Even the things I think I know about Dubai, projects that have been relentlessly hyped, turn out to be both more and less real than I’d imagined. For instance, I’ve heard plenty about the Palms, three enormous clusters of islands made in the shape of trees, and the World, 300 artificial islands representing every country and landmass. But none of the publicity prepared me for the overall oddness of the dome-topped sales center for Nakheel, a major developer, as lavishly decorated as the lobby of a luxury hotel. Tourists roll in by the busload—real estate showrooms are among Dubai’s most compelling attractions—first the Germans, then the Japanese, and snap photos of a giant scale model of Atlantis, a version of the undersea-themed resort in the Bahamas. Of course, when it opens for business in Dubai this fall, travelers will be able to experience the real thing. The new Trump Dubai hotel is scheduled to open near Atlantis in 2009. Aaron Richardson, the media relations manager for Nakheel, tells me they’re also planning an adjacent project called the Universe, with islands in the shape of the solar system. I assume he’s joking. But, of course, he’s not.
Later I venture to the Dubailand showroom, another project that has been long heralded, but at the moment manifests itself as a desert full of earth-moving equipment and the most extravagant scale model I’ve ever seen. Dubailand will someday be a 108-square-mile agglomeration of theme parks interspersed with housing and hotels, including a Tiger Woods–branded golf course development (which, I guess, is why there are live tigers in a glass enclosure adjacent to the reception area). Among Dubailand’s future attractions are Al Sahra, an “ecotourism resort” with a working date farm and a 1,200-seat amphitheater; the City of Arabia, which will combine serviced apartments and a theme park stocked with “over 100 animatronic dinosaurs”; and Falcon City, where residents will live amid reproductions of ancient pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, and the Taj Mahal. The utterly over-the-top landscape I see in the model, an almost random assemblage of everything anyone could possibly imagine, seems like it could be Dubai in microcosm—you know, the city as theme park—except that there’s nothing micro about it.
Unaccountably, the most satisfying thing I see in Dubai is a modest office tower—a mere 22 stories—that is still being built when I visit. It’s in Business Bay, a new district going up along an inland waterfront that was created by dramatically extending Dubai Creek. Developer Shahab Lutfi is putting up 0-14, the first freestanding work built by the experimental New York firm Reiser + Umemoto, which has turned out to be, in Lutfi’s words, “an adventure.” The undulating, column-free shape is created by pouring concrete into steel molds custom-made in China. The façade’s oddly spaced round openings—think Swiss cheese—are created by cutting into the mold and inserting thick foam plugs. The process is remarkably complex, because each floor is different. This one will not rotate, or shimmy, or generate its own electricity, or break any world records, but unlike so much of what’s being built at a frenetic pace all around it, I think there’s a good chance that it will be beautiful.
I admire Lutfi’s dedication to his short-but-demanding tower, and I’m also grateful to him for giving me as authentic an experience as it’s possible to have in Dubai: an off-road jaunt around a major construction site. As Lutfi, elegantly dressed in a traditional white dishdasha and head scarf, maneuvers his silver Hummer through mushrooming Business Bay, rumbling through potholes and deftly avoiding monster trucks, he observes, “In Dubai, the roads and the buildings get built at the same time. Sometimes the buildings finish before the roads.” He takes me to a particularly scenic spot on the concrete banks of the man-made extension of Dubai Creek, opposite the site reserved for Zaha Hadid’s Signature Towers (projected completion date to be determined), where there’s a panoramic view of an entire city’s worth of skyline rising at once. The scene is sheer madness, as discombobulating as any of the scale models I’ve seen, except that it’s inarguably real. It’s right there in front of me. And to Lutfi, at least, the logic is obvious: “We are trying to build in 10 years what other people take 100 years to build.”
Actually, I think 100 years is an understatement—1,000 years’ worth of city in a decade is more like it. Every 10 seconds I alternate between profound admiration and sheer terror. And one afternoon I max out on the whole big-is-beautiful ethos. I seek refuge in the Palace, a newly opened “historic” Arabian hotel, part of a freshly minted district called Old Town. I sink into a comfortable chair in the Palace’s tranquil Moghul-themed lobby, and then notice that what I’ve got in front of me is the best possible view of a 21st-century icon. There, beyond the Persian arches of the shaded terrace, the lush gardens, and the pool, looms the Burj Dubai. And I figure that this is it—reality, Dubai-style—sipping tea while staring across the ages from a make-believe version of the 16th century to a somewhat implausible version of the 21st.
Karrie Jacobs is a T+L contributing editor.