x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

City of dreams lives on

The euphoria may have died along with the boom years, but Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect who has compiled a second book of essays, Al Manakh 2, says 'Dubai's energy and talent are not spent' and the emirate remains a place of opportunity.

Three long years ago - in the days when an underwater hotel was still on the cards for Dubai, and the western press regularly dismissed and gawped at the city's excesses in equal measure - a funny-looking book appeared with the unusual purpose of taking Gulf cities seriously. An odd mosaic of snapshots, graphs, charts, verbatim interviews and deadpan provocations, the volume was called Al Manakh - a word that means "climate" in Arabic and evokes the term "almanac" in English. And though it featured a dizzying array of contributors and editors, the book was probably best known for being presided over by Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch celebrity architect renowned almost as much for his literary efforts as for his buildings.

"The world is running out of places where it can start over," wrote Koolhaas in a page-long introductory essay to the book. "The Gulf is not just reconfiguring itself; it's reconfiguring the world." He took westerners to task for being acid in their critiques but moribund in their ideas about the emerging region, which he suggested might be a "last chance" to think through a new kind of city. The book became an eccentric but indispensable document of the boom.

Then came the economic crisis, and a whole new question emerged: what chances are there now? This week, a year and a half into the post-boom era, the long-limbed sexagenarian Koolhaas made a special trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi - in-between visits to Hong Kong and Doha - to ring in the official release of Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued. Koolhaas's introduction to the new book makes clear that he is happy to see some of the boom time's mania consigned to history: he looks back at the "consultant-stoked speculative bonfire of the 2000s" and the "grotesque developer's euphoria" that hatched outrageous visions, some of which have "mercifully evaporated". But it is also clear that he has not given up on the Gulf.

"Dubai's energy and talent are not spent," he writes, and the city still holds out extraordinary opportunity for millions outside the European orbit. "Where a western perspective could only register unguided frivolity, Dubai from an Iranian perspective would represent freedom; from an Indian, opportunity; to an Arab, the hope that Arab modernity can work." Compared to the first Al Manakh, the new book is longer, more polished, more sombre, more reliant on essays than blurry photographs and less focused on architecture. Also, it is printed on cheaper paper. Which is one way of saying that Al Manakh 2 is implicitly and explicitly about the economic crisis and how the region has adapted to it.

Sponsored by the Urban Planning Council of Abu Dhabi, the new volume was edited by another vast team, including the architect and writer Todd Reisz and Daniel Camara and Mitra Khoubrou from Dubai's Pink Tank consulting firm, as well as others from the Archis think tank in Amsterdam, the Netherlands Architecture Institute, and Koolhaas's architecture office, OMA. The new book has also expanded Al Manakh's scope, with extensive material from writers on the ground in Saudi Arabia - a country not considered in the first book - as well as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. (One of the book's dispatches from Saudi Arabia was written by myself.)

On the morning of the book's launch, Koolhaas sits down for an interview at his hotel, Dubai's Grosvenor House. As a former journalist, the architect says he has always been interested in "magazines, books, and everything in-between". (It is probably helpful to think of both Al Manakhs as belonging somewhere in the "in-between" category.) What is ironic is that in the end, Koolhaas may be remembered better for his theories about the UAE than for anything here made of glass and steel. Though he has become one of the country's most significant observers, he has never actually been able to build anything here. During the boom, Koolhaas's name was perhaps most associated with Waterfront City, a jewel-like "city within a city" that he designed for Dubai's colossal Waterfront development. But work on that project has ground to a halt, with the future uncertain at best. "My experience as a human being has been excellent," he says of his time in Dubai. "My experience as an architect has been hopeless."

Koolhaas laughs. A lanky, angular figure with prominent eyes, he fidgets constantly with his glasses, his phone and his watch - winding it, rewinding it and replacing it on his wrist - without looking down at what his hands are doing. He has a reputation for being intimidating, in part because of his unrelenting gaze. But when Koolhaas laughs, his huge eyes water easily. "I've never been so unsuccessful as I have here," he says, still somewhat teary-eyed. "But of course that experience itself turned out to be informative, if you look at the story of Dubai. In a certain way being an involuntary participant was an ideal perspective on the crisis."

Koolhaas looks back on the professional frustrations in the Gulf with a remarkable lack of bitterness. He reserves most of his exasperation for what he sees as smug western critics of the region, luxuriating in Schadenfreude. He is still "always slightly mystified and upset", he said, by the disconnect between so much writing about the region and the reality on the ground. This disconnect reached a kind of vicious climax last year, when writers such as Simon Jenkins in England and Lauren Greenfield in America imagined Dubai as a city on the verge of vanishing altogether.

"That's why it's wonderful to be here now," he says, "because you see that the only thing that vanished is perhaps a kind of euphoria, or perhaps a kind of developer's mania. There is still a lot there." Like many of the contributors to Al Manakh 2, Koolhaas sees the current period as one of opportunity. "The hiatus will enable people to think slightly better," he says - a statement of measured optimism if there ever was one. But he is still a believer in the Gulf's forward momentum, and seems suspicious of any attempt to look backward in nostalgia for some state of innocence.

Koolhaas is a well-known sceptic of "new urbanist" thinking, which prizes building liveable cities that are dense, walkable and "people-friendly" - and which has enjoyed a bit more favour in the UAE of late. It's not that such ideas are bad, he suggests, it's that they are built from nostalgic western models. New urbanists are "very intelligent people with very dogmatic ideas that are very persuasive', he says.

"Maybe every different location deserves its own unique dogma. Take high-rise towers, and take social housing. It started in Europe, came over to America and then it went to China, Hong Kong. In Europe it worked well for a time, in America it was a disaster, and in Hong Kong it was wonderful. So what is authentic? I really can't say." Last Thursday evening, Koolhaas and several of the editors of Al Manakh 2 held a book launch at the half-complete Abu Dhabi campus of the Sorbonne University, deep in the construction zone of Reem Island. Addressing a loosely packed auditorium - filled partly with contributors to the new book - in an open-ended question and answer session, he sits on a stage alongside Khoubrou and Michael White, a senior planner with the Urban Planning Council. "At a time like this," White says, "it's an opportunity to think about what people actually need. If you travel throughout the region, you see what communities don't have: sidewalks, they don't have parks, they have inadequate health facilities, inadequate schools. So this is an opportunity to think about the very basic things that people need - what about their needs now - not about the great icons that we're building for the future."

A little later, an Emirati member of the audience chimes in and says: "We are missing an important point, which is the culture and heritage of this region." Koohlaas remains quiet for a while, then speaks up. "Whether we want it or not, we are all involved - and the world is involved - in a radical process of modernisation. And so it is a process that has many uncontrollable aspects," he says. "If you look at the scale of mankind, it has been able to deliver an unbelievable amount of blessings to a very large number of people. So I think that the issue in the end will turn out to be how to live within it."

"Traditions are a resource," he says. "We need to know what our traditions are - what they were - but we also have to realise that it's not an accident that they didn't survive." The room squirms a little. Then Koolhaas describes a feeling he had picked up from walking around Dubai and mingling with people there. "They can actually, for the first time maybe, inhabit a real world - which is probably a world with some terrible things, some really exciting things," he says. "But I feel almost the thrill of an unscripted situation."

jgravois@thenational.ae