THE BURJ AL ARAB IS INTENDED TO RESEMBLE A SAIL; IN FACT, IT LOOKS LIKE HALF A PAIR OF GIANT BLOOMERS LASHED TO A CLOTHES-HORSE
I can't understand why people want to spend their holidays in Dubai. Certainly the weather is usually fine (except during sand storms). But in summer at least, it can be almost unbearably hot - during a recent visit, the temperature reached almost 50ºC, which meant that leaving an air-conditioned building felt like being rammed under a grill, and your hair feels as if it might burst into flames. Wear a hat - injudicious exposure to the sun plainly gives many porcine, pinkly piebald northern European tourists the most tormenting dermatological problems.
Nevertheless, the city becomes more and more popular. It has to, for the emirate's oil has run down and the place has to rely on other sources of income, like selling services (Dubai has a long mercantile tradition, starting with slaves and spices), shopping (hence a disconnected network of new shopping malls), racing (in winter when the climate is not so extreme) and, of course, tourism. The old city, with its traditional buildings that offered shade, thermal mass and other cooling devices like Iranian wind-catching towers, has been almost totally obliterated by flashy glass-clad office and hotel towers and their associated dreary shopping malls and car parks.
Simultaneously, the coastline has nearly all been used up by hotels. Hence the much publicised Palm, greatly coveted by millionaire footballers: strips of artificial beach have been built out into the Gulf in a heraldic frond-like pattern on which to construct airconditioned mini-castles complete with fake wind towers and battlements. Two more Palms are already planned, as is the World, which is intended to look like a map of the planet.
Soon, hotels on the original seafront will be cut off from the Gulf by an artificial archipelago.
Close by is the notorious Burj al Arab, designed by WS Atkins, and claimed to be the world's only seven-star hotel. It is intended to resemble a sail; in fact, it looks like half a pair of giant bloomers lashed to a curving clothes-horse. The coarseness of the Burj's external detailing is matched by the staggering vulgarity of its interior, in which almost all metal elements have been turned to gold, and great beds revolve under mirror ceilings in the double-storey suites. The Burj proudly claims to be the tallest hotel in the world and to have the biggest atrium.
Dubai's tragedy is that such ridiculous ephemeral measures of worth are employed everywhere. The emirate has undoubtedly achieved amazing things in the five decades since oil was first discovered. The Ruler's few subjects are now some of the richest and most cosseted people in the world (all the city's manual work is done by gästarbeiter from the Subcontinent). But Dubai culture has yet to learn the merits of quality as well as quantity. Sadly, models for modernisation are hopelessly out of date, with multi-laned highways carving the city into polluted islands of absurdly styled curtain-walled buildings.
With all that money and vast amounts of free energy pouring down from the sky, Dubai could be a wonderful proving ground for new sustainable architecture, cooled, lit and powered by the sun. And it could be a place in which new green urban patterns are inspired at least as much by those of traditional Arab cities as by the civil engineer. It should be an inspiring example to the world. Instead, it is an aggressively naff Dallas on sea.