A Vision in the Desert–Sustaining a developing culture

Photos from the New York Times and, from left, Gehry Partners, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando

Nic Ouroussoff writes in the New York Times today about a new “city of culture” in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. It is a grand vision, still evolving, with major proposed works by Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and others. Nic focuses on the potential of the development to foster a “new cultural model” for the Middle East. Key in the potential success of this venture is the participation of major Western cultural institutions in more than architecture. It will be essential for these established institutions to make major loans to the new Abu Dhabi centers to establish a foundation for a “complex cultural conversation.”

More than a decade ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Abu Dhabi to initiate a project for a new national standards laboratory. Embedded in the program was the logic of a natural sustainable place, even in those early days of our awarenesses. If Abu Dhabi were to grow, for example, a supply of fresh water to this place on the Gulf and at the edge of a desert, would have to be established. The labs could develop technologies for large scale desalination plants, for example, to support a local agricultural transformation.

More fascinating, however, was a social initiative that lay behind the laboratory’s program. As in other places in the Arab world, oil wealth was making it possible for the sons of the nation to travel to other places and receive great educations from some of the world’s best universities in some of the world’s most cosmopolitan and sophisticated places. On graduation, however, they resisted return to a nation that was only now emerging from a tribal Bedouin culture, a nation where most of those who actually worked guest workers from other countries in service jobs, and a nation where there was very little to sustain the challenge, interest and intellect these sons had gained in other places. The national standards lab was part of a vision of the nation’s leaders to provide a place with the appropriate scientific infrastructure to attract their sons back to Abu Dhabi where they could apply the knowledge they had gained for the good of the country, and hopefully grow opportunity here for future generations.

Nic’s article reflects concerns for the cultural center plans and using buildings as a branding exercise and as marketing commodities. From my past experience, I hope instead that the power of architecture is a valid part of a persistent vision for a more inclusive, connected, and creative society, and part of a wisdom that will embed a more global awareness and participation in places that are now in threat of broadening conflict and cultural, social and economic retreat.

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