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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Foundations for the future are not always fruitful

Cityscape is the place where developers congregate to show their wares with as much fanfare as possible, drum up business and ultimately get punters to sign on the dotted line

Developers congregate at Cityscape to show their wares with as much fanfare as possible. Guiseppe Cacace / AFP
Developers congregate at Cityscape to show their wares with as much fanfare as possible. Guiseppe Cacace / AFP

In a country that’s as future-focused as the UAE, few events embody the excitement generated by grand designs as Cityscape, the Middle East’s largest real estate expo, which took place at the Dubai World Trade Centre earlier this week.

Cityscape is the place where developers congregate to show their wares with as much fanfare as possible, drum up business and ultimately get punters to sign on the dotted line. It is also manna from heaven for the world’s architectural model makers, 3-D visualisers, stand designers, event organisers and thrusting young sales executives, professions that thrive on the eye candy of architecture rather than its reality.

The event is the ideal place to do business, for example, if you need to promote the world’s first underwater luxury resort, Floating Venice, which is being punted by the same people who brought us The World Islands, just in case you are interested.

Perhaps it’s because I once spent two weeks drawing up master plans for one of The World Islands, ensconced in a studio in deepest Surrey desperately trying to understand how palm trees might work on an island pretending to be Sweden, but whenever I see one of these visions writ large, I always find myself thinking less about the future than of futures that never came to pass.

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To see one of these, take a trip on the Dubai Metro as far as the Nakheel Harbour and Tower Station and then take a walk, south of the metro’s viaduct into the surrounding sands and you will find a feature that still shows up as a pale grey circle, if you search for it carefully on Google Maps. Clearer in satellite view, this halo emerges from the ground like the trace of an old sentence emerging from a palimpsest but is, in fact, the remains of enormous footings, sunk deep towards the bedrock, built as the foundations for a skyscraper that once promised to be the world’s tallest, the 1,400-metre-tall Nakheel Tower that gave the metro station its name.

At his recent talk at the launch of Concrete, the Alserkal Avenue-based gallery space that still counts as his only project completed in the UAE, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas recounted the many projects designed by his Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) that briefly lived in beautiful renderings, but went no further.

Not only was there was a new national museum for Damascus as well as Museum of Kurdistan in Erbil, but if OMA had got their way, Dubai would also have had a giant gateway that would have framed the city’s skyline and a 44-storey-high spherical skyscraper. Dubbed the Death Star when plans for the building were first released, OMA’s ball-shaped building would have formed the centrepiece for Dubai Waterfront, the claw-shaped 1.5bn-square-foot global city that would have made the embellishment of the emirate’s coastline complete.

As Never Built New York, a new exhibition at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows shows, Dubai isn’t the only metropolis to have an alternate architectural history. Mid-town Manhattan would have been very different if the architect Buckminster Fuller had been able to cover it in a giant, transparent dome as would Paris, if Le Corbusier had executed his Plan Voisin, predicated as it was on the demolition of five square kilometres of the city’s most ancient arrondissements, the right bank’s 3rd and 4th. If you think these unrealised visions are merely the stuff of architectural history, you can think again, because even though you may not realise it, their traces haunt our everyday.

Have you ever wondered, for example, why there is an 03 for Al Ain and a 04 for Dubai in the UAE’s telephone system, but 01 is absent? Apparently, the prime number was originally reserved for a new federal capital city, Al Karama, that was planned for a plot between Dubai and Abu Dhabi but never realised, leaving the 01 prefix superfluous and obsolete.

Since reading about the telephone tale for the first time in an article written by Mishaal Al Gergawi, I’ve always wondered whether it’s true, or simply a delicious urban myth.

Either way, it gets to the nub of all city visioning, executed or otherwise, an exercise that even at is soberest blends utopian fictions, whether submerged or spherical, with tedious urban realities, telephonic or otherwise.