NPF: BEYOND THUNDERDOME

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 4th, 2013 by Ed

Our fascination with building cities is almost equal to our fascination with watching them crumble. From the thousands of "urban decay" tumblrs (Is there an angle from which Detroit's decrepit factories have yet to be photographed?) to a TV series about what the concrete relics of our civilization would look like if mankind disappeared, we want to be voyeurs of the apocalypse without actually having to live through it. There's even something of a tourist industry focused on abandoned places like this Japanese amusement park or the subdivision-turned-(sub)urban prairie of Lehigh Acres, FL, where you can see half-built McMansions battered by the elements. And of course there's the mother of all deserted Urban Exploration sites, the remains of Pripyat, Ukraine after it was emptied on short notice due to the Chernobyl disaster; the city was made famous to a new generation when it was replicated (with downright disturbing accuracy) in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

I started thinking about this due to yesterday afternoon's post of a New Years fireworks display in Dubai. Because I'm pretty sure that in twenty years Dubai is going to be an empty graveyard filled with extravagant but decaying monuments to flaunting wealth.

As an architecture fan, it's hard not to have paid attention to Dubai in the last ten years. The city has sprung up from the desert seemingly overnight (if you want to be freaked out, watch animation of its growth over 11 years as viewed from space) and it appears to be run by oil-rich sheiks with resources that border on limitless. Their goal was to prepare Dubai (and the UAE more generally) for the post-oil world by establishing the city as the global hub of the 0.1% – a shimmering oasis of luxury vacation property and the center of the global financial industry. Accordingly, they have spent lavishly on anything and everything their imaginations have conjured, including ridiculously opulent hotels, indoor ski slopes, a skyscraper nearly double the height of any other building on Earth when its ground was broken, and artificial islands covered with multimillion dollar homes.

Basically, Dubai became the hyper-rich, cocaine binge version of Las Vegas, as executed by straight-laced Muslim men who almost certainly were not on a cocaine binge. God knows what schemes they would have hatched under those circumstances.

The problem is that Dubai is already something of a white elephant, and the situation will probably worsen. They ran out of money when the global recession hit and needed to beg oil-soaked neighbor Abu Dhabi for billions in cash to finish its projects. The artificial islands are all sinking and most of the beach is literally poisoned with human shit. The Burj Khalifa is half empty despite asking prices being slashed repeatedly, and the majority of the city's dozens of high rise office buildings are vacant. It already has the look of an abandoned city – if it can qualify as abandoned without ever being occupied. This experiment is showing the flaws in "If you build it, they will come" as an urban planning strategy.

Why aren't the billionaires and trust funders coming? It's hard to say for certain but the better question is, why would they? It's still a Muslim country, precluding a lot of the, uh, "fun" that the jet-set crowd likes. Alcohol is available on a very limited basis, drugs are almost non-existent due to incredible penalties (a Briton got four years in prison for 0.003 grams of weed on his clothing), and as for semi-nude women frolicking in the sun…forget it. And speaking of that sun, it's about a billion goddamn degrees there during the summer and only moderately scorching the rest of the year. What led anyone to believe that spoiled, decadent, rich Westerners would find this place appealing?

Thank god so many of the buildings are so tall; when the whole thing is swallowed by the ocean in a century or so, we'll have no difficulty finding it.