At various points during Dubai's breakneck development, it seemed the city was better known for its imaginary structures than for its real ones. Abu Dhabi is arguably still in that situation; its most famous building is probably Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum - a flamboyant structure whose foundation hasn't been laid yet. This is no accident, of course. This week the capital unveiled its third annual Cityscape Exhibition, a massive real-estate confab dedicated, in part, to showcasing images of Abu Dhabi's bright future. This year's highlight was an enormous model of the city as it might look in 2030, a sprawling work of art that encouraged us to see today's Abu Dhabi as a canvas - less a place defined by history than a giant whiteboard.
The model attracted steady crowds of smartly dressed, mesmerised onlookers who occasionally lifted point-and-shoot cameras to snap an image. Some of those photographs inevitably found their way to an even more ethereal forum for speculative planning, a website called SkyscraperCity.com, which hosts a kind of global, perpetual Cityscape Exhibition for the general public in cyberspace. The site is the premiere online haunt for big-building enthusiasts; it is also, by some measures, the largest online forum in the world.
SkyscraperCity made its debut on September 11 2002 - an inauspicious launch date, one might think. But in hindsight, that fluke nicely frames the rise of SkyscraperCity. With a membership equal to the population of a medium-sized municipality, the site is perhaps the most raw and immediate document of the irrationally exuberant era that stretched out post-September 11 and pre-financial collapse. The site reveals the popular dimension of construction booms; in a time of spectacular overbuilding, SkyscraperCity provided a grandstand.
Just as a boxing marquee would never neglect to plug a prize fight, SkyscraperCity gives top billing to Dubai and the world's tallest building. Its main discussion thread on the Burj Khalifa stretches to more than 26,000 comments - many of them including stage-by-stage photographs of the building's construction - and has been viewed nearly seven million times. And yet what's more striking about the site is that 70 per cent of all online searches for "Addis Ababa, Ethiopia" lead to SkyscraperCity. Or that the forum is the 102nd most popular website in Honduras. Or that the site's sub-forum on Cambodia - a country that barely had paved roads 10 years ago - displays screen after screen of proposed towers alongside user comments that essentially deliver variations on that most human of utterances, "Wow". On SkyscraperCity, every forthcoming apartment complex, luxury hotel, and shopping emporium - indeed, virtually every tower crane in the developing world - seems to have a cheering section.
This week's Cityscape was reportedly more subdued than in years past. Even in Abu Dhabi, reality has put a damper on the urban dreamscape. But in the mind of the public, the virtual cities of the future may have achieved a life of their own. SkyscraperCity's traffic has apparently floated free of the global economic cycle. Visits to the site continued to increase after the economic crisis, gliding upwards even as construction schedules and proposed towers were quietly, inevitably shelved around the world.
As of a couple of weeks ago, the first image that came up when you searched for "Addis Ababa, Ethiopia" on Google was a computer rendering of a mixed-use glass and steel structure from SkyscraperCity - a building that has yet to be built. The larger picture it presented was that of an ancient, inexorably growing city overshadowed by a quite possibly outdated vision of the future. * John Gravois