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Rapid Cities

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It was maybe February 2019 and I was living in Dubai when this invitation to participate in this event arrived in my inbox.

Rapid Cities – Responsive Architectures seeks to examine the dialectic, tensions, problems and possibilities of architecture and urbanism as technologically imbued, fast-paced commercial exercises. 

  • Can the design and construction of the built environment be fully profit-driven, remain responsive to climate and cultural heritage?
  • Is spectacle architecture consistent with vernacular design, accessible transport and best practice construction? 
  • How do rapidly planned cities ensure social integration, urban health and produce affordable housing? 
  • Is it the role of the design and construction industries to respond to these issues at all? 
  • Should we embrace speed and technology as motors of design, construction and development as ends in themselves? 
  • If we do, what are the advantages and likely results? What does the history of these issues tell us about future trends?

These questions are all provocative but still manage to suggest that contributions that agree and take a positive stance will be more welcome than those that disagree and dissent. In the end, I didn’t nothing and let the deadline for submissions expire. This was my reasoning. Making a strong case for the first point will probably make you keynote speaker and you can expect follow-on invitations and consultancy offers. Agreeing with any of the first three points means agreeing with them all.

  • Can the design and construction of the built environment be fully profit-driven, remain responsive to climate and cultural heritage?
  • Is spectacle architecture consistent with vernacular design, accessible transport and best practice construction? 
  • Should we embrace speed and technology as motors of design, construction and development as ends in themselves? 

Even if I disagreed with all of them in an articulate manner, I could still expect to be placed in the crash-and-burn slot immediately after lunch, or perhaps invited to diversify a panel discussion.

  • Should we embrace speed and technology as motors of design, construction and development as ends in themselves? 
  • If we do, what are the advantages and likely results? What does the history of these issues tell us about future trends?

This is a strange question in that it implies we have a choice. I’m not aware of the construction industry ever being any other way. Seventy years ago, William Levitt ramped up the production of detached houses across America. He didn’t do this by machines prefabricating houses on production lines (as per Gropius’ and Neufert’s wet dream) but by turning workers into machines by giving them only one process to perform repeatedly at a series of adjacent sites. In a way it was a perfect system because the workers moved to eliminate the capital expenditure for conveyor belts and factories. The endgame of 3D printed buildings is to have a construction industry that not only does away with factories but with construction workers as well. So this question is not a question. It’s just history repeating itself.

  • How do rapidly planned cities ensure social integration, urban health and produce affordable housing? 

This is the question, although it might have been better phrased as “How might …? or “How could …?” It’s a loaded question however, as you’re not asked to suggest how they don’t.

A sense of history isn’t what I look for in a place to live. I don’t mind a city being picturesquely located adjacent to a body of water, or having a temperate climate, but I much prefer living in a convenient and temperate with a good-natured population who aren’t out to screw you over. I’ve no problem with rapid cities. We need them. Despite what Peter Cook wrote in January 2008, we shouldn’t over-rate the old while denigrating the new. We can’t assume everyone in the world wants to live in cities steeped in history and that have grown over centuries or even millennia. It’s not possible and it’s going to be even less possible in the future.

Peter Cook
“Compare and Contrast: Suffolk and Dubai”
Jan., 2008

Some time ago I found myself returning to a well inhabited dining rom in a pub in Suffolk, England. I realized that not only did it serve some of the best fish and chips on the East Coast, but that the room was filled with a bevy of familiar and well known London architects, Cambridge architects, London musicians, philosophers, art worthies and suchlike. Perhaps, hundreds of years earlier, its would have hosted the shakers and movers of the flourishing local community, except that the adjoining city of Dunwich had fallen into the sea, leaving the pub resting against hedgerows rather than streets.

Below, a series of lay creeks and small rivers run between occasional monuments of high elegance: those grand Suffolk churches that afforded an architecture of considerable sophistication on the back of a flourishing Medieval wool trade. The wool business diminished and the sea encroached, but a collection of spirited minds still seem to enjoy the irony and pleasantness of it all.

I was strangely reminded of all this on my recent introduction to the very distant creeks and sands of Dubai. I could even expect to find some of those same London architects – trooping into a foodie restaurant along with any number of imported cultural figures: opening a college here, establishing a theatre there and helping the city to announce itself to the world was a cradle for ideas. Of course, my train of thought could soon extend to a certain predictive irony; if oil is the new wool and computer-fashioned precast concrete the new stone carving and flint knapping*, might the whole thing not slide mysteriously into the sea one day and its curious, polyglot citizenry fizzle away, merely bequeathing a few strange tales? Perhaps of architects seeking riches, inventing mysteries, searching for clues, searching for significance among the shifting sands?

Such places collect ironies. Not far from Dunwich lies Orford, where a few months later the Japanese architect Itsuko Hasegawa came over the make the sets for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Curlew River’, the connection being that this Suffolk music drama had been based upon a Japanese
Noh play. Somehow, folding a culture upon a culture thrives in a territory that is slightly spooky, especially where there is a density of quizzical minds at work; Within a heathland that has become layered with forests, absorbing the coincidences of musical genius and painterly talent means that an unexpected lane will lead to a high tech recording studio, or a long, low malthouse will disclose a symphony orchestra in rehearsal. Behind the next hedgerow some philosophers are comparing the wine being grown in the field beyond with that ring in their cellars, while their neighbors behind another hedge are tuning-up racing cars.

In the same way, Dubai sits there as the plaything of a privileged world – with its hinterland scaled-up some dozens of times. The achievers of Pakistan or Iran rub shoulders with the Germans and Brits – though not plays or th English watercolor tradition are unlikely to be their tipple. Yet one suspects that when Dunwich thrived and the sheepskins were being packed into those old sailboats, life might have had a similar hustle and bustle about it.

Does our present architectural response have to push us back into the middle? Does this energetic, opportunist, enterprising new metropolis need to reproduce the blandest of quotations from Miami Singapore or Düsseldorf? A life in the sun (or dexterously escaping from it) could surely result ins some new activities and new typologies. If there is no need for hedgerows to shield the eccentric or the original enterprise, then couldn’t those zany artificial palm-tree peninsulas and artificial oases hose some form of studio/capsule/artificial hidey-tree? Somehow, I don’t believe that my strong cross-recollection is entirely off the wall. History is too often treated as a one-way service. Cities are too often studied as a one-value system. Srange little places are too often dismissed as irrelevant to the urban expderience.

One day the world will become bored by the en-suite bathroom, grilled sea bass, Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, undulating concrete ribbons, the Picasso print, the
Time Out recommendations (and yes, of course there’s a Time Out for Dubai.

Interestingly, those rather older escape cities – Kyoto, Aspen, Poona, Vancouver Island or St. Ives – have the reputation of attracting eccentrics. So how about a different kind of ‘Club Med’ for Dubai: reduced rates for inventors, composers, parrot-suffers? And the architecture for such an enterprise? Well, the palm tree peninsulas are a start. Aren’t they?

* A hard stone cut to reveal its glassy surface.

“Dubai Defense”
Graham McKay

Feb., 2008

SIR: Surely Suffolk can’t be as dreadful as Peter Cook makes it sound? Or Dubai damned for not satisfying our appetite for architectural imagery? True, notional uniformities of artificial abundance and youth make it hard to force those notional oppositions of machine-in-Nature, jewel-in-declining-industrial-city, or ‘spaceship in Oldsville that so flatter the Modernist object. This brings out the worst in us. It makes us quick to talk of architectural theme parks and dismiss the Dubai Opera House as ‘another gaudy bauble in the Emirates’ pipeline,‘ when its would be astounding snaywhere and in its own right. Dubai just can’t win. Old place have cultures that ‘fold’ upon other cultures but the Dubai equivalent is ‘polyglot’ citizenry. Old places have eccentrics and ’spirited and quizzical’ minds but Dubai is populated with ‘achievers’ insensitive to Noh and watercolors. Such places collect ironies, apparently. The biggest one of all is that Dubai and those ‘zany artificial palm-tree peninsulas’ are the instant city realized but Cook can’t admit it. I think we should really fostering more positive attributes towards new cities – especially when it looks like there’s going to be comparatively fewer old ones to escape to. Or from.

Yours etc.
Graham McKay

These two pieces were written over than fifteen years ago when all the balls were still in the air prior to the Financial Crash of 2008. At the time I was working as a Senior Architectural Designer in London but about to be offered a position in Dubai as Architecture Editor for ATKINS, a large engineering and architecture firm that had had a presence in Dubai since the days of laying pipes. I arrived in September 2008 just as economic storm clouds were darkening, and was made redundant in January a few days prior to completing my three-month probation. I was given a three month extension, a one-month extension and then a one-week extension but by May 2009 I was jobless in Dubai even though I wasn’t homeless as I’d paid my rent for the year. There was no point returning to neither job nor home in London, so I formed a freelance company offering writing and editing services to academics. It never made me any money but it did provide me a visa so I could work as part time lecturer at three universities. And so began my academic career. I stayed 12 years.

I don’t know how much has changed in Suffolk since Cook wrote his piece but I see Dubai is once again attracting people who, because of the wrong passport, education or parents are looking for opportunities and potential not available to them in their own countries. Even when I lived there, I saw one Algerian guy promoted from hotel cleaner to bell-boy to front desk within three years. A Pakistani friend worked his way up in one of Dubai’s many money-changing businesses. A Spanish friend I know is about to move to Dubai to work for a high-end car-rental company. A Chinese business school graduate I know is looking to start a company in Dubai. Your cocktail barman could be Tibetan. Your hairdresser could just as easily be British or Russian as Syrian, Iraqi or Egyptian. Such opportunities aren’t equally spread, but they exist. I have more respect for people like these who are creative with their own lives than I have for the so-called ‘movers and shakers’ who roll out creative artifacts for an economic system demanding them. To be fair, both sets of people are equally opportunistic within the economic times and places they find themselves in and this, I think, is the truth Cook is so desperate to deny.

But what of history? Clearly, some histories are better than others. Dubai has archeological remains of a pre-Islamic caravanserai that would have been on the trade route from Persia and Oman. Travellers on camelback carrying valuable substances such as frankinscense westwards from Oman would have been wise to stay in one.

Wenzhou, the city in which I now live, has been settled since the late Neolithic Era circa 2,500 BC. It merged with the Imperial Court about 135 BC but nothing much happened for a while. In 1876 the British came and, with the Treaty of Yantai, it became a treaty port but the people of Wenzhou weren’t particularly interested in selling anything and the British were more interested in flooding the market with opium and other goods than buying anything. However, there was an economy of goods and, by 1930, Wenzhou had an industrial and manufacturing economy that so easily translated into economic prosperity in the 1980s that the so-called Wenzhou Model was applied to other cities. Various cultural artifacts were produced along the way but, apart from a John Portman hotel, a cluster of UN Studio towers at Yongjia World Trade Center, and Moore Ruble Yudell’s Ge Hehai Hall and Perkins&Will‘s Student Learning Activity Centre at Wenzhou-Kean University, the city has largely escaped the attentions of architects.

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