Infrastructure as Landscaping
This article appears in the publication Infrastructure And Landscape produced by the Michael Graves College School of Public Architecture at Wenzhou-Kean University. I will post a link as soon as the book is published on ISSUU.
Landscape has long been valued for its role in the creation and enhancement of public space and the recognition that landscape is vital for the infrastructure purposes such as the control of flooding and the amelioration of storm surges is long overdue. Landscaping is now seen as a kind of infrastructure that counters the negative effects of excessive development in the form of buildings and those spaces between them called roads. There are many metrics by which urbanization can be measured but the quantity and density of buildings and roads is a usual one.
In Australia not too long ago, the felling of trees and the clearing of land was equated with progress and civilization. When the city of Perth was founded in 1829, the occasion was marked by a certain Mrs. Dance felling a tree. It’s clear from the painting that Mrs. Dance’s role was to fell the tree symbolically but that was the only symbolism the event had for, in the minds of the early settlers, the subjugation of the natural environment was not symbolic of progress but progress itself. Even today, Australian capital cities have a relaxed attitude towards the felling of trees and the clearing of bushland to create new outer suburbs farther out.
The desert interior of the United Arab Emirates is as much a part of Emirati national identity as the Australian desert is to Australians and, in both countries, the amount of land not yet built on remains a measure of how much urbanism is yet to be done. The contrast in the U.A.E. is more extreme as no hinterland buffer zones separate city from desert. The inner desert landscape is respected for its cultural associations but the adjacent desert is merely land yet to be developed.
Dubai receives much attention for its artificial islands, peninsulas and other landforms that have added more than 1,600 kilometers of coastline to the original 72. Much of this attention is negative because, while the building of islands and reclaiming significant areas of land for airports and harbors is generally accepted for economic reasons, the building of islands to generate lengths of coastline for tourist and residential investment is typically seen as frivolous. Both have economic imperatives but the former counts as infrastructure and the latter doesn’t. Artificial landforms such as The Palm Trilogy are landscape and infrastructure combined but exist outside an architectural and urban discourse that admits and comprehends them only as branding devices.
Roads and bridges are more clearcut and the 1960 First Dubai Master Plan by British planner John Harris shows the new Al Maktoum Bridge crossing Dubai Creek to link Deira on the north bank and Bur Dubai on the south. This road didn’t yet extend south to Abu Dhabi or north to the historic town centers of the other Gulf coast emirates that had grown up around other natural harbors for fishing and pearling vessels. In time, this road was to become national route E11 but its historic and continuing importance is evident by its other names such as Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Road and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Road in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, Sheikh Muhammad bin Salem Road in Ras al-Khaimah and National Road in Sharjah.
In 1960, the modern roundabout had just had its form and simple give-way rules standardized in the U.K. and could regulate significant amounts of traffic without recourse to traffic signals. Harris’s masterplan features roundabouts on all major intersections not just to regulate the increased traffic but to represent increased activity and prosperity. Not all of the roundabouts in this masterplan were built but, of those that remain, the one at the north end of Sheikh Maktoum Bridge is known as Clocktower Roundabout. Before the bridge connected both sides of The Creek, travelers would enter Dubai at a point close to this and the clock tower was built to house a clock given to His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the then ruler of Dubai to commemorate the occasion of Dubai’s first oil exports. Clocktower Roundabout had a presence as symbolic landscaping and entrance to the city before the bridge was completed to become functioning infrastructure.
Other roundabouts from the same time include Satwa Roundabout and Fish Roundabout, both of which still function to commemorate a place and a point in time. In Dubai roundabouts and the roads they connect are most definitely infrastructure as development but they also represent progress and that progress is celebrated with landscaping that, in turn, represents a kind of progress by the greening and watering of the land. In the short growth period between one global crisis and the next, it was almost a condition for any important transportation infrastructure to be celebrated with landscaping such as grassed verges interspersed with beds of marigolds or petunias. Infrastructure and landscaping do different things but they both represent progress.
In the 1960s, Sheikh Rashid made the decision to shift the centre of the city away from the mouth of Dubai Creek and its fishing and pearling, and towards the E11 and trade with Abu Dhabi to the south and the other emirates to the north. When Dubai World Trade Center opened in 1973 at the stretch of E11 that was to become the new Dubai, it was the tallest building in the Arab world and a symbol of Sheikh Rashid’s intention to make Dubai a centre of not just national trade but also global trade.
The adjacent roundabout is still known as Trade Centre Roundabout but is also sometimes called Interchange One. This next image shows Dubai World Trade Centre in the distance, the white building which was Dubai’s first residential tower completed in 1974, and Interchange Two which was then called Defence Roundabout. It already had two slip roads to facilitate traffic flow.
This next image shows the former Defence Roundabout in 2007 after it had been renamed Interchange One and reconfigured to handle more than 16,000 vehicles per hour, still without traffic lights.
This is it in 2012 after it had been reconfigured once more, this time as a three-quarter orbital and one-quarter cloverleaf interchange with four slip roads.
Burj Khalifa opened in 2009 as the centerpiece of a large development in the quadrant known as Downtown. This entire side of Dubai is also known as New Dubai, as Sheikh Rashid had envisioned. As recently as 2012 much sand could still be seen from the tourist observation deck on the 125th floor of Burj Khalifa.
By 2015 there was a plan to landscape the 14 hectares of sand in and around the interchange. That plan was implemented and completed within two years. This landscaping is visual amenity for drivers and passengers on Dubai Metro and wasn’t designed to be accessed or even appreciated by pedestrians. The design has obvious visual associations with the ramps and the flowerbeds are planted with annuals such as marigolds and petunias.
Simultaneous with the 2015 Interchange One landscaping project was the demolition of some social housing that had been built by the Sheikh Zayed Foundation in the 1970s and that had had 40+ years of ad-hoc extensions. By 2019 the redevelopment was complete.
Two blocks south was some similar housing known as Sha’abiyat Al Safa and that was distinctive enough and by then incongruous enough to feature in the U.A.E. exhibition at the 2017 Venice Bienalle.
This too has disappeared and the site is currently being redeveloped piecemeal and slowly, as a subdivision of detached villas.
This redevelopment can be thought of Middle Eastern gentrification and a consequence of economic pressure to exploit to the maximum land that has suddenly become central. Alternatively, it could just be seen as ‘tidying up’ by removing and replacing building stock that, however historic, is not in keeping with an image of modernity and mastery of one’s environment. Not too far down the line of Dubai Metro are places where the infrastructure represents modernity and progress but the landscape has yet to catch up.
This pressure is particularly strong around Burj Khalifa and the encircling Downtown high-rent and tourist hotel band designed and masterplanned as a single piece of infrastructure with Burj Khalifa as its symbolic centre and The Fountains as the geometric centre of the three-quarter circle of The Boulevard and, increasingly, walled by the apartment and hotel towers lining it. Dubai Mall completes the last quarter of the circle.
The three above views are of the stretch of The Boulevard in the top centre of the image below.
The Boulevard may never be one of the world’s great thoroughfares to rival New York’s Broadway or Paris’ Les Champs Elysées but, for something brought into existence within a decade, it might be too early to say.
Landscaping in Dubai is still being used to celebrate infrastructure. Roundabouts and exit ramps are continually being irrigated and prettified with combinations of rocks, lawn and pampas grass. However, and beyond the call of the usual role of landscaping in celebrating infrastructure at ground level, that in the Downtown District is also designed to do so when seen from the gulf side of the observation floors of Burj Khalifa.
- The tall building in the foreground and its smaller neighbor have screened rooftops to hide unsightly equipment.
- In the distance, the numerous eight story apartment buildings of the Citywalk development all have roofs screened in similarly decorative ways.
- Newer towers close by have tapered rooftops that minimize rooftop area.
- The 54th floor bridge structure of The Address Sky Views Hotel and Apartments has a pool deck which is a new focal point but neither landscape nor infrastructure. However, the projecting tip of this bridge-deck structure has a glass-floored observation platform celebrating the infrastructure and landscape at ground level.
- Landscaping alongside Sheikh Zayed Road and in and around Interchange One has large geometric motifs most legible when viewed from above.
- Much of the green you see in the photograph above is not grass but a succulent that requires less water and produces a constant and more vibrant green.