Why Are We Still Learning from Las Vegas
By WORKac, New York

At the turn of the century, Dubai counted 1600 inhabitants. Today it has almost one million. The growth in population is rivaled only by its growth in garbage: Dubai’s domestic refuse increases annually by ten percent with an expected 2 million metric tons in 2008. As Dubai has developed, its strategy has been to “x” its buildable surface, “y” its population and “z” its trash, to parts unknown.

This incredible boom is said to have come as a result of running the young emirate like a corporation. To attract businesses, Dubai conceptualizes islands of work it calls “cities,” “villages” and “zones,” immediately linking its business ambitions to urban ideas. Like an archipelago of emirates themselves, these working hubs—Media City, Internet City, DAFZ, DUCAMZ, Knowledge Village, are all designed to perform at the highest competitive level possible. Each island provides everything from cutting edge technologies to plug-in office spaces, move-in apartments and financial breaks. Foreign ownership is encouraged—at least of businesses. Attracted by such promise, a young ambitious and smart work force moves to Dubai and by 2003, there were 203 different nationalities living and working in Dubai—constituting eighty percent of the overall population.

At first glance, these “ci-ties” are more akin to American suburban office parks: ge-neric oases of corporate boxes loosely organized around central par-king lots and the occasional green lawn. Yet stepping out of the car, it is only a matter of seconds before this first impression is dissipated by the scale of the enterprise and its success. From MSNBC to Reuters, Sony, Zen TV, Middle East Business News, CNN, UNI TV and others, it seems everyone is here and working together. The energy is high and the rhythm upbeat; far from the nonchalant Middle Eastern tempo. While infinite possibilities crowd the imagination, the excess of life witnessed renders the architecture once again irrelevant. Whereas Las Vegas attracts gamblers, Dubai attracts entrepreneurs, and their needs are solely virtual.

Firmly grounding its image as a modern working city for the young and the bold, Dubai generates new typologies for itself. A hybrid between the Champs Elysées and a Manhattan Avenue, Sheikh Zayed Road is a single majestic gesture flanked by skyscrapers on either side. Like a trail in the snow, there is nothing behind the skyscrapers but more desert. This is Dubai at its best, where pure vision and the desire for density yield a fantastic urban moment in the midst of nothingness.

With the advent of the Palm Islands—I, II, and soon III—Dubai reveals its weakness. While proving once again the breadth of its vision at an urban level, it fails to provide the same invention at the architectural. In plan, and from the moon, the Palms are the result of a simple yet genius observation: If a coast line of length ‘l’ is artificially rippled into ‘x’ number of fingers, the length of beach front within a given area is multiplied by ‘x.’ This rippling in turn offers an evolution of the “front yard—back yard” suburban dream: “beach yards” for everyone. Once at the level of the Palm’s streets, however, the inventiveness is stifled. The Palm’s extruded buildings are an ode to ‘Lifestyle’ where theming takes over living in a cacophony of staged styles. From the Asian, to the Tuscan and back to Venice, the Palm is but an architectural Epcot Center where all is fiction written by developers, even one’s life.

Today, in the battle between real life and its theming, it seems the latter is taking the lead. No longer satisfied with being the destination of choice for an incredible work force, Dubai is already launching its next big thing: Tourism—the same next big thing as for so many other cities. After building islands of work, and islands of living, the time has come for islands of leisure: entertainment for all and the creation of fantasy worlds ensuring consumption ad nausea. Disney has finally landed in Dubai.

In October 2003, Dubailand is announced: a 5 billion dollar mixed use theme park, whose area will equal the current built surface of Dubai. The 3 billion square foot project is expected to attract 15 million tourists annually. Amongst the most extravagant projects of Dubailand is the creation of Eco-Tourism World—a green haven of sixteen different gardens, outdoor amphi-theatre, health spa and resort and academy for 1,000 students. The project’s centerpiece is Al Barari—an oasis of green that will ex-tend over 14.6 million square feet. “Surrounded by, and bordering a protected wild-life sanctuary [it] will truly be an inspirational setting reminding one of the Thousand and One Nights stories.”

If ecotourism was in-vented to encourage deve-loping countries to preserve their natural wealth, to promote sustainable growth and to support local businesses and education, how are bottomless “thirsty” projects like Dubailand and 15 million new tourists expected to preserve Dubai’s desert and improve the life of its inhabitants? Why should the Middle East need its own Disneyland and why are we still learning from Las Vegas?

Shouldn’t Dubai—with all the intelligence and imagination and money it has already put forth—continue to become an example by developing new models for it and for the world instead of adopting already failed ones? Shouldn’t these new concepts grow from the dryness, heat, humidity and beauty of its desert?

Moving from the desert of Las Vegas to that of Arcosanti, Dubai could develop a new “zero sprawl” model and out-new the new urbanists. Dubai’s obsession with skyscrapers would finally be put to good use, building vertical density everywhere. Its suburbs would implode. Learning form the Palm’s ripples, entire neighborhoods would be compressed vertically, minimizing their impact on the ground while maximizing the effectiveness of their shared services.

The concept of islands would be transformed from “working” “living” or “playing” to “sustainable” and “self sufficient,” each one collecting its own water and treating its own trash. Dubai’s snubbing of infrastructure could lead it to drop infrastructure altogether. Going wireless in this new era, it could go carless as well—no more traffic, highways or pollution, only public blimps and private carpets powered by wind engines moving from one independent living hub to another. Building on its tradition of wind towers, Dubai would thicken the skins of its tower facades to become deep pockets of shadow and cool. It would abandon its love of bland horizontal lawns and adopt the wild organisms of living machines to constantly recycle the waters of its towers.

The new Dubai would concentrate on the “real” as an expression of what is in Dubai perhaps the ultimate fantasy. You live in a desert but with hundreds of thousands of urbanites; you have shrinking oil supplies but inexhaustible sunlight and wind; the focus on density in a small area has given you a city that can be completely traversed by bicycle in less than an hour. What if reality was more interesting than fantasy? Isn’t that what reality TV is proving? To move forward, Dubai should embrace the desert with skyscrapers of adobe, celebrate modernity through advances in sustainability and instead of pretending that the wavy glass of the glorified office parks and the thin-skinned plastic towers that line Sheikh Zayed Road are actually models of anything that can last, celebrate the fact that there is a pleasure in building Babelesque edifices but this time building them right: In Dubai you can always Google a translation…

Work Architecture Company (WORKac) was founded in 2003 by Dan Wood and Amale Andraos. Dan Wood is originally from Rhode Island and has lived and worked in Paris and the Netherlands. He received his BA at the University of Pennsylvania and his Masters from Columbia University. Prior to forming WORKac, Mr. Wood established an international reputation as Rem Koolhaas’s partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Amale Andraos was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She has lived in Saudi Arabia, Paris, the Netherlands and Canada, where she received her B. Arch at McGill University. After completing her Masters at Harvard University, Ms. Andraos moved to the Netherlands in 1999 to work as a principal designer with OMA and then to OMA’s New York office in 2002. Both partners currently teach at Princeton University School of Architecture. WORKac’s projects have been featured in exhibitions at the New York AIA Architecture Center, Princeton University’s School of Architecture gallery, the University of Texas’ Goldsmith Hall Gallery and McGill University in Montreal. WORKac has presented their projects in lectures at Columbia and Harvard, and in Copenhagen, Paris, Beirut, Providence, Montreal, and Austin. WORKac’s projects have been published in the New York Times, the New York Sun, Interior Design, Architecture Magazine, A+U Architecture and Urbanism, the AIA Oculus, and 30-60-90.


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