Culture, Radio

Review: Building on Sand, BBC World Service

“Dubai is like no other city on earth. Home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, it stands as a symbol for the way power, money and influence appear to have moved away from the West to newly-confident countries in the East. But what is it all built upon? Jonathan Glancey looks at whether Dubai has a sustainable policy towards building in one of the harshest environments on earth.”

Latest in the ‘Your World’ documentary series on the BBC World Service, Building on Sand, architecture critic Jonathan Glancey looks at whether Dubai has a sustainable policy…
Beginning with a potted history of the development of Dubai since the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1961, Glancey’s critique takes in the astonishing speed with which the city has gone from a small collection of traditional Arab houses, complete with wind towers, to one of the most starling urban developments.

With a nod toward the local efforts at conservation, the programme focuses on the wholesale adoption of Western-style concrete, glass and steel.

Glancey’s own summary reads:
“Dubai is atleast 15 years ahead of the rest of Middle East. Their roads, infrastructure, future planning is just brilliant. The only thing I do not approve is it is a bit expensive for the common man.”

This is a masterful piece of understatement. It is clearly not a town with the ‘common man’ in mind. Far from it, the city has the ambition to cherry-pick the wealthiest and most affluent international citizenry stamped across every man-made island chain, marina and walled appartment complex in town. The Emirates takes care of it’s own in so far as the native Emiratis have an excellent standard of living, education, healthcare and accommodation. But then there are so very few of them. The wealthy ex-pats buy into whatever level of opulent luxury they can afford, bearing in mind the sky’s the literal limit. For the rest of the fixed ‘castes’ (for want of a better word) of migrant workers, conditions vary hugely. There is no architecture for the construction and service workers living in porta-cabins and steel sheds in the desert heat.

The experts interviewed by Glancey all concede that Dubai exists in a carbon-negligent bubble, with possibly the highest carbon-foot-print on the planet and a truly profilgate use of energy to make the acres of concrete, glass and steel habitable. Sustainable? Hardly.

The show also glosses over the near-ruinous financial crash and bail-out by neighbouring Abu-Dhabi, which saw construction-in-progress and decades of planning all but derailed in the space of a few weeks in 2008.

This is an excellent thumb-nail portrait of an architectural miracle in a hostile environment. AJS

About Allan J. Smithie

Allan J. Smithie is a journalist and commentator based in Dubai.

Discussion

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