I arrive in Doha—the main city of Qatar, located across the Persian Gulf from Dubai—and find a construction site. The whole city appears to be a massive work in progress. Glass towers are going up everywhere, most of them as banal as any you’d find in an American Sunbelt city. There are a few oddities, like one with a giant silvery sphere mounted between two slim cigarette-pack-shaped rectangles, and there are a lot of add-on arabesques, gestures aimed at making the towers look as if they were somehow of this place. But most of what’s going up can be traced directly to Mies van der Rohe’s 1921 Friedrichstrasse tower, unbuildable back then but utterly, endlessly buildable now. Doha is Mies by way of Dallas. And people keep telling me that what I’m seeing is only the beginning; this city of about 400,000 intends to build 800 towers in the coming decade.
I’ve been invited to speak at the design conference “Tasmeem Doha,” hosted by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, an American program with a branch in Doha largely dedicated to the education of Middle Eastern women. While there, I start to believe that, given the sheer intensity of the building going on all around us and the unique worldview of the young people I meet here, the next big idea, the thing that replaces the Modernist glass tower, could somehow emerge from the tumult. Who better to envision the future than students who have grown up negotiating the dissonance between their traditional upbringing—women dressed head to toe in black abayas, men in robes so white they sparkle—and an urban environment in which all signs of tradition are being rapidly erased? But as the architects and designers I meet at the conference keep telling me, the interesting projects in the Gulf States always go to world-famous designers—European, American, Japanese—so it’s hard for local emerging architects to gain traction. Zaha Hadid had to leave her native Iraq for London and succeed there to get any recognition in this corner of the world.
And there are even more towers under construction in Dubai. The most famous at the moment is the Burj Dubai, the world’s new tallest building, designed by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It’s a second cousin to Frank Lloyd Wright’s hypothetical Mile High Illinois, although this one will not even hit the one-kilometer mark: 840 meters was the number I heard. But hundreds of other high-rises are under construction in this boomtown, most of which you’ll never see depicted in any architecture magazine.
I alternate between being awed by the scale of the ambition I find in Doha and Dubai, and depressed because the flamboyant futurism for which these cities are now famous seems weirdly passé: what good is the twenty-first century if it’s a replay of the twentieth on a different playing field? And while I realize that as an American I can’t occupy the moral high ground on this topic, in both cities I find it hard to stop thinking that I am watching global warming in progress: this is the way the world ends, not with a bang or a whimper but with the day-and-night whir of construction cranes.
Given my sense of gut-level foreboding, I find it curious that almost every architect and developer I meet makes a case for Dubai’s environmental goodness. One argues that the hundreds of man-made islands off the coast, in developments like the Palm and the World, are actually a boon to sea life, sheltering little fishies as coral reefs might. Another explains how the buildings in a massive residential scheme will harvest and reuse the water that condenses on windows. Another praises the city’s future density. And everyone tells me how Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, issued a directive last October mandating that beginning in January 2008 all new buildings must adhere to LEED standards. It’s an admirable gesture—one that my own government would do well to emulate—but at the same time LEED is mostly about fine-tuning our existing methodologies so they’ll be less harmful. Somehow it doesn’t sound like nearly enough.
Then I walk into the Dubai office of Shaun Killa, design director and head of architecture for Atkins Middle East, the Gulf branch of the large British architecture and engineering firm. It designed the Burj al Arab, the sail-shaped hotel that, iconically speaking, is to Dubai as Norman Foster’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters is to Hong Kong. Killa shows me a picture of the new Bahrain World Trade Center, two slim triangular towers supporting between them a trio of enormous wind turbines. The buildings are shaped to act as airfoils, “accelerating the wind velocity,” according to Killa. He estimates that the turbines have the potential to generate 15 to 30 percent of the tower’s electricity. The firm has designed another building, the Dubai International Financial Center Lighthouse Tower, that will reduce energy use by 65 percent through a combination of wind turbines, photovoltaics, alternatives to air-conditioning, and (my favorite) “regenerative elevators.” These will be rigged so the ascending cars will travel on a portion of the energy captured “in the same nanosecond” from the descending cars. Killa would also like to build a “zero-carbon” tower, which generates all the power it uses and recycles all its waste.
Now, like everyone else, I made fun of the wind turbines that were for a moment part of SOM’s version of the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site. And I tend to regard the wind turbines tucked away on the roof of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architect’s winning design for San Francisco’s Transbay Tower as a token gesture. The green skyscraper is not a new idea. Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has been talking about tall “bioclimatic” buildings since the 1990s, and the Skyscraper Museum’s Green Towers for New York exhibition in 2006 showcased a number of current buildings that were earning LEED certification with more efficient building strategies. But in Killa’s office I suddenly envision an architecture wherein form is not dictated by the architect’s passion for complexity but by an unprecedented set of functions. I imagine wind turbines as the new big-ticket architectural status symbol.
Atkins’s new-generation power tower brings to mind architect Michael Reynolds’s Earthships. These are little houses that he has been building, mostly in New Mexico, since the 1980s, with walls made of recycled tires. They have photovoltaics on the roof and harvest rainwater; they recycle gray water (to flush the toilets) and have planters that process the sewage. They’re designed to be entirely self-sufficient. The Earthship communities Reynolds built are counterculture enclaves where homeowners can live comfortable lives insulated from the effects of spiking oil prices. But the designs coming out of the Atkins Dubai office make me believe that the building as self-sustaining machine—the Earthship writ tall—could soon hit the mainstream. Given the amount of money and forward momentum in Dubai and the Gulf States, it might happen on a grand enough scale to make a difference. It’s almost enough to make me believe. Maybe Dubai doesn’t represent the end of the world, but a new beginning. Maybe a part of the world that has grown fabulously wealthy on petroleum will learn to flex its muscles, not by manipulating the market to jack oil prices further up but by making petroleum obsolete.