"Like a surrealist encyclopedia," he observes of Dubailand, the U.A.E.'s version of Disneyland, now under construction, "its forty-five major 'world-class' projects include replicas of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Taj Mahal, and the Pyramids, as well as a snow mountain with ski lifts and polar bears, a center for extreme sports, a Nubian village, Eco-Tourism World, a vast Andalusian spa and wellness complex, golf courses, autodromes, race tracks, fantasia, the largest zoo in the Middle East, several new five-star hotels, a modern art gallery, and the Mall of Arabia."
In that and other passages, he sums up Dubai as a pastiche-land of neon-bright, excessive and ultimately superficial pleasures. But his writing has come to rely on the same kind of flashy, formulaic distraction.
"Dubai," he writes, "is not a hybrid but an eerie chimera: A promiscuous coupling of all the cyclopean fantasies of Barnum, Eiffel, Disney, Spielberg, Jon Jerde, Steve Wynn, and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Although compared variously to Las Vegas, Manhattan, Orlando, Monaco, and Singapore, the sheikdom is more like their collective summation and mythologization."
Making your way through those lines, distracted by the glittering phrases and whizzing cultural references, is not so different from walking through a forest of 80-story towers in Dubai or Shanghai. Davis is guilty of building his own rhetorical theme park -- the vertiginous MikeDavisLand, where the linguistic thrill rides are no less entertaining for the fact that they circle the same loops again and again.
Koolhaas may not see sunshine in every corner, but his take on Dubai, and the gulf in general, is essentially sanguine. He and other contributors to "Al Manakh" -- which means "the climate" or "the environment" in Arabic -- see the gulf as "a region that shows unprecedented energies" and the site of a new "accelerated urbanism."
For Koolhaas, who contributes brief, ambivalent essays signed "RK," the book is, in one sense, a record of the copious research he and his firm produce about the parts of the world where they work. It is also a chance to defend his controversial decision to take commissions from governments with dubious human rights records. He has used the same strategy in regard to his designs for Beijing, where his iconic tower for Chinese state television is now under construction.
Filled with charts, snapshots, diary entries by the architect's associates and list upon list printed in agate type, the book is officially not a book at all but an expanded issue of Volume, the lively magazine Koolhaas and his firm put out with Columbia University and the European journal Archis. It includes some historical details about Dubai and the U.A.E. that Davis leaves out, notably stories about the first wave of celebrity architecture there, when Jorn Utzon (who designed the Sydney Opera House), Kenzo Tange and L.A.'s own William Pereira were enlisted to help turn the desert emirates into something resembling a Western city.
Koolhaas, who writes as well or better than any contemporary architect, is sharp about his feeling that Davis and other critics of the U.A.E.'s emerging brand of urbanism have little fresh to offer. Their complaints say "more about the stagnation of the Western critical imagination than . . . about the Gulf cities," he argues. "The Gulf is not just reconfiguring itself; it's reconfiguring the world."
At times, "Al Manakh" reads like an argument Koolhaas is having with himself about whether it's worth it, morally or architecturally, to work in the U.A.E., where most new towers are built in a garishly expedient style. "Is it possible," he writes, "to view the Gulf's ongoing transformation on its own terms? As an extraordinary attempt to change the fate of an entire region? Is it possible to present a constructive criticism of these phenomena? Is there something like a critical participation?"
Tellingly, he frames these issues in the form of questions -- some rhetorical, others pointed and nearly all of them, at this stage of the gulf's history, unanswerable. *