I grew up in the age of the starchitect. From early gradeschool, I read theorists and journalists who shouted this claim in anything they wrote: the 2000s architect possessed a celebrity like never before, which often forced their name and acclaim to precede any actual discussion of their work. I loved having a word for the precise thing I wanted to be – an architect with all the pomp and circumstance of a rockstar – and loved even more the fact that expressing so was proof that I was aware and literate within my aspirational field.
Today, those same writers talk announce the end of the age of the starchitect, but the men and women who became my generation’s canon still hold active practices. I’ve known the name Rem Koolhaas forever because I felt like I had to. When I excitedly called home to my parents to tell them that I would be seeing him speak in Dubai, I called him “one of my favorite architects” to translate economically from the language of archispeak, but that’s not what I meant. Koolhaas was always sort of an obligation. As I got older and realized that many of my starchitects worked with oppressive government regimes or designed only for the elite, the image I had of them as being the best that the field had to offer started to fade. My expectations for the lecture in Dubai were to become more acquainted with Koolhaas’s design ethos, and to begin disliking him in the process.
I was wrong from the beginning of the talk. Koolhaas essentially provided a survey of the work of his firm, Office of Metropolitan Architects, in the UAE. His mirror research agency AMO had basically designed half of Dubai. Koolhaas refers to the city as a fantasy land, where the best and most iconic towers of every city and imagination had wandered out of the desert on stilted legs and all wound up in this city by the sea. You can see what he’s talking about from practically any angle, any scale in Dubai. It was the thing that screamed at me loudest the first time I drove into the city. And it’s not a new observation, either: everyone seems to notice exactly that fantastical element about Dubai. But the difference (and the thing that shocked me) is, in Koolhaas’s mind, the magical possibility that exists in all of that newness is still alive, and the city is more than the urban failure so many others are eager to claim.
Dubai isn’t a city collaged of projects desperate to announce themselves and their clients, it’s a collection of opportunities to do things that don’t exist anywhere else. Perhaps it’s Koolhaas’s celebrity that allows him to speak like this. He mentions a tower from one of his first trips to Dubai that is “just as beautiful” as Gensler Design’s Shanghai Tower. The name of the Dubai building and architect don’t matter – the point is that they’re one in many, and essentially knock offs. Who else would get to declare the equality of two projects like that to make a highly debatable point? But Koolhaas’s genuine belief in possibility in Dubai is evident from the start, as well as its obvious guiding force in his design work there.
AMO’s many research projects for Dubai reflected the architect’s respect for the place and its people. The two that most excited me were Waterfront City and the long-term urban plan. Waterfront City, Koolhaas explains, is an attempt to create density and walkability in anticipation of Dubai’s future. It’s a huge square island in the middle of four of the city’s premiere districts. Waterfront City is built on a grid, at a scale small enough that it hopes to reduce the need for automobiles. Koolhaas’s team studied thousands of potential buildings to fill each spot on the grid, keeping in mind two things: visibility and landmarks. Each little model from the study could be added and removed from the square island to create the best cocktail of dense residential and commercial towers, low-rise cultural buildings, and recognizable landmarks. The result is a knowable city: it wants to be traversed and memorized as naturally as a favorite poem is committed to memory.
On an even larger scale, AMO’s long-term plan for Dubai aims to provide an enjoyable urban experience for citizens of all economic backgrounds. By preserving a thick belt of affordable housing within reasonable walking distance from the city, the plan attempts to keep lower-income citizens, for whom the real estate market does not operate, from falling out of the care of the city. It also provides a built directional barrier meant to encourage Dubai’s growth to happen densely: the belt is constructed kilometers away from the current city border, providing enough room for the anticipated urbanization in the coming years.
Unfortunately, neither of these projects was ever made a reality. OMA’s first built project in Dubai was the Alserkal Avenue venue in which the lecture took place. It’s a thoughtful project that’s aware of its environmental context, but of course comes far from the goals of a sustainable urban future that the larger-scale AMO projects have aimed for.