpected high traffic", but then suggested that electrical problems were also at fault.

"Technical issues with the power supply are being worked on by the main and subcontractors and the public will be informed upon completion," the company said, adding it is "committed to the highest quality standards at Burj Khalifa".

Despite repeated requests, a spokeswoman for Emaar was unable to provide further details or rule out the possibility of foul play. Greg Sang, Emaar's director of projects and the man charged with coordinating the tower's construction, could not be reached. Construction workers at the base of the tower said they were unaware of any problems.

Power was reaching some parts of the building. Strobe lights warning aircraft flashed and a handful of floors were illuminated after nightfall.

Emaar did not say when the observation deck would reopen. Tourists affected by the closure are being offered the chance to rebook or receive refunds.

Questions were raised about the building's readiness in the months leading up to the January opening.

The opening date had originally been expected in September, but was then pushed back until sometime before the end of 2009. The eventual opening date just after New Year's was meant to coincide with the anniversary of the Dubai ruler's ascent to power.

There were signs even that target was ambitious. The final metal and glass panels cladding the building's exterior were installed only in late September. Early visitors to the observation deck had to peer through floor-to-ceiling windows caked with dust – a sign that cleaning crews had not yet had a chance to scrub them.

Work is still ongoing on many of the building's other floors, including those that will house the first hotel designed by Giorgio Armani, due to open in March. The building's base remains largely a construction zone, with entrance restricted to the viewing platform lobby in an adjacent shopping mall.

The first of some 12,000 residential tenants and office workers are supposed to move in to the building this month.


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January 04 2010

Brash, glitzy and named after its rich neighbour

The inauguration of the tallest building on Earth was supposed to be a show of defiance by Dubai's rulers after a property crash which threatened to shatter the Gulf emirate's reputation as a global economic power.

But tonight'sspectacular ceremony, which revealed the Burj Dubai's 828m height for the first time, became a moment of supplication when the decision was revealed to name it Burj Khalifa, after the ruler of rival but much richer emirate Abu Dhabi who came to the rescue when Dubai's finances descended into crisis last autumn.

As fireworks exploded up and down the 169 storeys, the move triggered speculation that the transfer of the naming rights may have been the price paid when Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates, approved direct and indirect bail outs totalling $25bn last year as Dubai's debt problems deepened and property values slumped.

The concession is likely to deflate Dubai's triumphalism in dwarfing the previous tallest building in the world, the 508m tower 101 in Taipei, and the 629m KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota, the tallest manmade structure of any kind. The state-owned developer's pride was such that the 124th-floor public viewing platform is inscribed with the legend: "I am the heart of the city and its people, the marker that defines Emaar's ambition and Dubai's shining dream."

One observer said naming the structure after the leader of Dubai's main rival for supremacy in the UAE would be like naming a new landmark in Glasgow after London. An Abu Dhabi state-controlled newspaper said it was "a name to reflect greatness".

Tonight after dusk a crowd of thousands of emiratis, Europeans and migrant workers from Asia jostled to witness the inauguration ceremony led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and attended by Sheikh Khalifa, who has in recent months sought to underscore the close relationship between the emirates. In an apparent nod to the city state's financial predicament, the festivities were subdued by Dubai standards, but still dazzling.

The world's biggest water fountain burst into life as a digital presentation listed the £925m building's achievements, which include the highest occupied floor in the world – at 160 storeys – and the highest swimming pool 260m in the air on floor 76.

There is talk of plans for a mosque on close to the zenith at floor 158, which would become the world's highest place of worship, though the world's highest bar will be a few floors down. The building is so tall you can see the sunset twice from it – once at the base and again after a 60-second lift ride to the viewing platform.

The Burj's developers had tried to use its inauguration to put a brave face on Dubai's financial crisis. "Crises come and go, and cities move on," said Mohammed Alabbar, chairman of the tower's developer Emaar Properties. "You have to move on. Because if you stop taking decisions, you stop growing."

About 90% of the space in the building is understood to be sold, but the value of many apartments is thought to have fallen by 50% from the market's high point.

The Indian healthcare entrepreneur Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty owns one of the highest addresses on floor 100. He spent $13m buying the whole floor several years ago to turn the property into guest houses for friends and family. "We can see everything as if you are on the top of the world," he told a local paper. "I had no fear when I was up there. Even reaching my apartment takes less than a minute in the elevator."

The developer said it is confident in the safety of the tower. It has air-conditioned, pressurised and fire-resistant refuge floors at 25 store intervals and its reinforced concrete structure making it stronger than steel-frame skyscrapers.

"It's a lot more robust," said Greg Sang, Emaar's director of projects. "A plane won't be able to slice through the Burj like it did through the steel columns of the World Trade Center."

Ken Shuttleworth, a lead architect on the Swiss Re, London's skyscraper known as the Gherkin, applauded the building's aesthetic but said building very tall slender is the least economical method of constructing a tall building.

"Do you really need to build high in a desert?" he said. "You only build high when there is so much pressure on land that you have now choice. It can't make any sense financially so it is being done for status, a landmark on the horizon."


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Don't look down

The world's tallest building may be a triumph of beauty and ambition, but the soulless cityscape surrounding it is another matter

We're going to need a new word. The Burj Dubai doesn't scrape the sky; it pierces it, like a slender silver needle, half a mile high. It's only because Dubai never has any clouds that we can even see the tower's top. And, judging by the images released so far, the view is more like looking out of a plane than a building. It has made reality a little less real.

The facts and figures about the tower are equally surreal – like the one about how it could be eight degrees cooler at the top than at the bottom, or the one about how you could watch the sunset at the bottom, then take a lift up to the top and watch it all over again. It's a new order of tallness, even compared to its nearest rival, Taiwan's Taipei 101, which it exceeds by more than 300 metres.

But, beyond height, is there anything to celebrate here? From our current perspective, the Burj Dubai symbolises catastrophic excess – of money, confidence, ambition, energy consumption. And the fact that it will most likely stand empty for years to come has been noted with great satisfaction here in the west. But isn't this how we've responded to every tall structure of note, from Babel onwards? And even its many critics have to admit the tower is a rather stunning piece of architecture. Chiefly designed by Adrian Smith, formerly of skyscraper specialists SOM, and engineer Bill Baker, it is beautifully sleek and elegant, rising in a graceful series of silver tubes of different heights. It looks less like a single tower than a cluster of towers, an organic formation rather than a self-consciously iconic object. This is surely the best-looking tall building since New York's Chrysler and the Empire State in the 1930s.

In environmental terms, the Burj Dubai is way too tall to justify itself, but there is at least some structural efficiency to the form. Its Y-shaped plan – three wings extending from a central core, like the roots of a tree – "confuses the wind", in the architects' words, while the core stops the wings from twisting (which would give top-floor occupants nausea). For super-tall buildings – and surely there will be more, one day – this "buttressed core" design is likely to become the prevailing form.

More worrying than the tower itself, however, is what's around it. In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright unveiled a scheme for an elegantly preposterous mile-high skyscraper for Chicago, safe in the knowledge that he'd never have to figure out how to build it. It was undoubtedly an influence on the Burj Dubai. It even had a similar triangular structure. But Wright's intentions with his mile-high skyscraper were to create a concentrated human habitat, the better to halt Chicago's unstoppable urban sprawl, and free up ground space for parks, nature and leisure.

The Burj Dubai, by contrast, has become the tentpole for several more acres of anonymous, soulless, energy-hungry cityscape. You can apparently see for 60 miles from the top, but when you look down, the immediate landscape is the same schematic real-estate tat you see everywhere else in Dubai: vast shopping malls, bland office towers, sprawling residential developments semi-themed to resemble "traditional" Arabian villages, outsized ornamental fountains. The Burj Dubai might be a triumph vertically, but what about the horizontal?


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Sky's the limit

The Burj Dubai rises almost a kilometre from the Arabian desert. But how did it get up there?



January 03 2010

Burj Dubai set to open

With batteries of fireworks and an invited crowd of 6,000 guests, the rulers of Dubai will tomorrow attempt to convince the world that their financial troubles have been overstated with a lavish inauguration of the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai, rising almost a kilometre from the Arabian desert.

Setting aside fears that the emirate is on the brink of defaulting on its debt, Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is expected to make a triumphal ascent of the spire-shaped tower which rises a giddying 818m. With swimming pools on floors 43 and 76 and plans for the world's highest mosque on the 158th floor, the $1bn "superscraper" dwarfs both the world's previous tallest building, the 508m tall tower 101 in Taipei, and the 629m KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota, the tallest man-made structure. It is so high, the temperature is said to be 10C cooler at the zenith than at the base.

But with many investors in the building's 1,044 apartments already facing losses after property prices in Dubai slumped, the Burj's owners are struggling to present their architectural achievement as anything but a pyrrhic victory. The offices and most of the flats are still an estimated two months from completion and the emirate's neighbours in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, which provided Dubai with a £15bn bailout last year, are also understood to be unimpressed at the ostentation of the building.

The fountain outside cost a reported £133m and the 160 room hotel was designed by fashion designer Georgio Armani and boasts a nightclub, two restaurants and a spa. It is reported to have been built with enough glass to cover 17 football pitches and sufficient concrete to build a pavement from London to Naples. Meanwhile labourers on the project, including many immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, earned low wages. Skilled carpenters took home just £4.34 a day and labourers, £2.84.

But even by the standards of an emirate which has created miles more beach front by building vast islands from millions of tonnes of sand in the shapes of palms, the tower stands out as Dubai's most remarkable achievement yet.Around 12,000 people are expected to live and work in the tower which is part of a 500-acre development known as "downtown" Burj Dubai.

Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, the state-owned developer said Burj Dubai was "another demonstration of Dubai's ability to achieve what few people thought possible".

"The tower is a global icon," he said. "It represents the determination and optimism of Dubai as a truly world city. It is a powerful symbol for the entire Arab world."


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December 17 2009

We'll always have the Burj Dubai

The 818-metre tower is a true wonder of the world, a fitting monument to Dubai as the capital of excess and irrational exuberance

The scaffolding has cleared from the most astonishing man-made structure I have seen. It is outrageous, wasteful, egotistical, ridiculous; but ask if the Burj Dubai is beautiful and I cannot deny it. When it formally opens (mostly empty) early next year, this Dubai tower will, at 818 metres, be the highest building anywhere, its "sneer of cold command" thrusting a finger at the outside world even as its Ozymandian surroundings sink beneath the economic waters of the Gulf.

With the Dubai property market plummeting, the Burj is the final grandiose gesture of the emirate's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, on his long campaign to make Ludwig of Bavaria seem like a jobbing builder on the North Circular Road.

Unlike most new skyscrapers, the $8bn (£5bn) Burj Dubai does not rise until the point where an accountant calculates the lifts can take no more. Its 20-acre base has the plan of a six-leaf desert flower, from which it launches itself into the sky in a diminishing cluster of rocket-like cylinders, spiralling and soaring to a celestial climax.

This is no pastiche Mies, pastiche Corb, pastiche Foster, like the postmodern blobs, slices, wedges and cornets that crowd every Gulf skyline, screaming "look-at-me" at the brain-dulled passerby. Burj Dubai, designed by the Chicagoan architect, Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and closely watched by the sheikh himself, leads the eye ever upwards. It has the exhilaration of a Gothic spire. At the top, a spike rises further, swaying 1.5 metres in the wind and appearing to bend towards the viewer, as if appalled at its own presumption in puncturing the heavens.

Dubai this week lay in the shadow of its new tower, a partygoer still dancing in the streets hours after the party has ended. Its hyperbolic malls are crowded, its freeways jammed and its latest attention-grabber, an international film festival, mobbed by crowds. On Monday Dubai's more sober neighbour, Abu Dhabi, tossed its defaulting property market a $10bn note for one last drink, with another $1bn in pocket money for the embarrassed Maktoum family.

The sheikh's obedient media barely mentioned the humiliation, as a drunk cares not who pays for the last round. The construction sites, once host to a quarter of the world's cranes, are mostly still building, but no one holds out much hope for the sea-girt ocean palms and "cities" planned at the height of the most reckless property bubble in history. The chairman of Dubai World, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, might cry earlier this year, "Dubai has a vision like no other place on earth," but it is a vision few want to share just now.

A quarter of new residential units stand empty and 34,000 are still under construction. Nothing is heard now of a plan to build a tower higher even than Burj Dubai in the port area. An archipelago in the form of a map of the world remains as piles of sand offshore, crazily shipped like coals to Newcastle from Australia and rumoured to have disgorged antipodean snakes into the Gulf. The capital of irrational exuberance has embarked on an almighty hangover.

Since I have long seen Dubai as a speculative accident waiting to happen, I could not resist a debate on its future, held on Monday in the rival statelet of Qatar up the coast – and held with not a little schadenfreude. Dubai's protestation of open markets, an open society and western freedoms have long been absurd. Its rulers reacted to the debate (broadcast next month by BBC World) by trying to have the Qataris suppress it and ensuring that three Dubai speakers and all Dubai journalists boycotted it.

This was absurdly self-defeating, since a motion critical of Dubai's breakneck expansion was defeated 60-40. Twitter and Facebook were flooded with the good news for Dubai, in a week when there had been precious little. Yet none of this was allowed to be reported in Dubai's censored media. Never were so many well-groomed heads buried in so much desert sand.

The surest sign of a polity that has lost confidence in itself is when its rulers cannot tolerate a debate on its affairs. Even the word default has had to be replaced in the Dubai press by "debt restructuring" or "new legal framework". Outsiders are routinely blamed for the property market collapse, which the emirate's buccaneers and paid stooges have for years been stoking with hyperbole. Property values are reported to be 50% down from their peak and are predicted by UBS analysts to be heading for 75%. Those who mimicked the 17th-century Dutch who believed that tulip prices could never fall are left with the paranoid's last gasp, blaming foreigners for their woes.

The most mesmerising thing about Dubai is not its present but its future. Will it be Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat or Fatehpur Sikri? Will it become a place of sand and weeds, so many "trunkless legs of stone" lost on a scorching Gulf shore?

What will happen when the world's funny money starts to flow elsewhere? What happens when a future sheikh goes either environmental or religious and tires of boosterism, returning to tents and camels, to order and respect for his ancestors? What happens when some political whirlwind sweeps across the Gulf from Iran, or down from Iraq, or across from Saudi Arabia?

At a certain point in the decline in property values, it no longer pays owners to maintain lifts, services and utilities (as on a British tower estate). More likely Dubai will be a desert Detroit, a place of widespread dereliction with some money remaining at the centre but with ghost towns and squatted housing in the sweltering suburbs. The smart money is already on the more cautiously developed Qatar and Abu Dhabi stealing its financial thunder and leaving Dubai with its bizarre hotels: Las Vegas to Los Angeles, or Atlantic City to New York.

There is a touch of Vegas to the gold-plated atrium of the "seven star" Burj Al-Arab hotel, with its casino baroque and computerised fountains like leaping dolphins. There is more than a touch of Disney to the $1.5bn Atlantis hotel, opened this year by Kylie Minogue, with shark-filled aquarium wall, garden gnome interior and giant conches for capitals.

Already the office towers of Dubai look like those of a pre-cyber age, when the rich had to live near the oil, and celebrities could be induced to buy off-plan and sell before the fireworks ended. Why live in Dubai and shop at an ersatz Harvey Nichols when you can live in Knightsbridge and shop at the real one?

Dubai is a gaseous burp about to explode in the desert air. But when it explodes it will leave behind the sensational Burj, standing visible across the desert, gleaming proudly in the sun. One day the cost of keeping it up will exceed its income, its steel will rot and the swaying summit will become dangerous. The mother of all demolitions will have to begin. Then Shelley can have his moment and Ozymandias his epitaph. But for the time being Dubai can at least boast a true wonder of the world.


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December 03 2009

Towering follies

The kilometre-high skyscraper, the underwater hotel, the cloud on stilts ... Steve Rose mourns the eye-popping erections that should never have been commissioned

Pundits have been lining up to say "I told you so" over the bursting of Dubai's construction bubble, so now it's my turn. I did tell you so, a year ago. But what now? In architectural terms, Dubai has surely been the story of the decade. We're just not sure if it's a comedy, a tragedy or some surreal, hallucinogenic fairy tale.

On the other hand, the Dubai experiment has undeniably expanded the realms of what it is possible to build. Before the Palm Jumeirah and its ilk, or The World, who would have contemplated works on such a scale? Reclaiming land from the sea is nothing new, but only Dubai had the imagination to make pretty patterns with its coastline, to shape the earth to such a colossal degree that you need Google Earth to appreciate it.

Other countries have evidently been eyeing Dubai's coastline, too. In Russia, for example, Eric van Egeraat has designed Sochi Island, an artificial resort island in the Black Sea. Bahrain is developing a similar type of offshore resort, and Abu Dhabi is making good use of its previously undeveloped islands, such as Saadiyat Island, which will soon house a very different collection of wonders to Dubai in the form of new museums and galleries designed by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando. Even Boris Johnson's recent proposals for a new airport in the Thames estuary had a touch of Dubai about them.

Foreign architects have had a riot in Dubai, at least until recently. It's been the place where you can get away with anything. No matter how outlandish or oversized the idea, no one seemed to be saying no, and somebody else was always paying. As a result, the emirate has been waging some sort of architectural arms race with itself, each new development trying to outdo the last, while the rest of the world looked on with a mix of disdain and envy.

The Dubai dream was ultimately unsustainable on many levels, environmental as well as financial, and it's safe to assume that most of the crazy ideas proposed for the city will never happen now, given Dubai's dire credit situation. So here are some of the craziest highlights from a future that will probably never arrive – but, you never know, still just might.

Nakheel Harbour and Tower

Bad timing for SOM's Burj Dubai, which is due to open on 4 January 2010, just when a conspicuous symbol of Dubai's hubris was needed. But in the Dubai spirit of one-upmanship, plans were afoot to build an even taller skyscraper with an even shorter name: Al Burj. Originally designed by Pei Partnership, the tower was taken over by Australian architects Woods Bagot, and renamed Nakheel Harbour and Tower after its backers, the state-owned property group Nakheel, which is at the heart of Dubai's current woes. The sentiment behind this stupendous tower seemed to be: "I see your 800-metre-high Burj Dubai, and raise it to over 1km. How d'you like that?"

Trump International Hotel and Tower

Surely a frontrunner in any competition for the ugliest skyscraper the world has ever seen, this 60-odd-storey atrocity, designed by Atkins, was supposed to be the centrepiece of the famous Palm Jumeirah and super-luxurious addition to the Trump brand. It looks like it was inspired by one of those 1980s vases you find in a pound shop. Mercifully, construction has been on hold for a year or so.

Dubai Towers

In the same way the peacock's tail evolved into a flamboyantly useless appendage, Dubai skyscrapers have had to resort to ludicrous contortions to stand out. From the "ignore them, they're just trying to get attention" school of design comes a quartet of bendy skyscrapers supposedly inspired by the movement of candlelight – or perhaps Jedward's hair.

Hydropolis Underwater Hotel

Why reach for the sky when you can plumb the depths? This German-designed scheme would offer 220 bubble-shaped transparent suites, 66 metres below the surface, so guests can enjoy a privileged view of Dubai's spectacular coastal dredging operations.

The Dynamic Tower

A nice idea: each of this tower's 70 floors revolves independently around its central core, so everyone lives in a revolving apartment and gets a 360-degree view of Dubai's cranescape. And from the outside, the building changes shape all the time. And it's all powered by green energy from wind turbines and solar panels. All perfectly possible, architect David Fisher assures a sceptical world.

The Dubai Opera House

Not even Dubai had the stomach for French superstar Jean Nouvel's idiosyncratic formal experiment – a strange cross between an oil rig, a greenhouse and a psychedelic light show. Nouvel's pretentious accompanying text didn't help: "It is a little like the clouds. Each person can see what attracts them, what makes them question. The architect plays only the role of provocateur, claiming innocence." Nouvel is at least building the new Louvre, in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, which promises to be stunning.

The Cloud

A poetic but preposterous scheme imagining a resort landscape of lakes, palaces and floating gardens, raised 300 metres in the air on slanting columns. The brainchild of Lebanese architect Nadim Karam, it's been described as "a bridge suspended between dreams and reality". Why not put a gigantic pie on stilts instead?

Waterfront City

A whole city for 1.5 milliion inhabitants on an artificial island twice the size of Hong Kong. Rem Koolhaas's OMA were behind the plan. Reckoning that nobody in the Gulf watched Star Wars, he put a replica of the Death Star as its centrepiece – or was that his idea of architectural satire?

Dubailand

A vast landscape of leisure, twice the size of Florida's Disney World, proposed for the interior of the emirate. Highlights include four theme parks, five golf courses, life-size replicas of some of the world's landmarks, a zillion hotels, a Beauty Museum, and, of course, another "world's largest shopping mall".


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December 18 2008

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