There are very few cases in history in which the juxtaposition of a huge concentration of wealth over a vast geographic and demographic emptiness have come together to defy the models of development so fundamentally as in the Gulf today. I first came to Abu Dhabi in 1982, and I remember driving for hours in the vastness of the desert, overwhelmed by the extreme beauty and severity of the landscape.
This image has been replaced now by an explosion of construction, juxtaposed on to the subtle greenery created by Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE. This new image is the result of the tendency to undertake projects of extraordinary exuberance without first establishing the framework for a sustainable social and urban fabric, such as that envisioned by Sheikh Zayed. The lack of a more generic framework for development in the UAE is due to human nature. The need to leave an immediate mark, after all, is a compelling psychological force.
It is also a result of the failure of the so-called international experts - all of us working in the area, regardless of our origin or professional acumen - to foresee the problems of such an approach in establishing a sustainable future for the region. This is explained by the self-serving character of "professional neutrality". Then there is the dictum: "If we build it, they will come." Examples of the risks embedded in this philosophy are plenty in the region and in some cases also glaring evidence of its destructive effects.
In many cities throughout the region, buildings appear to have no respect for one another. The fight for formal distinction has created a confusing environment in which it is difficult to find a viable response to the true potential of the extraordinary geography of the area. New cities are being "created" around allegoric themes as if they were products for consumption rather than organic entities. They are designed as objects; square boundaries drawn in the sand, metaphorical forms only visible from the air.
But there are clear examples, both historical and contemporary, of attempts to confront this problem from a more "infrastructural" perspective. The development of the Abu Dhabi Plan 2030 is one of the most recent attempts for a more sound strategy to define a framework for development. But perhaps the most effective attempt to give a real character to the area is still Sheikh Zayed's original interest in transforming the original landscape of the capital into a place of greenery and expanded open spaces.
After some years of experimentation since this initial intervention, the alternatives for the future are clear: either we continue the process of creating ever more "built events" in the hope that the links between them will self-generate; or we undertake a more challenging task in creating links that could control those events before they take place. This task cannot be achieved by the traditional planning principles seen around the world. It requires a more active initiative to build a public realm that could address the environmental condition to which it is subject.
This project is the building of a system of national parks that could provide a continuum to the experience of being part of this extraordinary place. It would turn the focus of attention from the waterfront to the desert, a national asset that defines its character, and it should be based on a new, sound environmental policy that is increasingly being put in place. This initiative should provide for an enormous investment in new and more sustainable forms of public transport, such as envisioned in the Abu Dhabi Surface Transport Master Plan, and the development of affordable housing to make the area a destination for newcomers and locals. This project will not be a set of principles to control private development, but the construction of the canvas on which it can occur.
One obvious problem with this is that it may not meet the public's present parameters of what is considered glamorous: a building with enough visual power to create its own branding. But those parameters are now challenged by the ideological shift created by the global economic crisis anyway. The Plan 2030 framework allows for the establishment of a national parks system adjacent to the city. With the many other priorities facing the Government and the emirate's property developers, I hope this important element gets the attention it deserves.
As it was first envisioned by Sheikh Zayed, the success of this country depends on the creation of a national landscape. The scale of this enterprise is unique in the history of urban or regional development, but commensurate to the scale of the economic power that the country enjoys. Rafael Vinoly, an architect for 45 years, has completed buildings and master plans throughout the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia, as well as in Africa and the Middle East. He is the master planner for the New York University Abu Dhabi campus and the architect for the hotel and entertainment complex under design at Mina Zayed.