In a globalized world, goods move, capital flows, people travel, but cities stay put. Streets and buildings and seawalls are the ultimate fixed assets, each set on the map, locked into its own particular site. Or so I thought. Now, I am not so sure, after touring an unsettling new urban development in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a development that sprawls over what used to be an empty stretch of the Great Arabian Desert, just west of Dubai. Called Dubai Marina, it’s almost a perfect clone of downtown Vancouver – right down to the handrails on the seawall, the skinny condo towers on townhouse bases, all around a 100-per-cent artificial, full-scale version of False Creek filled with seawater from the Persian Gulf and a lot of yachts for rent.
I first stumbled onto this uncanny replica of False Creek in November 2001, when I travelled to Syria at the invitation of the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture.
I was curious to visit a place that had only recently landed on the radar of architects and developers worldwide. A hereditary sheikdom under the Al Maktoum family, the emirate of Dubai was investing its dwindling stream of oil revenue in extravagant urban development, predicating its future on a new role as resort and service centre for the whole region. Eighty per cent of the residents of Dubai are expatriates, ranging from the lowest levels of construction labourers and service employees shipped in from the Indian subcontinent, to large numbers of Europeans and North Americans attracted by the climate and tax-free environment.
Canadian architects were at the forefront of the reshaping of this trading hub on the Persian Gulf, notably Toronto-based Paris Opera designer Carlos Ott, who did the first sketches for Burj Al Arab, the dhow-shaped, billion-dollar hotel set on an artificial island in the sea, plus a dozen other hotel and office towers.
Touring around the world’s only – and self-described – seven-star hotel and the shiny new malls, Dubai reminded me of the Calgary of the late 1970s that I knew as an architecture student, the two cities linked by a mania of building for building’s sake, powered by an unspoken fear that the boom could end at any moment.
The limousine raced by a hyper-real vista of dozens of new office and hotel towers on Sheikh Zayed Boulevard, a street that had not existed 10 years previously. We headed west towards the Great Arabian Desert, still one of the most under-inhabited zones on earth. How strange, I thought, as we passed the gaudy sign of the local franchise of Planet Hollywood. Strange indeed that the last building we passed before heading out on the rock-strewn desert – so inhospitable it is bereft of a scrub tree or a cactus – is a symbol of Western pop culture. A few miles on, we turned down a bumpy temporary road, then entered a dome of dust containing a bustling hive of construction vehicles and cranes.
Earthmovers grinding and groaning all around us, we walked up a small rise, then looked down at what first seemed to be a shallow canyon. Soon it was apparent that the newly constructed valley was filling up with water, a huge pipe spewing a torrent of seawater imported from the Persian Gulf, a couple of kilometres away.
The desert wind whirling construction dust into darting eddies, I felt self-conscious about being put on the spot, half a world away. A few moments of staring, then a familiar shoreline curve came into view, then another undulation after it, like a glimpse of hips evoking those of a distant lover.
“It’s False Creek,” I muttered, my eyebrows and hands shooting up. “You guys have rebuilt False Creek, full size, way out here in the Arabian Desert.”
Dubai went on to build a Neo-Egyptian shopping mall, an indoor ski hill with a chairlift drifting above snow manufactured from desalinated seawater, not to mention the world’s tallest and biggest just-about-everything-else. With major magazines piling up awestruck inventories of “Las Vegas on the Persian Gulf,” I returned there in February of this year to get beyond the images and find out about the real Dubai, and the story behind Dubai Marina.
Why did a version of Vancouver – and no other North American city – get built on the desert sands? What was the Vancouver-honed skill set that these developers found so profitable and exportable that it held them to this distant place in this volatile region? Most of all, what does this phenomenon say about Vancouver’s place in the world? By 2006, United Arab Emirates residents knew they were on everyone’s screens. In questions after my February talk at the American University of Sharjah, the next Emirate city-state east of Dubai, architecture students were very curious about how their city was regarded elsewhere.
But what surprised me most is that none of them was aware of the Vancouver inspiration for Hagkull’s project, officially called “Dubai Marina.” Their jaws dropped when I showed them the Vancouver sources for Dubai’s first all-high-rise residential neighbourhood, and it took clarification in questions later for them to fully realize that False Creek was rebuilt into residential towers before their own version, and there was a Canadian source for its city-building ideas. Just as intriguing, the students demonstrated the combination of pride, curiosity and earnest naiveté that reminded me of the same qualities in Vancouverites. Residents of both places are conscious their cities have arrived on the global stage, but are jointly worried that this stage could turn out to be a runway – a place to strut urban fashions, or worse, maybe just a landing strip where international investors arrive and take off.
With architect Dan Hajjar we returned to the same desert rise where I had first blurted out my “very False Creek” epithet. It was desert no longer. Directly imitating their Vancouver precedents, a phalanx of thin high-rise towers on townhouse bases lined a seawall. Thirty or more towers were rising around Dubai Marina and related developments along the artificial water body were now substantially larger than the Concord Pacific Place that inspired them. The company behind the project, Emaar Properties, has since become the world’s largest developer, declaring a profit of $1.3 billion for 2005.
Local estimates are that one-fifth of all the construction cranes in the world are currently at work on $300 billion of real-estate projects in the United Arab Emirates, more than half of that mind-boggling total in Dubai alone. Hajjar is with the Toronto office of the American architectural mega-firm HOK – geopolitical realities are such that it is often easier for a Canadian branch of an American company to function in the Middle East.
“At first, we wanted distinctive caps on them, so we used some geometric ornament and a kind of dome form,” the Lebanese-Canadian designer recalled, applying the multicultural principles of his architectural training in our country. “But when the design was reviewed by religious authorities, it was thought they were too similar to domes on mosques, so we came up with the more abstract, ribbed version you see here.” Tellingly, more recent towers have no such design gestures toward regional traditions, in the process their architecture becoming even more interchangeable with their cousins in downtown Vancouver. Largely because of Arab cultural values requiring a view-protected realm for women and children, very visible high-rise condos have been a tough sell to Emiratis, but widely successful with the expatriates that make up 80 per cent of the market.
When asked what he is most proud of in the Dubai Marina project, he says: “The seawall. It is the main magnet to this day.” While the development was produced by a completely non-consultative planning process, and the surrounding residential zone lacks the modest ratio of social housing found in Vancouver, the UAE version of the seawall may nonetheless be a greater success than its Vancouver source. It boasts a wider diversity of people on and around it than any local shopping mall, and compared to Vancouver, their seawall is substantially wider and lined with dozens of restaurants and cafés.
After my Middle Eastern trip I visited our seawall in False Creek and Coal Harbour, and it looked a little stark and Presbyterian, a narrow band for walkers and bicyclists to pass through, a kind of aerobic expressway, but almost nowhere a place to linger, with barely a half dozen restaurants along its whole length. One small strip of the Dubai Marina seawall can have that many dining options at all prices serving up a baffling variety of global cuisines, along with waterparks for children, temporary art exhibitions, live musicians and strollers in every colour and cut of national dress going – from the dishdashes and abayas of the Arabian peninsula, to South Asian dhotis and kurtas, to tank tops and Air Jordans. Dubai Marina’s seawall is an obliging urban festival; Vancouver’s seawall is an obligation to exercise.
Thus, a Vancouver-dominated team was commissioned to build a version of its city for one of the Middle East’s wealthiest and most innovative royal families. The current Dubai condo boom is similar to Vancouver’s – both are sustained by overseas investors. The Dubai boom was made possible with three legal changes there: the creation of a mortgage compliant with Islamic Sharia laws; the decision to allow non-Emiratis to buy property; and issuing anyone who buys a condo the “right of residence.” These advances mean the UAE may be beating Canada in attracting talented and monied immigrants, the key motor of Vancouver’s urban success.
The fallout from 9/11 had an unexpected benefit to Dubai. Worried about potential restrictions on investment, capital held by Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis previously parked in London, New York and Frankfurt migrated back to the region, along with a wave of talented young Arabs who had graduated from Western universities. Estimates of this return flow of capital start at $100 billion, six times the amount Hong Kong and Taiwan investors brought to Canada in the 1990s, and much of that sum has since returned to the factories and property markets of China, with the singular exception of B.C. real estate.
With the best business climate in the Gulf region, Dubai became the new home to much of this returning capital, and much of that was turned into real-estate development. Despite the hype that is thick in the air in both places, Dubai and Vancouver have thus been more the unexpected beneficiaries of geo-politics than the authors of their own economic narratives, and both places need a constant flow of human capital and offshore real-estate investment to stay afloat.
Quality of life and, especially, quality of the residential environment are crucial to both places. As for Vancouver, people who could live anywhere show up in Dubai.
The economic character of these two urban ingenues is converging year by year. Vancouver is the youngest major city in North America, while Dubai is the newest trading centre on the Persian Gulf, growing from a 19th-century colony of Iranian merchants trading with the Bedouin of the Arabian peninsula. As is largely true for Vancouver, Dubai has never been an industrial centre, carving out instead a niche as a trading and export hub. Both Dubai and Vancouver talk a big game about being centres of the information industry, but Dubai sustains largely empty zones grandly named “Internet City” and “Media City,” while Vancouver’s mid-1990s proposal for a high-tech hub on the False Creek Flats fell flat on its face. This is because both cities are rapidly pricing themselves out of the game as a home to start-up and knowledge-based businesses, not to mention corporate head offices.
For both Vancouver and Dubai, real-estate development has become an end unto itself, the builder of most fortunes – self-validating and far too unquestioned.
Condo development and tourism are at the core of Dubai’s vision of itself and, it could be argued, the same is true of Vancouver. This presents unique challenges. Case in point: At May’s luncheon meeting of Vancouver’s Urban Development Institute, ever-boosterish Vancouver condo king Bob Rennie quipped, “Like stopped clocks, those who predict an end to the condo boom are right twice a day.” His humour was as forced as the applause that replied to it, because no one knows better than developers that booms come to an end, and the art of their business is to reduce their exposure at precisely the moment of the most manic hype.
No less a source than The Economist magazine calls the current global real-estate boom “the biggest speculative bubble in economic history.” Because they have become high-cost cities obsessed with real estate, and because of their lack of industrial and corporate infrastructure, Vancouver and Dubai will feel the coming real-estate shakeout more than most cities. Vancouver has not seen a let-up in real-estate growth since just prior to Expo 86, and the recession to come will be an opportunity to figure out if it really wants metropolitan status, or whether it remains stuck as a fellow “portal city” with Dubai: a gateway to somewhere else, a resort for a global golden class, a place to divert and shop, but most certainly not a place to create authentic new wealth.
Like Dubai, Vancouver will never grow up until it finds some way to create added value through its ideas and innovations, not just through exporting natural resources and developing real estate. Thus, the Emirati princes knew exactly what they were doing when they built a version of Vancouver to house 40,000 new condo dwellers from all over the world. They recognized and built Vancouver within Dubai, and it is now time for our town to recognize the Dubai we are creating here.