x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

When the rain comes

Last word Peter C Baker finds himself drawn to the Marina Mall, where fake stormclouds gather and canned thunder breaks.

Peter C Baker finds himself drawn to the Marina Mall, where fake stormclouds gather and canned thunder breaks.

Every day, a few minutes before 4:30pm - then again later, just before 8:50pm - several security guards (usually six) and mop-carrying custodians (usually three) gather in a clearing of sorts where four hallways meet on the ground floor of Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall. Soon afterwards, the lights dim and electronic thunder breaks out. It doesn't crack like real thunder - but it's still loud and startling. A handful of people always jump. Then a lightning pattern arcs across the ceiling, then it starts to rain. Or, more accurately: drops of water fall in a programmed, rain-like pattern from a series of openings on the ceiling of the mall's top storey, keep falling past the second-storey walkway and hit the floor, which is slightly sloped to encourage the water to flow into drains cleverly positioned between its tiles. The custodians help this along with their mops, which they put to use even as the rain is falling - they have other surfaces to clean elsewhere in the building. The security guards spread out and do their best to stop people from walking under the falling water. Some do anyway, and about once a week, someone slips and falls. After a few minutes, the rain stops, and a man on a whirring machine comes by to buff the floor.

As Shamal, one of the security guards, once put it to me: "It's a show. There is no rain here, so we have a rain show." I used to scoff at the rain show. No matter how starved for rain we desert dwellers are, I thought to myself, surely the scheduled, temperature-controlled, guard-cordoned, instantly drained release of a bit of water can't please us much. Real rain causes the air to change - to smell different, to move differently - before and after it comes. Its onset is foreseeable, but its exact moment of arrival is never predictable. It varies with time and place (a steady blanket of tiny, sticky drops in British winter; fast sheets of fat globules in Vietnam's wet spring; every variation in between). It strikes our skin and clothes and makes them wet. Judged by these criteria, the Marina Mall's rain isn't rain at all.

And yet in recent weeks I have found myself thinking about this rain show often, and even going to the mall just to see it. At first I attributed this to the notion that there is more to rain than wet drops; there is also the pleasure of being near rain but not being rained on, a pleasure that is apparently available even in the Marina Mall, with manufactured, timetabled rain falling feet away while you await the arrival of your croque-monsieur. Or forget the croque-monsieur: you can just walk in circles around the clearing without buying anything at all. (Of course, not everyone has such romantic associations with rain. Alice, another security guard, tells me that back home, in the Philippines, "it's always raining - typhoons. Sometimes I hate rain.")

But the real magic of Marina Mall rain - the real reason I have been going back - has little to do with rain and everything to do with people. When the canned thunder booms and the rain falls, mallgoers look around. They look at the rain. They look at each other. They look at each other looking at the rain and at each other. Discussions of urban planning in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere perennially stress the need for public space. It's a reasonable-sounding goal. Who doesn't like parks and courtyards? But the term is used so often and so vaguely that it has lost all practical meaning. We tend today to talk of public space with narrow literalism - as physical spaces that members of the public are free to enter and enjoy - instead of conceptually: as the set of conditions (material, political and so on) that make human interaction possible. On the latter view, public space is not literally built; it is always already there whenever we interact. So in almost all cases, architecture and urban planning do not create publicness, they only enhance or enrich it.

The mall is an archetype of impoverished public space. When the mall opens its doors to the public, it opens its doors to individuals, whom it views essentially as potential purchasers. The public space of the mall is, accordingly, rarely more than the lumping of its visitors' private transactional interests. Your fellow shoppers matter only to the extent that they make your acquisitions more or less possible or pleasant (an overcrowded mall might annoy you; an eerily empty one is perhaps off-putting). The mallgoing public shares a space, but little about the mall allows or encourages them to be particularly public - to consider their mall activity as bound up with the activities of others, or even to consider others at all.

The Marina Mall's rain changes this, if only for a few minutes. People look to each other to see what they think of the rain: some are bewildered, some bemused, some entranced, some blasé. Some are alone, some are with friends or family, some look tired, some, perhaps, stand lost in memory of rainy days elsewhere, some look like they're falling in love. Smiles, shrugs and nods of recognition ensue, and in a flash we are made public, made to wonder about who our fellow shoppers might be. Now and then, strangers even start talking. Architects of public spaces everywhere should hope to do so well with so little. Of course, we are always free to wonder about - and start conversations with - each other. But it can be good to be jabbed into doing so, especially in a shopping centre.

On my last visit, a group of young American men walked by just before the rain stopped. One stopped, stared for a minute, then loudly pronounced: "That's crazy." I turned to Shamal to see what he thought. "Maybe," he admitted. "But also good."