Review: Building on Sand Part Two

Building on Sand 2/2, BBC World Service radio, on rotation in May, 2011

This is part two of the short series with Jonathan Glancey looking at construction in the gulf states, in a time of instability; asking how sustainable the new look emirates are or can be, with their ambitious building programmes and spectacular architecture…

Thankfully part two balances the giddy breathlessness of the first.  Here, then, is the acknowledgement of the economic issues which have so dramatically shaped Dubai’s current state. The global recession hit Dubai particularly hard, reliant as it is on the financial and property sectors, one of the most ‘globalised’ places on earth. Though battered, it remains a viable economic hub with more social freedoms than most of the region. Yet it faces fierce competition from Abu Dhabi and Doha. “It’s Dubai’s game to lose…” as one commentator states.

There follows a direct contrast with Abu Dhabi, wanting to control the pace of change. Having stepped out of the shadows of Dubai, Abu Dhabi pursues carefully controlled growth. The first 30-year plan has been re-planned, as inward investment and oil money transform the development of the region. The Urban Plan for 2030 is based on estidama (‘sustainability’ in Arabic – more on this at Build Green).

In Abu Dhabi, buildings are shaped to respond to the path of the sun. With mashrabiya – dynamic, opening sun-screens – this makes for 20% less cooling and a 50% lower carbon footprint than contemporary Western designs. regard for the ‘Desert Experience’ means that materials and architectural patterns reflect the surrounding culture.

Glancey gets throroughly enthused over this discovery. Clearly this is the kind of Emirati construction he’s looking for, even though not all is ‘green’ in the Emirate. The Louvre and Gugenheim museums under construction on a sandy atoll off the coast, hint at a Dubai-style land-grab – but then there’s a chronic shortage of available land on the main island of Abu Dhabi.

What we then get is the vision of the Emirates as cultural and educational centre. The Islamic museum in Doha is a Chinese-designed, Arabic-inspired building. The crowning acheivement is given as Masdar city, being built entirely on a podium, with all the  infrastructure and services at true ground-level beneath; including ‘green’, driverless pods for public transport. The chief civil engineer at Masdar promotes the lessons of older Arabic cultures, before cheap energy and the oil money.

Glancey finishes on this positive note; but I am not so fixed in my views. The region is still at the cross-roads; twenty or thirty years of accelerating, conflicted development, based on conflicting ambitions and conflicting cultural values, do not a direction make.  AJS

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