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Towers of power

Evil Paradises Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism Edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk New Press: 336 pp., $26.95Al Manakh Dubai Guide; Gulf Survey; Global Agenda Edited by Mitra Khoubrou, Ole Bouman and Rem Koolhaas Volume/Stichting Archis: 496 pp., $40 (estimated)

August 19, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Christopher Hawthorne is a Times staff writer.

"IF you want to be apocalyptic," Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas writes in "Al Manakh," a new study of Persian Gulf cities and their beanstalk towers, "you could construe Dubai as evidence of the-end-of-architecture-and-the-city-as-we-know-them."

To be apocalyptic, you will probably not be surprised to hear, is precisely what Mike Davis wants. His own views on Dubai are included in "Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism," a timely if uneven collection he edited with Daniel Bertrand Monk, and they possess all the razor-sharp pessimism he's spent a career perfecting.

Davis' view of Dubai -- one of the seven city-states that make up the United Arab Emirates, and for the last decade the biggest construction site this side of Shanghai -- is marked by stories of greed, exploitation and enough conspicuous consumption to make a hedge fund manager blush. In classically over-the-top fashion, he characterizes Dubai as "the ultimate Green Zone," a fantasyland built on the backs of overworked and underpaid foreign workers who are violently brought into line every time they try to organize. It's a place, Davis says, that "earns its living from fear," with a skyline that is "a hallucinatory pastiche of the big, the bad and the ugly."

Davis and Koolhaas are two of the most consistently compelling cultural critics working, and their subject here -- the just-add-water urbanism of nations that have made more oil money than they know what to do with -- is ripe for analysis. It is a pity that neither one decided to write a full book on the topic.

But in the end, it is pretty clear that despite the vast ideological divide that separates them, both were attracted to the gulf for reasons that can only be called opportunistic. Neither is so different, in other words, from the planeloads of workers, developers and multinational corporations that flow each day into the region.

In Davis' case, "Evil Paradises" is a sign that he wants to turn his singular brand of cultural criticism, for so long rooted in postwar Southern California, into a global franchise. He began the campaign last year with "Planet of Slums," a tour of the squalid tin-roof outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria, Mexico City and other mega-cities.

"Evil Paradises" is a mirror image of "Planet of Slums," a study of globalization's victors instead of its victims. It surveys the ways that soaring oil revenues -- "petrodollars" is the catchy term of art -- and other newly acquired wealth are radically transforming urban landscapes around the world.

Its subject is not the ghetto but the enclave: the seven-star high-rise hotels, private islands, gated and themed neighborhoods and even special freeway overpasses that allow the super-rich, from Iran to Hungary to Colombia, to keep the toiling masses out of view. The essays suggest, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, that these new privileged realms threaten to make obsolete traditional definitions of what makes a city -- and what divides public from private.

They also make clear that there is a steep human price to pay for the creation of luxury. In 2004, according to a report from the international organization Human Rights Watch, 880 construction workers were killed on the job in Dubai alone.

Davis, who now lives in San Diego, contributes just one of the 19 pieces here, plus an introduction co-written with Monk. But his shadow looms over the whole enterprise. The other contributors, who include an architect from Los Angeles, a writer from Orange County and a clutch of professors, cite him often.

And though none, sadly, write as memorably as he does, all share his worldview. There are chapters on gated communities in Egypt and Iran, which take their design cues directly from Southern California; on the residential architecture of the upwardly mobile in Budapest, Hungary; and on the "warlord kitsch" of new mansions in Kabul, Afghanistan. There is also a terrific essay by Joe Day -- he's the architect from L.A. -- on how wealthy collectors including Armand Hammer, the De Menil family and Edythe and Eli Broad have reconfigured the idea of the "personal museum."

With his 1990 book "City of Quartz," Davis crafted a tremendously influential way of looking at Los Angeles, seeing in its segregated cityscape boundless evidence of architectural exclusion. His remains the defining critique of late-20th century L.A.

But Los Angeles is in the midst of a profound shift, growing denser and arguably more public. It is struggling to become a city with real neighborhoods, increasingly plagued by real urban-planning dilemmas. Instead of grappling with those changes, which threaten to make much of his writing on the city obsolete, Davis has chosen to apply his standard vision to the latest source of global fascination.

Not to mention that his prose style more and more resembles the cultural landscapes he is so keen to mock.

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