I travelled to the United Arab Emirates last week to meet UK architects beating the credit crunch in recession-proof Dubai – and arrived just as the market took the biggest dive in the emirate’s history. Newspapers were emblazoned with plunging blood-red graphs, as traders watched the economic lifeblood drain from the exchange’s screens.
As I met with architects, their phones bleeped incessantly with news of developers shedding staff and cancelling projects. One would have expected the mood to be suitably gloomy, with practitioners mourning the imminent death of unlimited budgets and iconic towers, but instead I found several architects welcoming the wobble.
Drinking tea in his lofty office overlooking a desert peppered with towers, one architect said he’d been waiting for the crunch, hoping that it might usher in a more ‘mature’ real-estate market in Dubai – and encourage equally mature architecture in a city known for its visible-from-space creations such as the Palm islands, The World and the Burj Dubai.
Another architect described the last decade of crazed development not with fondness, but with regret. The speculative real-estate market created clients who cared more about eye-candy renderings, in which flats and villas were sold off-plan for ridiculous sums, than well-designed, sustainable architecture. Architects in Dubai have been used as artist-designers, hired to draw fancy shapes without the challenge of planning, environmental or budgetary constraints.
The speed of real-estate sales resulted in a breakneck speed of construction. Within 18 months, half-baked design ideas would be erected, built to the cheapest possible budget to maximise profits. Dubai is plagued by these doomed and ugly towers, some of which are expected to be demolished within 10 years.
There was no sense that the credit crunch will mark the end of Dubai. Cranes will continue to perform their delicate ballet over its dunes. As the pace of their movement slows in line with the shrinking liquidity of their developers, there is genuine hope that a more thoughtful architecture will be given time to grow.