Lawrence (Beasley) of Arabia

28 10 2008

Like California cousins L.A. and San Francisco, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are poised to become two diametrically-opposed peas in a geographic pod, at least as far as their urban form is concerned.

Everyone must have an idea in their heads of Dubai. It seems very much like an Arabian Las Vegas to me: everything absurdly bigger and brighter than anywhere else (the tallest skyscraper, the largest indoor ski hill, a hotel shaped like a giant sail). It’s bold, but the place seems to be out of proportion to people in every way and, when you throw in the ridiculous car-dependency of the place, probably not very livable. I honestly don’t know for sure, as I’ve never been, but I’m not quite sure if I really want to go, either. Would it be worth a visit halfway across the world just so I could be gapingly horrified at what I saw?

On my last flight to San Francisco I came across this article in En Route Magazine about Abu Dhabi, the city down the coast, taking a very different path. Abu Dhabi hired Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s former Director of Planning, to come up with a development plan. His first order of business was to convince the Sheik to scrap plans for a 27-lane freeway. Sounds like a good day’s work to me.

It’s hard to say at this point how successful an alternative to the Dubai model will be in Abu Dhabi, but I have to hope for it. A video you can find on the Squint/Opera website visually illustrates the conceptual idea (really slick! well worth watching!). Beasley’s plan proposes an intriguing identity for the city:

“Abu Dhabi has the rare opportunity to offer a special combination of features in its urban identity: an authentic and safe but also progressive and open Arab city; a personality garnered from the desert and the sea; a traditional way of life but with the latest 21st century options; and a place of business but also of government and culture. The city should be defined as much by the natural islands and dunes surrounding it as the infrastructure, streets, and homes to be developed.”

If it lives up to this vision, maybe a trip to the UAE would be worth it after all. Here’s a copy of the plan for those who are interested (5 Mb).

April 2009 update: Christopher Hume, architecture columnist for the Toronto Star, recently wrote a really interesting critique of Dubai and its “ruin-in-waiting” form of urban development.

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