January 23, 2018

Chasing Metaphors: The Curious Case of a Dubai Frame

Dubai Frame
Mexican architect Fernando Donis' rendering of the original version of the Dubai Frame over Dubai's skyline (Sachimo via Wikimedia Commons)

Dubai greeted the new year with a picture frame – a really large one. It is located in Zabeel Park, straddling what is referred to in local parlance as “old” Dubai and its “new” counterpart. Over the years, this frame structure has grown in height distinguished by a large void through which both sides of the city can be seen: the gleaming towers of Sheikh Zayed Road from one side, and the low-rising architecture of Bur Dubai and Deira from the other. Mostly comprised of scaffolding, exposed beams, and columns, it initially had a slightly abstract quality not usually associated with anything built in the city. But throughout 2017, golden-leafed, arabesque-like cladding was added, thus completing the transition to a giant picture frame. Eventually, it became clear that this would become an observation tower, allowing people to hover over both sides of the city, pose for selfies, and lay on a glass floor suspended at a height of 492 feet.

The structure, however, is steeped in controversy and generating much commentary, such as being dubbed the “biggest stolen building of all time.” The New York Times ran the feature “As Dubai’s Skyline Adds a Trophy, the Architect Calls It Stolen.” Another critic emphatically declared that “The World’s Biggest Picture Frame May Also Be The Ugliest” and that “it frames the city’s artifice with more artifice.” Hyperbole aside, the tale of the structure’s evolution from conceptual design to final completion is fascinating, involving all sorts of intrigue: alleged copyright infringement; orientalism; commodification of symbols; literal adaptations; and, of course, a perpetuation of stereotypes pertaining to Dubai and cities in the Gulf in general. At its very essence, though, it is a tale of a city obsessed with metaphors.

Dubai Frame

Street view of the Dubai Frame (Greger Ravik via Creative Commons)

In 2008 – as the Dubai building bubble was about to implode – a competition was held for “the conception of a tall emblem structure, to promote the new face of Dubai.” The winning entry was by Mexican architect Fernando Donis, who proposed a slender, minimalist structural frame. Viewed as a critique of the ongoing building frenzy, through its massive void the structure framed all the glitzy towers of Sheikh Zayed Road and offered a more serious counterpart to what a Vanity Fair article referred to at the time as a “skyline on crack.” Commentators noted that it resembled a Sol LeWitt sculpture, “a scale-less outline wrought in concrete and steel.” Such conceptual musings are usually not associated with any kind of construction taking place in the city, where the focus tends to be on shape, size, and overall form. A minimalist sculptural piece seemed like an odd addition to the urban landscape. Nevertheless, the architect was invited to Dubai, received his prize money, was feted, and then promptly dispatched back home. Thereafter, a complex legal tangle ensued in which Dubai Municipality – the client – asked for a relinquishing of copyrights, which the architect refused. The project went ahead with substantive changes to the original design, transforming it from an abstract conceptual scheme to a literal, gold-adorned picture frame, a “postmodern pastiche” as the architect lamented. All conceptual subtleties were discarded in favor of a direct interpretation. International media outlets weighed in as well, though, in many instances, the copyright controversy got wrapped up with the treatment of workers and the supposedly exploitative system prevailing in the emirate. Others, such as CNN, focused on the frame from an aesthetic viewpoint, noting its “glitzy aesthetic.”

Dubai Skyline

Sunset over Dubai’s skyline (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

The notion of transformation from an abstract and conceptual idea to such a figurative image is revealing in a number of ways as it is symptomatic of the approach taken by authorities in Dubai toward urban and architectural developments. A reliance on spectacularism and commercialization inadvertently affirms notions of artificiality and superficiality. Such attributes have unfortunately become associated with the city. Clearly, in the minds of decision makers, changing The Frame from an abstract sculpture to a figurative symbol is seen as an improvement on the original. Thus, rather than evoking a transcendental experience akin to being in a museum and watching a work of art, the structure caters to more leisurely pursuits.

Burj Al Arab

Aerial view of Burj Al Arab in Dubai (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Palm Jumeirah

Aerial view of Palm Jumeirah

Burj Khalifa

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Examining Dubai’s history of buildings reveals a remarkable affinity for such an approach. It started with Burj Al Arab, which opened in 1999 as a luxury hotel that resembled a sail and was for a while a symbol of the city itself (its silhouette placed on car license plates). Things changed soon thereafter with the announcement of a reclaimed island shaped like a palm tree, Palm Jumeirah. The peculiar shape and monumental scale prompted countless articles and reports, literally putting the city on the map. The design of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, according to the building’s website is an “abstraction of the Hymenocallis flower,” a global symbol, although it was initially suggested to be native to the region (a desert flower) thus adding a veneer of authenticity. This contextual metaphor has been sidestepped and now the building when seen from the air “is evocative of the onion domes prevalent in Islamic architecture.” Yet the architect stated that the desert flower metaphor was more of an afterthought, and he was actually influenced by Chicago’s tri-petal Lake Point Tower, as well as the fairy tale metropolis Emerald City, in the “Wizard of Oz,” a “crystalline structure coming up in the middle of what seemed like nowhere.” Future projects will follow along those same lines: the UAE National Pavilion at EXPO 2020, designed by luminary Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, looks similar to what he has designed elsewhere, but because it is in Dubai its shape is derived from an eagle. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Library resembles an open book. And, a development to be built in the heart of Deira, Aladdin City, with towers resembling genie lamps, evokes orientalist fantasies.

In trying to understand such conceptual orientations it is difficult to validate this obsessiveness with literalism and metaphors. Is the notion of turning everything that is being constructed into a symbol a complete surrender to orientalist ideology? Or is it an attempt by outsiders to associate Arabs with a certain aesthetic sensibility predicated on direct symbols and flowery metaphors? Yet in many instances it is local stakeholders who require such imaginaries. For Dubai, where commerce and trade dominate, the appropriation of symbols and their direct transfer into built form can also be construed as a form of branding – a way to attract the attention of a public eager to jump at anything remotely evocative of the Orient.

There is of course a long tradition of themed buildings in architectural history. Theorists such as Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour in their highly influential 1960s book “Learning from Las Vegas” examined the figurative aspect of architecture paving the way for various postmodernist interpretations in the 1970s – a Frank Gehry-designed building that looks like a pair of binoculars, for example. Such approaches become problematic when they are the predominant paradigm as is the case in Dubai. A city filled with “ducks” – an architectural expression connoting buildings shaped in a figurative manner – veers closely to theme park territory. The Frame further accentuates this and suggests a missed opportunity. A landmark could have been created defying expectations and thus overturning clichés and stereotypes. Instead, what is left is a commercialized space, surrounded by decorative elements and features geared toward an Instagram moment.

Yasser Elsheshtawy is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.