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Is Abu Dhabi the future?

Time, weather and place change at videogame pace in Abu Dhabi, but is this the future? asks Rory Olcayto

Some things feel old-fashioned, some futuristic. Snow feels old-fashioned, a definitive link to the past: log fires. Charles Dickens. The Ice Age. Woolly mammoths. Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, which begins on the ice planet Hoth, (inspiring ‘snow’ levels in videogames ever since) throws a spanner in the works but… snow, just like that misplaced spanner, is the enemy of progress: it cancels trains, makes airports fail and messes with your mobile phone.

Not long back from a tour of Abu Dhabi, where you saw buildings with facades that blink in the sun, water world theme parks in the desert and walk-in fridges in modest family homes twice the size of a Georgian town house, you wonder, what did you really see? Is Abu Dhabi the future? Returning to old London, its timeworn architecture caked in snow, feels like travelling back in time. It has the Shard, the Orbit and the Olympic Park. But is London stuck in the past?

An engineer you met in that strange desert city, who worked for the company that designed the water park - Atkins’ Yas Waterworld - said as much himself. ‘London? It’s had its time. If you’re serious about architecture, about design, about engineering, you should be working here in the Emirates.’

You didn’t see much of ‘old’ Abu Dhabi, planned in the ’70s with wide roads on a grid on a land mass the size of Manhattan. The trip was short, one full day there, and mostly spent on Yas Island, your hotel overlooking a giant red metal manta ray shed also know as Ferrari World (two million square feet of low-lying roof) and the recently Tarmac-ed Formula One race track. The water park and a golf course were ‘nearby’ too. (Nearby is relative: you met old friends there, lured by the tax-free lifestyle, who said the hotel was just minutes from their house. Twenty minutes. In a car. Driving at 90 miles per hour.)

Yas Island is east of the city and north of ‘zero-carbon’ Masdar. It is, as its website proclaims, ‘a destination unlike any other.’ The same site reveals it’s ‘more than a destination: it’s a journey to experiencing the finer things life has to offer’. @Louiseluvsyarn tweets: ‘So looking forward to my day off tomorrow! Golf, then a facial at Espa at Yas Hotel with some knitting time thrown in! Heaven!!!’


Hotel lobbies are the closest Yas Island has to public realm, the soundtrack in each, Rhianna on loop. In bars serving Stella, widescreens show action from the English Premiership, Emirati money paying for the faraway teams and stadiums. Outside, in a plaza between hotels, billboards herald golfer Rory McIlroy and new sponsor Nike. Footpaths dwindle, become dust.

Driving along the superhighways linking Yas Island to the city and airport, ‘iconic’ buildings shimmer on the horizon: The leaning tower of Abu Dhabi - RMJM’s Capital Gate - certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the furthest-leaning manmade structure in the world. Al Bahar Towers - ‘the Pineapples’ - by Aedas, overlooking cherished swampland, and a winner of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2012 accolade for its intricate, geometric, responsive facades. And Zaha Hadid’s Sheikh Zayed Bridge (pictured), muscular, massive, eight lanes wide, like a racecourse from Playstation’s Wipeout, the seminal ’90s videogame.

It’s the future Scott-Brown and Venturi saluted, JG Ballard desired. Palm Springs fed growth hormones. A monster-sized Vegas. Vermilion Sands for real. And of course this future can do old-fashioned too, every day of the year. Drive on to Dubai. There’s a snow park there, the biggest in the world.

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