I don’t mean to sound like an undergrad philosophy major, but in Dubai I have no choice. Again and again, I find myself pondering the nature of reality. Sure, the city is a real place populated by real people—1.32 million, last anyone checked. But it has the look and feel of fiction, like a landscape inside a computer game. Bizarre objects pop up at odd intervals, like the pyramid-shaped Raffles hotel or the local answer to the Arc de Triomphe, the Gate, at the Dubai International Financial Centre, which resembles a monumental Parsons table. And visible from all over town is the improbable beanstalk silhouette of Burj Dubai, not scheduled to top out until September 2009, but already the world’s tallest skyscraper. When completed, it will be more than 2,600 feet tall.
As it turns out, some of the astonishing sights I’m hoping to see simply don’t exist and likely never will. Missing in action is the Dynamic Tower, an 80-story building in which each individual floor revolves 360 degrees—like a quavering stack of hotel cocktail lounges—and generates energy as it turns. The project, designed by Florence-based architect David Fisher, hasn’t broken ground. Another dazzler, Hydropolis, an underwater hotel originally scheduled for completion in late 2007, remains unbuilt and underfunded.
Indeed, Dubai, fiercely sunny, dusty, and sprawling, can be as disillusioning as Las Vegas when the neon signs are off. Most of the newer buildings hew close to the Sheikh Zayed strip, a straight line stretching all the way to Abu Dhabi, originally laid through uninhabited desert. Novelty high-rises face off across six lanes of traffic like opposing pieces in a wacky chess set. But the future Dubai is also feverishly under construction on sites well removed from Sheikh Zayed, deep in the desert and out in the middle of the Persian Gulf.
While some of the novelties may never get beyond their sexy renderings, what I find being built is often even more astonishing. There are developments under way the size of whole cities, like Waterfront, an urban habitat for 1.5 million people, with a Manhattan-inspired downtown planned with the help of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. And there’s Bawadi, a six-mile-long entertainment district with 51 new hotels, including Asia Asia, predicted to be the world’s largest, with 6,500 rooms. And there’s Business Bay, a new central district with 220 skyscrapers going up all at once.
What I keep hearing during my visit is that the Dubai I can see is nothing compared with the Dubai that will soon emerge. Half of what’s printed on the map isn’t really here yet; vast tracts are marked u/c, meaning “under construction.” Also, despite the fact that the present-day city is built on big cars, aggressive air-conditioning, and energy-eating seawater desalinization plants, green architecture is now the law of the land. Since January 2008, according to a decree issued by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, all new buildings must be built according to LEED guidelines. One architect I meet, Shaun Killa of the British firm Atkins, who began his tenure here working on Burj Al Arab, the dramatic sail-shaped hotel that is the city’s unofficial icon, has, in his spare time—not that architects here have spare time—sketched out the zero-energy, zero-waste City of the Future. No client yet, but in Dubai you never know. He also lobbied unsuccessfully for solar panels on the city’s new metro system, the first line of which, paralleling Sheikh Zayed Road, is scheduled to open in September 2009. One of Killa’s genuine projects sounds almost as outlandish as the highly speculative Dynamic Tower. The “low carbon” Lighthouse Tower will be topped with a trio of jumbo wind turbines and will have 4,000 photovoltaic cells embedded in its façade. Scheduled completion date: 2010.
Over at the firm FXFowle International, managing director Steven Miller speaks for most Dubai-based architects when he says, “It’s like I died and I’m already in heaven.” Among other things, he’s been helping Waterfront adhere to LEED Gold standards. The buildings will reuse water that condenses on the windows, waste will be turned into energy, and shaded walkways and a system of trams will encourage residents to drive a lot less. Meanwhile, Miller’s firm is hard at work on the new Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Crossing: two long spans supported by graceful, fluid arches that will meet on a man-made island, adjacent to the projected site of a Zaha Hadid–designed opera house. “In the year 2013, the bridge will be the next icon,” predicts Miller.