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.


Invisible Cities

28 08 2008

I was just introduced a second time to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a poetic imagining of Marco Polo’s descriptions to Kublai Khan of the cities he has seen on his journeys. I recall a prof in university suggesting this book to our class as being a really interesting poetic exploration of the city experience. It’s too bad I was so overloaded at that time with ideas about cities that I was required to read that I didn’t find space in my imagination for this book, because it is really beautiful and evocative.

The book is really not so much a description of cities, but it uses the lens of cities to describe other things. Which is what we as people do all the time: look for meaning and explanation through symbols, metaphors and representations.

“Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something – who knows what? – has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star … If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.”

Bold Statements

5 08 2008

My father took this photo when the CN Tower was under construction in 1974. The Burj Dubai recently surpassed the CN Tower as the world’s tallest structure, beating it out by some several hundred meters. Too bad for Toronto.

The CN Tower under construction in 1974 - photo by Robert Young

The CN Tower under construction in 1974 - photo by Robert Young

But it makes me wonder what it must have felt like in Toronto in the ’70s to see something like this go up. What must it have done for civic pride? How did it change the identity of Toronto?

I suppose some people inevitably don’t like this sort of thing. Many Parisians apparently hated the Eiffel Tower when it first went up, before it became the unimpeachable symbol of the city.

But it seems like a tremendous statement about a city and its attitude, to me. Bold cities make statements like these.

Of course, I suppose foolish cities might also make these sorts of statements.

A city like Edmonton would need to change a lot before it could ever convincingly pull off a statement such as the CN Tower. But it could certainly use an injection of that daring and inventive spirit.