Dubai Imaginary

“The eighth wonder of the world is turning from a dream into a reality.”
Nakheel executive chairman at the handover of the first of three Palm projects.
The remaining two projects are on hold indefinitely.

CITY OF DREAMS. Dubai’s unprecedented transformation between 1989 and 2005, from regional shipping center to iconic global city.

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Imagination has been central to the creation of Dubai. Within the course of a decade, Dubai grew from a prosperous Gulf trading city into one of the most dynamic metropolises on the planet. The embodiment of an instant city. An oft-used representation of the pace of change in Dubai is a pair of photographs comparing a twenty-year old snapshot of the main thoroughfare of Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road, to the same stretch of road today. In the space of two short decades, the pictures reveal a remarkable transformation. The older shot shows a few solitary buildings, surrounded by vast expanses of desert and a dusty road. The more recent picture shows a panorama of towering skyscrapers and scattered low-rises sprawling towards the desert horizon. Viewed together, the images impart a surreal feeling – a city emerging from the desert, an almost imaginary city, a so-called ‘City of Dreams.’

At the peak of its boom, Dubai was home to an estimated one-quarter of the world’s cranes. Its ambitious land reclamation schemes stretched the capacity of the global dredging industry. For a time it seemed the only factor limiting Dubai’s rapid growth was the availability of the very equipment needed to bring it into being. That is until November 2009, when construction stopped. On the heels of the 2008 global economic downturn, Dubai faced a debt crisis of its own. The crisis, precipitated by a once surging – now swollen – speculative real estate market, altered the trajectory of Dubai’s development. More than half of all real estate projects in the emirate were delayed or cancelled, leaving behind a landscape of scattered remains: fully-dreamt yet half-built artifacts of a stalled vision – the ‘City of Dreams’ surrendered to reality.

In surrendering, Dubai relinquished its foundational promise: a city where the future is ‘coming soon.’ It is now clear that the ‘Dubai’ once imagined in superlative terms and sensational images (eighth wonders, new Manhattans, a solar system of man-made islands, all ‘coming soon’) is not to be. Absent this promise, Dubai is confronted with a second crisis: the crisis of identity in the face of incompleteness. Many of the spectacular projects that gave shape to Dubai’s self-image and image in the world have been terminally abandoned but their ghosts live on as remnants of a future once imagined, now deserted. In searching for identity amidst this incompleteness, Dubai must consider the ghosts that linger from the boom. While they have dissolved as real estate ventures, the physical residue and mental traces of these projects persist and provide ground zero for imagining Dubai’s next future. Observing Dubai prior to 2009, architect George Katodrytis writes, “Dubai is a city which creates appetites rather than solves problems.” Dubai today cannot afford this attitude. It is now a city burdened by its own past. As such, dreams and images will not suffice – its future demands solving.

DUBAI’S COASTLINE IMAGINED BY NAKHEEL. Many visitor maps of the city render the imaginary coastline as a fully actualized geography.

Singularly visible among Dubai’s ghosts and the focus of this research are a series of land reclamation projects designed to geographically transform the emirate’s 70 km natural coastline. Led exclusively by state-owned developer Nakheel (‘palm’ in arabic), the long-term land building program aims to create more than 100km2 of artificial ground for development and add 1,500 kilometers of new beachfront to maximize real estate demand and value. At present, only one-third of the planned reclamation is complete – the majority of which lies vacant, coarse piles of engineered sand. Further, the long term prospects for Nakheel’s coastline projects are bleak (the company was at the center of the Emirate’s debt crisis, has been completely restructured, and several major projects, including Palms Jebel Ali and Deira have been delisted from their portfolio).

The bold promise, yet unfinished state, of Nakheel’s reclamation projects provides a representative case for considering the current status of mega-projects in Dubai. The following material is divided into two sections. The first section, Fashioning Dubai, describes unique conditions and interests that have influenced urbanization in Dubai, namely the notion of the ‘city within the city’ as a preferred planning strategy, the state’s endless desire to communicate ‘progress,’ and the primacy of ‘image’ in thinking about the future form of the city. The second section, Dubai’s New Coastline Project, demonstrates Nakheel’s projects to be an outgrowth of these conditions and argues that the new coastline project, in its incompleteness and uncertainty, provides an ample opportunity to re-think the nature of reclamation works in Dubai and re-imagine their role in forming the future identity of the city.

DUBAI 1950. A modest trading settlement along the Creek. Beginning in 1970, the city would expand southward along the Arabian Gulf, driven by the construction of Port Jebel Ali.

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Part One: Fashioning Dubai
Dubai has been, for most of its existence, a modest fishing and smuggling port on the ‘Pirate Coast’ of the Arabian Gulf. Modern Dubai can trace its roots to the 1830’s when, following a truce between the ruling sheikhs of the region and the British, a settlement was established around a trading post and pearl diving harbor near Khor Dubai, the ten-kilometer creek that served as a natural harbor. Dubai emerged as one of the main trading points for the region’s pearls, with tradesmen from the Indian subcontinent and divers from Africa forming the original nucleus of an international community that still inhabits the city. With the decline of the pearl industry following the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls, Dubai sustained its economy primarily as a regional harbor, and its rulers offered strong incentives for foreign merchants to establish their businesses in the city. The ruling sheikhs of Dubai, namely, the Maktoums, proceeded with various projects aimed at expanding the harbor, implementing legal reforms to facilitate international trade, and building an airport even prior to the major oil discoveries in the late 1960s. With the discovery of oil in 1966, Dubai began its rapid transformation from a coastal town of 60,000 to a global metropolis of approximately 1.6 million people, not including its ubiquitous laborers.

Unlike Abu Dhabi, its oil rich neighbor, Dubai’s oil resources were limited and its long-term success required a diversified economy. Using oil revenue, Dubai initiated a supply-side development strategy that sought first to offer the largest infrastructural facilities in the Middle East, and later to compete, in scale and capacity, with those of the entire world. This strategy, and the mentality that underpinned it, carried forward as Dubai continued its diversification into additional non-oil sectors, including financial services, real estate, and most significantly tourism. For instance, Dubai set out to attract 15 million overseas visitors by 2010, five times its draw in 2000 and three times the number New York City currently attracts (in reality Dubai drew 8.5 million visitors in 2010, the 15 million target has been pushed back to 2015 and might be revised again).

The mechanics of this supply-side model have influenced the form of Dubai in two primary ways: first, through the proliferation of specialized zones or ‘cities within the city’ and, second, in the rapid outlay of new projects to attract investment and sustain an aura of ‘progress.’ In the case of the latter, Dubai has developed an increasing reliance on ‘images’ to stimulate demand and generate projects of recognizable iconographic form (Burj Al Arab, the Palms, the World use image as a basis for design). In distinction to the concept of planning, which balances economic needs and functional requirements over a long term, it could be said that Dubai is engaged in a process of fashioning – shaping the city’s form and image to maximize its economic potential here and now. The implications of Dubai’s development model, and its tendency to value immediacy and appearance above all else, are discussed in the following section. This may serve as a foundation for understanding Dubai’s New Coastline Project and the conceptual framework from which it has emerged.

CITIES APART. The dominant mode of development in Dubai, the ‘city within a city,’ produces a city of foregrounds and backgrounds, with no middle landscape. Most developments are conceived and operated as disconnected enclaves – here the fronds of Palm Jumeirah with Dubai Marina in the distance.

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A City of ‘Cities’
Almost every new development in Dubai is described as a ‘city within a city.’ Maps delineate an endless array of specialized enclaves: Dubai Internet City, Dubai Health Care City, Dubai Maritime City, Dubai Silicon Oasis, Dubai Knowledge Village, Dubai Techno Park, Dubai Media City, Dubai Outsourcing Zone, Dubai International Humanitarian City, Dubai Industrial City, Dubai Textile Village, Dubai Auto Parts City. In sum, these ‘cities’ occupy as much as half of Dubai’s urbanized area (see map from 2004).

The ‘cities’ function as independent free trade zones, meaning they operate outside the normal legal limits and trade regulations of the UAE government. As independent entities, each zone enjoys a unique host of economic incentives and legal freedoms, what urban theorist Mike Davis terms ‘modular liberties’ – for instance allowing foreign ownership, eliminating import/export taxes, and waiving free speech restrictions. The purpose, of course, is to attract foreign companies and, more generally, foreign investment to Dubai. The ‘city within the city’ is central to Dubai’s development strategy and the city’s future growth relies on the continual management and proliferation of such zones.

Beginning in 2002, Dubai began applying the logic of free trade zones to the real estate and tourism sectors. To promote the sell-off of housing plots on Palm Jumeirah and the private islands of the The World, Sheikh Maktoum announced a freehold revolution, unique in the region, to allow foreigners to buy luxury property outright (previously foreigners were permitted 99-year leases with strict resale limitations). However, the revolution was restricted to government designated areas, in effect establishing enclaves of foreign ownership. Just as free trade zones were legally engineered to invite foreign corporations, these new enclaves were physically engineered to maximize their attractiveness to potential investors. In place of IT infrastructure and free speech protections, the real estate zone would leverage its exceptional physical form. Under the direction of government held developer Nakheel, the Palm and World projects became radical formal experiments: vast reclamations stretching into the Gulf, creating hundreds of kilometers of artificial beachfront property, and achieving a scale of geographic proportion – real estate visible from the moon.

In harnessing the logic of the ‘city within a city,’ the freehold real estate zone became an instant success. When the first villas on the Palm went on the market, they reportedly sold out within forty-eight hours. Nakheel, with the Palm and World as its models, quickly launched four additional mega-projects (all land reclamation) at the edge of the Gulf: Palm Jebel Ali, Palm Deira, Dubai Waterfront, and The Universe. Dubai’s New Coastline Project was born.

ARRESTED DEVELOPEMENT. Abandoned billboards and construction hoarding are commonplace in Dubai, once home to the world’s ‘longest’ and ‘largest’ outdoor advertisements. Developer Nakheel is currently looking to lease its extensive supply of unused hoarding.

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Ultimatum of ‘Progress’
During the most aggressive phase of Dubai’s growth as many as 30,000 cranes, a quarter of the world’s total, were operating in the emirate. The notion that Dubai came to symbolize over these years – that growth can operate as its own economic engine – was taking form. Every project launch fueled the demand for further projects, each more spectacular than the last. Driving this demand, launch after launch, were government-held real estate companies including Nakheel and Emaar.

‘Progress’ – and its signs – are the ultimatum of Sheikh Maktoum. Quoting Emaar Properties chairman Mohammad Alabbar: “Sheikh taught us to be daring. This guy is beyond belief. He calls you every day. He says, Where is the crane? Show me the crane!” Under the Sheikh’s leadership, the development of Dubai has become inextricably linked with a narrative of progress – the world’s tallest building and largest shopping mall, the claim of 15 million tourists by 2010, the promise of 100 million air passengers by 2020. The profane quest for superlatives even includes the project marketing itself – Dubai boasts the world’s longest billboard and largest outdoor advertisement (in all Dubai claims 110 Guinness records and counting).

The narrative of ‘progress’ has been remarkably effective. Although the city’s population is nine times lower than the traditional definition of a megacity, it’s global presence suggests it qualifies as one (and Dubai is commonly referred to in this way). Yet, despite initial success attracting investment and bolstering perceptions of the city, the ‘progress’ strategy quickly unraveled during the credit crisis of 2009. ‘Progress’ – once the self-fulfilling prophecy of Dubai – was exposed to be nothing more than a public relations tool: carefully constructed words and images projecting a Dubai that does not exist. Development stopped. The cranes came down. Soon, the world’s longest billboard was dismantled, reduced to bare scaffolding and plywood.

Today Dubai is pock-marked with projects designated ‘u/c’ -‘under construction.’ In truth, many of these developments will never make it further than that. These failed adventures are rarely formally cancelled however – failure is not only an embarrassment, it cuts against the narrative of ‘progress.’ Without momentum, these sites are caught in limbo – empty sites with uncertain futures, ghosts of Dubai’s rise and fall. And to mask these shortcomings, new projects have been announced to draw fresh investments and satisfy the Sheikh’s ultimatum. ‘Progress’ in name only.

Nakheel’s coastline developments are products of and victims to the ‘progress’ narrative. They sit partially completed, mostly vacant, and with no clear exit strategy. In honor of ‘progress,’ Nakheel maintains its commitment to completing the projects when ‘the market is right.’ Given present conditions in Dubai and the dynamics of the post-crisis market, it is impossible to imagine a right time for finishing the projects as originally conceived. Simply put, the coastline projects are trapped until the narrative is relaxed or re-written – only then can adaptations be introduced and problems solved.

AERIAL LEGIBILITY. The World islands are designed to be an emblem of Dubai – their distinctive, large scale geographic form instantly recognizable to passing airplanes, orbiting satellites, and Google Earth users.

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Persistence of ‘Image’
Dubai’s story of ‘progress’ is driven by a constant barrage of images depicting dream-like architecture, man-made nature, and entirely new cities built from scratch. To the extent that speculative imagery is a conventional tool in contemporary architecture and urbanism, Dubai has radically expanded its role and influence in the making of the city. Today, all aspects of Dubai’s urban development – from real estate concepts to design criteria and marketing strategies – are controlled by ‘image.’ In the absence of a guiding masterplan, the pursuit of glamorous and iconic images has emerged as a de facto development strategy. Describing the image-first model, prominent Dubai government architect Farhan Faraidooni explains “Here in Dubai, we upside-downed the whole thing.” A “tangible vision” for development is sketched quickly and publicly announced. Only then, according to Faraidooni, would a master planner be engaged “to validate the vision from an architectural and engineering point of view, and to massage it a bit.”

To visit a city of this sort is to experience a kind of futurized present: the borders between what exists today and what might turn up tomorrow feel oddly blurred. Like a spinning film reel, the still images, when rapidly played, produce a convincing picture of a fictional city come to life. Airport signage, newspapers, and countless websites are filled with renderings of unbuilt buildings and breathless advertisements for the future city, not yet here but coming soon. The sheer inundation of images serves to liquefy the distinction between real and virtual. And in Dubai there is no great effort to clarify such ambiguities (several lawsuits have been filed over CG artworks passed off as completed buildings).

At its most extreme, ‘image’ has emerged as the very basis of the design project itself. Emboldened by the completion of the sail-like Burj Al Arab hotel in 1999, Dubai undertook a series of mega-projects which applied the sensibility of ‘image’ to the scale of the city. The resulting projects, including The Palm and The World, attempt to restructure and expand Dubai’s natural coastline to produce a series of imageable geographies – iconographic compositions (palms, islands, universes) visible from passing airplanes and orbiting satellites. Launched to great fanfare, the projects proclaimed Dubai’s otherworldly ambitions; their characteristic brashness drew immense media attention and interest from investors.

The coastline developments are an example of Dubai’s image-first development model and a reminder of its limits. When initiated, the projects were understood to be of a sort that could happen ‘only in Dubai’ – products of a perfect storm in which a Sheikh’s bold thinking, thirst for icons, and deep pockets intersected with a world full of liquidity and investors eager to profit of the ‘next big thing.’ While the image-based projects successfully satiated the storm and propelled it forward, they were ill-equipped to deal with challenges introduced at the onset of the 2009 debt crisis. The projects were images above all else: designed as images, conveyed as images, and ultimately digested as images. The problem with aspirational images and self-described utopias is that they allow little room for contingency – when external factors shift, they cannot adapt accordingly. In fact, they seldom can adapt at all. In the case of Dubai, where buildings are often heralded as icons before their construction even begins, this weakness is especially pronounced. Following the 2009, crisis many projects were left in a state of paralysis: no possibility of becoming the icons once imagined, unable to adapt, and afraid to be something less than promised.

Dubai’s New Coastline Project currently suffers from such paralysis. In contrast to single acts of architecture, the coastline project’s iconic nature relies on image writ large – entire new geographies, measured in tens of kilometers. And unlike half-finished buildings, these developments cannot be forgotten or erased. Even partially complete, the artificial coastline’s imprint is massive and its affects more ecological than architectural or urban in nature. For these reasons, it is imperative that the New Coastline Project be released from control of the image, allowed to adapt, and embraced as an opportunity for engaging Dubai as a post-imaginary city.

FROM WATER TO SAND. Specialized dredging and sand conveyance equipment is used in the reclamation process. The process involves suctioning sand from the sea floor and piling it to produce basic land forms which are then terraformed with the help of GPS technology.

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Part Two: Dubai’s New Coastline Project
Dubai’s transformation from a modest fishing settlement into a major commercial center started in the mid-1950’s under the leadership of Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum. Eager to establish the emirate as a port city, the Sheikh initiated a series of coastline projects beginning with the dredging and reinforcement of Dubai Creek in 1958. The creek, Dubai’s natural harbor, suffered from erosion and accelerated silting, making the water unnavigable to even small boasts. As Dubai’s future required deeper harbors for larger and larger ships, nature’s course had to be countered. Financed by oil-rich Kuwait and constructed with consultation from British engineering companies, the Dubai Creek reinforcement was completed in 1961. The creek would be the first of several major infrastructure projects that would come to define Sheikh Rashid’s rule. In 1972, a new cargo port, Port Rashid, was opened adjacent to the creek. A second port, Port Jebel Ali, came into operation in seven years later at the border with neighboring Abu Dhabi. The aggressive engineering practices first tested at Dubai Creek and honed at Port Rashid reached their climax at Port Jebel Ali, the largest man-made harbor in the world. Collectively, these projects not only supported Dubai’s rise as a global shipping center – they offered a model pathway for the emirate’s future development.

Dubai’s New Coastline Project proceeds from this legacy. With the emirate’s shipping economy firmly established, Sheikh Rashid’s son and successor Sheikh Mohammed began exploring additional uses for the coastline, exclusive real estate developments primarily and tourism activities secondarily. In practice, the emirate’s declared interest in developing a tourism economy influenced all realms of development and pushed architects and clients towards sensational and exaggerated forms for all projects. Capturing this underlying sentiment, sociologist John Urry writes: “Tourism results from a basic binary division between the ordinary/everyday and extraordinary.” In these terms, Dubai’s New Coastline Project can be understood as a different type of infrastructure, one designed to support the making of the ‘city extraordinary.’ And to this end, Sheikh Mohammad, like his father before him, was determined to use engineering as his tool.

RECLAMATION AREAS CONTEXTUALIZED. Dubai’s ambitious reclamation scheme sets a new global precedent. Only one-third of the planned reclamation has been completed.

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In June 2001 construction commenced on Palm Jumeirah, the first of three Palm developments (and six total offshore projects) undertaken by Nakheel, one of Dubai’s handful of government-held real estate development companies. Describing the company’s mentality at the time, Nakheel’s former chairman Sultan bin Sulayem remarked, “Nakheel is more than just a company – it’s a belief that defies ordinary thinking, when conventional wisdom says no, we say yes and make it happen.” Consistent with this ethos and the increasing influence of tourism concepts, Nakheel hired Orlando-based architectural firm Helman Hurley Charvat Peacock (HHCP) to be Palm Jumeirah’s lead designer. Prior to Nakheel, HHCP counted Sea World, Disney, and Universal Studios among their clients.

With themeing and branding in mind, HHCP proposed an entire city – peak population 70,000 – in the shape of a palm tree, sacred in Dubai and a recognizable sign of life amidst the otherwise unbearable harshness of the desert. The project’s most radical attribute, however, was not its shape but its location – sprawling almost 5km out to sea, a trunk and curved fronds made of reclaimed land dredged from the floor of the Arabian Gulf. The distinctive geometry of the palm allowed HHCP to supply Dubai with 78 kilometers of new coastline, more than doubling the lenght of the emirate’s natural beachfront. The rippling in turn offered an evolution of the traditional front yard / back yard suburban dream: beachyards for everyone. The vision was riddled with technical difficulties, but they proved no match for the ambitions of Nakheel and Sheikh Mohammed. We say yes and make it happen.

When completed in 2008, Palm Jumeirah’s land area totaled 6.5km2, all artificially reclaimed – 110 million m3 of ocean sand quickly piled and intricately formed. The largest reclamation of its kind in the world. Palm Jumeirah was soon followed by a series similar and successively larger projects: The World, Palm Jebel Ali, Palm Deira, Dubai Waterfront, and The Universe. The total amount of land area added through reclamation was to exceed 100km2 – significantly larger than the area of Manhattan Island. Nakheel’s ambitions, however, proved to be outsized. To date only one-third of the planned reclamation is complete, much of it lacking the basic infrastructure required for actual occupation. At most, 5km2 can reasonably qualify as built-out and inhabited, almost all of it on Palm Jumeirah. Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira sit vacant in the Gulf, trapped in a state of arrested development. The World, once thought of as Dubai’s flagship development (claiming Brad Pitt and Rod Stewart as buyers), has not materialized as planned – 258 of its 260 islands are empty. Of the two that have been developed, one serves as Nakheel’s model home, the other a sadly concocted beach club. The remaining islands lack basic infrastructure including electricity, sewage treatment, and potable water. To make matters worse, several investors have sued Nakheel alleging their islands are sinking back into the sea (the matter remains to be resolved). The company’s additional reclamation projects, Dubai Waterfront and The Universe, have barely broken ground and it is unlikely either will be pursued further, at least in the near term.

Artificial Islands
1  Dubai Waterfront
2  Palm Jebel Ali
3  Palm Jumeriah
4  The World
5  The Universe
6  Palm Deira

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Artificial Waterways
A  Dubai Waterfront CBD
B  Arabian Canal
C  Dubai Marina
D Jumeriah Islands
E  Madinat al Jumeriah
F  Business Bay
G  The Lagoons
H  Al Mamzar, Al Kahn, Khalid Lagoons

As the fate of Dubai’s offshore reclamation projects falls into doubt, a host of new inland water projects have emerged in their place. Seemingly more manageable and cost-effective than offshore reclamation works, the collection of artificial canals, lagoons, and bays nonetheless borrow their basic premise from Nakheel’s coastline projects: drive real estate value through the creation of para-natural waterfront environments. Not surprisingly, all but the most modest of these inland waterways have faced a high degree of uncertainty. The Arabian Canal, the most ambitious of the set, is on hold indefinitely, its official status reading: “currently postponed as we continue to review our projects and prioritize our investments to reflect market conditions.” Despite its arguable merit as a project, the tone used to describe the Arabian Canal’s status is remarkably honest. The majority of stalled projects use more cryptic terms, in some cases shunning any mention of a project’s status. Silence somehow implies that the development continues on schedule.

RECLAIMED WASTELAND. Palm Deira sits vacant, its reclamation only partially complete, its future uncertain.

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Adapting to New Realities & Imagining Alternative Futures
Dubai is in the midst of a new age of transformation. The forces that enabled the ‘City of Dreams’ rise from the desert can no longer carry Dubai forward. Today Dubai must embrace new realities and deal with the identity crisis that arises from its incompleteness. The best course of action is to engage this incompleteness directly. Interrogate the unfinished ghosts of Dubai’s boom, detach them from their past, and adapt them for the future. The unchallenged emphasis on ‘progress’ and ‘image,’ the catalyst behind Dubai’s mega-engineering projects, must be supplanted by an emphasis on creative adaptation – a quality that all cities need to survive.

Dubai’s New Coastline Project, suffering and largely stopped, demands fresh inquiry. Nakheel, the project’s developer, has recently shifted the tone of its public statements regarding the project. Once proclaiming the project as a sublime human accomplishment of unmatched scale and exclusivity, Nakheel has recently begun promoting the project in ecological terms: artificial reefs, teeming aquatic life, extensive diving zones. Although this an obvious and paradoxical attempt at rehabilitating the project’s image, it suggests the company’s willingness to reconsider the nature of its developments. If embraced, Nakheel has the opportunity to radically redirect the future of Dubai’s coastline. With Palm Jumeirah only partially built-out and The World, Palm Jebel Ali, and Palm Deira largely vacant, there is ample space for new ideas and strategies to emerge.

From this premise, German office SMAQ has developed a series of alternate scenarios for the future of Nakheel’s Palm Jumeirah project. SMAQ’s project, entitled ‘The Charter of Dubai‘ identifies eleven opportunities for tactical intervention. In the words of architects Sabine Muller and Andreas Quendnau:

“The Charter of Dubai is a manifesto of critical urban transformation. It subversively encourages the conversion of isolated quarters into a socially and ecologically open urban space. [Palm Jumeriah’s] dynamics of spatial production need to be reclaimed and readjusted. Not only is it necessary to reconsider the physical outcomes, which—for a good part—are a misallocation of resources, but also the role that planning and design play within the process, which—for now—is either concerned with delivering an image or merely observatory.”

THE CHARTER OF DUBAI. Developed by German office SMAQ, the Charter sets forth a series of options for restructuring Palm Jumeirah. The proposals are intervention-based, intended to adapt the palm’s form and function from the inside-out.

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SMAQ’s proposals are not wholesale reconstructions of the Palm nor are they mere salvage efforts. They focus on the internal DNA of the Palm, seeking small adjustments in its logic – alterations which, when propagated, have transformative effects that may grant new life to a stalled project. For instance, the intervention titled ‘Re:Cover’ proposes that the Palm relax its boundaries and open itself to the natural currents of the sea. In this relaxed state and subject to the water’s natural movement, the form of the Palm erodes, producing varied peninsulas and inlets amongst its once static fronds. The static geometry of the Palm gives way – destabilized, dynamically linked to natural processes, ever evolving in space and time. The opening of a closed system (see Abu Dhabi’s Lulu Island, which became a public nature ‘reserve’ of sorts when planned development stalled). Additional scenarios include ‘Re:Plot’ which imagines alternative parcelization strategies for the Palm and ‘Re:Source’ which envisions reconstituting the Palm as an experiment in urban sustainability.

In sum, SMAQ’s ‘Charter of Dubai’ project highlights the virtues of adaptation and the concomitant need to see the future as an open set of possibilities. Dubai’s New Coastline Project requires further thinking in this regard. The power of adaptation, although not yet embraced by Nakheel, presents the best way forward – the ability resist the forces that brought failed projects into being, to liberate the ghosts from their past, and resurrect them in service to an alternative future. Perhaps Dubai’s robust imagination is needed once again.

‘Dubai Imaginary’ is part of a series of essays analyzing the role of land reclamation in the (re)formation of eight coastal cities: Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Incheon, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Venice.