Rem Koolhaas on the High-Rise Phenomenon and Emirates’ Potential of Re-Inventing Urbanization
Rem Koolhaas, co-founder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), receiver of the Pritzker Prize Award in 2000, and leading urban theorist, was one of the first to question the high-rise phenomenon and its influence on city transformation. Particularly intrigued by the Gulf region and the urban ambitions of this area, in 2009, during the 9th edition of the Sharjah Biennial, he delivered a lecture on the potential of re-inventing urbanization in the Emirates.
On the occasion of the golden jubilee of UAE, marking 50 years since the Emirates were founded in 1971, 50U, published by Archis explores the different developments in the Gulf, this region that “witnessed the transformation of a partly nomadic, partly town-based community into a global active metropolitan society”. After Al Manakh, in 2007, followed in 2010 by Al Manakh Cont’d, 50U tells the story of the UAE through 50 portraits of people, plants, and places. The book also shares an excerpt of Koolhaas’ 2009 talk that reflects on contemporary conditions, focusing specifically on his reading of Dubai, his architectural involvement as well as his future urban predictions.
The following is an abridged version of Rem Koolhaas’ lecture, delivered on March 17, 2009, where he discussed the high-rise phenomenon and UAE’s potential of re-inventing urbanization.
I came here first in 2004. We were asked to do a major building on the site which is marked by the flag. Then, two years ago it was the exact moment… I became nervous about the mission of architecture and the uses of architecture. And I really became almost desperate… that the incredible pressure of the market economy was forcing architecture itself early into extravagant conditions. Seemingly, Dubai seemed to be the epicenter of that extravagance. So, I came with deeply ambivalent feelings. It seemed as if the idea of the city and the metropolis itself had almost been turned into a caricature, not a coherent entity but maybe a patchwork of theme parks. And those themes would become the bogus and bizarre characters that were perhaps partly mythical and partly real.
My first attempt at building in Dubai was to use Dubai, to use its expectations of absurdity and to run against them, to propose a very simple, singular, pure building – really a new beginning. The Renaissance building is 200 meters wide and 300 meters tall. It was seemingly absurd that the age of icon or the age of bizarre architecture would be over.
My theory or expectation was that the building would work particularly best in the context of Dubai because you could count on the differences of contrast of the other to achieve its pristine beauty, and at the same time eccentricity, perhaps, and therefore bleat its importance loud and clear – a new declaration at a strange moment in architecture.
So, this is four years ago.
Two years ago we published a book, Al Manakh, on Dubai and the whole Gulf region, because, as in this lecture, Dubai is a metaphor for the Gulf region as a whole. We simply decided to look at and engage with the Arab world; to talk to the Arab world and comprehend some of the more superficial, or some of the more common Western analyzes of Dubai.
There is no person more eloquent about the evil of Dubai than Mark Davis. His book Evil Paradisewhich is partially about Dubai, was published more or less with Al Manakh. In his essay, he describes Dubai, as you probably know, like a nightmare, where “Walt Disney meets Albert Speer on the shores of Araby.” It is this kind of superficial reading of the possibility of Dubai that we have tried to contradict. In that sense, we are actually in quite a strange position of somebody who is, of course, not an Arab, who has no major Arab allegiances, and who is nevertheless arguing against some of what I see as dangerously superficial interpretations of a phenomenon immediately ambiguous and multi-faceted, both in the good sense and the bad sense, of Dubai.
My involvement in the Gulf in a certain way was a series of failures, or a series of efforts, that were perhaps slightly premature. One of the next things we worked on after the Renaissance was to look at the idea of preservation in Dubai. It seems a crazy word. How do you talk about preservation in a city which is barely more than thirty years old? But, for instance, original workers’ housing clearly was at some point likely to be moved. It was, to some extent, in disrepair. Nothing very extravagant or special, in terms of architecture, but still in the sense of an interesting and working Arab environment, very significant, and totally in contradiction with the glamorous work associated with Dubai.
We looked at how we could somehow maintain this kind of Dubai. What we did was see how you could work simply on the old patches, do relatively discreet types of developments there, and in return for that try to maintain that intimate and unique texture that was there. But there again, we miscalculated. We were slightly too early. There are always expats and consultants willing to do what is necessary to make the changes that are seemingly inevitable – and that was the case here. So, in October 2008, we discovered at the fair of real estate that our site had actually been radically razed to make space for this project – a weird three-part skyscraper, incredibly tall. The attempt to maintain that part of Dubai was wrong.
As part of our reading, what has fascinated me – about Dubai – is how dominant our reading of it is. By ‘our’ I mean the West. Dubai happened; we participated in its construction. We were complicit in its extravagance. But we were also the first to denounce its absurdity. What I fear now, now that we have declared ‘end-game’, is that we will also be the first to tell Dubai not to be itself anymore, to tell Dubai that it’s over, and to declare prematurely an end, not only to an experiment but also to a real cultural change that has been taking place in and underneath all of this, one that still deserves to reach its own conclusions. I think that it’s a little bit strange to quote Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, in this context, as if she’s a political thinker, but it is nevertheless significant that New York now looks to Dubai as the definition of what cannot be done anymore. And I really encourage everyone here in the room, do not give too much belief to this kind of material, but instead to what Dubai will eventually have to offer us.
Perhaps one of the most significant things we can do is to look at Dubai very closely, beyond the hype and exaggeration, and perhaps then identify a certain kind of beauty that is present here. I simply challenge anyone to define all the sources of this work, but at the same time to see that there is definitely an aesthetic at work, which we may not be able to embrace, but which we have to nevertheless take seriously.