Amid the man-made islands and extravagant theme parks and ever more preposterous architecture of Dubai, this city is building the future at warp speed.

Courtesy of Atkins The Trump Dubai hotel (2009) as it will appear on the Palm Jumeirah.
| Credit: Courtesy of Atkins

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.

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.

When to Go

The best time to visit is late fall to early spring.

Getting There

There are direct flights to Dubai on Emirates from New York, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities. Car rentals are available through Hertz and Avis, among others.

Where to Stay

Burj Al Arab

Jumeirah Beach Rd.; 971-4/301-7777;; doubles from $2,330.

Palace-The Old Town

Old Town Island, Downtown Burj Dubai; 971-4/428-7888;; doubles from $329.

Raffles Dubai

Sheikh Rashid Rd., Wafi City; 800/768-9009;; doubles from $1,000.

Where to Eat

Al Qasr

Lebanese restaurant with outdoor tables overlooking a waterfront resort. Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa; 971-4/ 346-1111; dinner for two $104.

Blue Barjeel Restaurant & Café

Classic Middle Eastern restaurant in Bur Dubai, one of the older parts of the city. Al Ghubaiba Rd.; 971-4/353-2200; dinner for two $27.

What to See and Do

Atlantis, The Palm

Outer crescent of the Palm Jumeirah; 971-4/426-1000;

Burj Dubai

Burj Dubai Blvd., Business Bay; 971-4/367-3333;

Business Bay

Spans more than two square miles, from Dubai Creek to Sheikh Zayed Rd.; 971-4/391-1114;

The Gate

Dubai International Financial Centre; 971-4/362-2222;