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.


Some Chicken…Some Egg

25 07 2008

“On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber,and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.”

—House of Commons (meeting in the House of Lords), 28 October 1943. The old House was rebuilt in 1950 in its old form, remaining insufficient to seat all its members. Churchill was against “giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang” because, he explained, the House would be mostly empty most of the time; whereas, at critical votes and moments, it would fill beyond capacity, with members spilling out into the aisles, in his view a suitable “sense of crowd and urgency.” (

I’ve known the central sentence of this Churchill quote for some time (“we shape our buildings…”) but had never heard the whole thing. I like what it suggests, and also the explanation for why he didn’t think that the House of Commons should be made larger. It is an interesting commentary that could apply equally to cities.

We’ve spent the last 50 years or so making our cities larger in the manner he suggests. They have spread, they have been redesigned to suit the needs of cars, public spaces have become paved spaces. And we so often overbuild! Shopping mall parking lots are designed to be big enough to handle the biggest shopping day of the year; we plan for parking like we engineer for major flood events. Except a flood of water is a catastrophe, a flood of people isn’t. Through this overbuilding we have sacrificed our sense of human scale, and are no longer very practiced in creating places of intimacy.

So we create these disconnected spaces and places, and then they create us. Are we becoming less social, less communitarian, more self-interested? The cultural narrative seems to indicate that we are, and it rings true to me. So what causes it? Do these spaces, these cities of ours cause social rifts? Or are the shapes of our cities simply natural results of that social reality?

I feel like it is probably a little bit of both. It is both chicken and egg. One begets the other.

I’m a fan of Churchill. I think he was a leader who was essential to his time. And you can’t beat him for oratory; the man had a way with words.