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To the Gulf Part III: Dubai Sojourn

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in Chief

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All photography © Robert Ivy, FAIA

Read more:
• To the Gulf Part II
To the Gulf Part I

Where did all the cranes come from? Aren't they all in China these days? How can one city, one place, cram so much construction onto one single street? Those are the kinds of questions that inevitably crowd into your mind on a visit to Dubai, a city on the rise. Another word that the frenetic activity suggests is bubble, since few places on the planet would be able to sustain such a level of building. So much construction is under way that the microclimate has been affected. The atmosphere, formerly known for its crystal clarity, now wears a veil of dust, all stirred up by the building and earth moving, which takes place 24 hours each day.

Searching for an analogy, trying to compare Dubai to another, similar city proves fruitless-the closest comparable city in a desert built along a strip highway, Las Vegas, seems to be pandering toward ersatz glitz. Dubai, however, has been freshened by the sea, which bathes the land in a soft morning light. The buildings, while extraordinary, create their own form of surrealism: think Beijing monoliths, 40 stories tall, lined in a new palisade, one after the other, banked at their flanks by Palm Springs bungalows. It's an incongruous, yet oddly affecting mixture. All upscale; all the receptacles of global wealth, like so many piggy banks in a row. That's Dubai.

The city, the most visible of the United Arab Emirates, has transformed itself in 20 years. Its airport, designed by SOM and currently under expansion, now serves as a hub for transit between Asia, Africa, and Europe-a contemporary souq in its own right selling gold, frankincense, and Gucci. A 15-minute ride finds you on Sheikh Zayed road, the main drag, where the hotels form their amazing procession. Here a gaggle of automobile showrooms; there, an immense shopping mall, replete with its own internal, snow-covered ski slope. Yes, ski slope. When the summer temperature hits over 100 degrees, everyone heads inside, and they need something to do besides shop.

Why are they flocking in? The word on the street seems to be a combination of factors: the zest that comes from late fall until spring, populating the beaches, the proximity of those beaches to Europe (closer than the Bahamas or the Caribbean), the luxe of new hotels, such as the flagship Burj al-Arab, where the rooms go for $1,200 per night, the nightlife, the food (think fresh prawns and sea bass). Also the stability of the Emirates, which have become havens for global finance, with billions pouring through the pipelines, and that's not all oil money. The primary factor may be the ability of investors (non-residents) to own land, a relatively new phenomenon.

Dubai prospers as a result of multiple convergences, and is building. At the extremities, near the marina, a warren of concrete towers near the sea rises like sandcastles, overtopped by spidery cranes. Construction workers from overseas squat in the shade, or run to catch a nearby bus. (Residents of Dubai don't do manual labor, relying on workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, or Pakistan to do the real work: the ratio is four imported workers to one native-born citizen). Most of the apartment towers appear near the topping out point. A Sheraton hotel, built in the earlier boom of the 1970s, had anchored the marina district as a solitary outpost, but no more.

The downtown lies at the opposite extreme, lining Dubai Creek, (Khor Dubai) which more accurately might be called an inland bay. Here the city achieves real urban density. Across the creek sits Deira, heart of the old town with its souqs. The Bastakia Quarter, where wealthy Iranians settled in the early 20th century, contains the wind-tower houses they built, currently under renovation. Here you feel some sense of the past.

After two decades of stretching out longitudinally, with no real planning in sight, the city is discovering its cross-axes. Major developers have taken large parcels of land off Sheikh Zayed Road and are introducing planned communities that range from historicist renderings of Arabian towns to the ultra-modern. At the forefront of the latter belongs the Burj Dubai, the high-rise development that will include the world's tallest building, again designed by SOM, and currently under construction. While its height remains undisclosed, the plans within the mixed-use project illustrate offices as high as 141 floors, and that is shy of the overtopping tower that will crown the structure.

A day, or a weekend, in Dubai allows a feel for a city jamming forward toward the future. The atmosphere is giddy with growth, as if the visitors cannot fill their shopping bags quickly enough. The question for the future is whether the bubble we are all watching expand will expand even further, or will it burst?