It’s the bits in between that look so wrong. Sure the towers tower and the palaces glint but the gaps in between the buildings, that’s where it often falls down, where the urban vision is suddenly rather hazy.
I am just back from a week state-hopping along the Gulf, from Qatar to Bahrain, Abu Dhabi to Dubai. The pace of building may have slowed since the heady days of 2007 that saw Dubai plotting ever-wackier architectural follies but it’s still giddy. New museums may be slower to move from blueprint to reality these days but they are being built. And the global hotel brands are even now colonising the coast faster than the visitors are arriving to fill their outposts in many instances.
But the masterplans for many of these enclaves just don’t seem to have much interest in the space between the skyscrapers and cultural outposts. Pavements are just not there, there’s no shade, no trees, no ambition to even try and bring people together on the street.
Now let’s be fair here: these are never going to be cities where people potter about on bicycles or gardens happily flourish on their own – it’s just too bloody hot. The air-conditioned car will always be a temptation – especially as public transport has been adopted, where it’s been adopted at all, as an afterthought aimed at migrant workers not locals but even so it can be better than this.
In Abu Dhabi I headed to Masdar City that is an attempt at creating a sustainable residential and educational zone – and a car-free one at that. It’s promoted as a place where people will actually walk. The city is being created by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company and the British architects Foster + Partners to ensure that it can be run just on renewable energy. It’s had a lot of publicity for its vision even if to be honest it’s less a city and more a small college campus at the moment – it’s home to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.
The reality didn’t quite match the gleaming pictures I’d seen – the palm trees looked to be clinging to life and it all appeared to be a bit dusty. Yet there was something here: the buildings were at least close enough to provide some cooling shade, a breeze pushed through the alleyways. And the desert-red hue of the buildings didn’t bounce burning sun onto your face. The project is another one that’s been slowed down but it could still offer some hope that there might be a better vision of landscaping the Gulf and joining up the dots of architectural prowess into a more human landscape.
But oddly the best vision came in a perhaps unlikely setting: Dubai. There are places in Dubai that are now quite old – big projects that have been there for twenty years for heaven’s sake. There are hotels where trees have grown for more than six months – trees that play host to chattering mynah birds. Sure there are too many sprinkled lawns but here and there you can see oases of wise green planting that with a bit of a push could fill the gaps where acres of tarmac currently force you to dash for your car.
The Emirates have built airlines that are rated the best in the world, surely they could also pull off a gardening revolution too. Plants not forests of cranes are what’s needed now.