Compare and contrast: Suffolk and Dubai
Originally published in AR January 2008, this piece was republished online in March 2011
Some time ago I found myself returning to a well inhabited dining room in a pub in Suffolk, England. I realised that not only did it serve some of the best fish and chips on the East Coast, but that the room was filled with a bevy of familiar and well known London architects, Cambridge architects, London musicians, philosophers, art worthies and suchlike. Perhaps, hundreds of years earlier, it would have hosted the shakers and movers of the flourishing local community, except that the adjoining city of Dunwich had fallen into the sea, leaving the pub resting against hedgerows rather than streets.
Below, a series of lazy creeks and small rivers run between occasional monuments of high elegance: those grand Suffolk churches that afforded an architecture of considerable sophistication on the back of a flourishing Medieval wool trade. The wool business diminished and the sea encroached, but a collection of spirited minds still seem to enjoy the irony and pleasantness of it all.
I was strangely reminded of all this on my recent introduction to the very distant creeks and sands of Dubai. I could even expect to find some of those same London architects - as well as their New York or Berlin buddies - trooping into a foodie restaurant along with any number of imported cultural figures: opening a college here, establishing a theatre there and helping the city to announce itself to the world as a cradle for ideas. Of course, my train of thought could soon extend to a certain predictive irony; if oil is the new wool and computer-fashioned precast concrete the new stone carving and flint knapping, might the whole thing not slide mysteriously into the sea one day and its curious, polyglot citizenry fizzle away, merely bequeathing a few strange tales? Perhaps of architects seeking riches, inventing mysteries, searching for clues, searching for significance among the shifting sands?
Such places collect ironies. Not far from Dunwich lies Orford, where a few months later the Japanese architect Itsuko Hasegawa came over to make the sets for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Curlew River’, the connection being that this Suffolk music drama had been based upon a Japanese noh play. Somehow, folding a culture upon a culture thrives in a territory that is slightly spooky, especially where there is a density of quizzical minds at work. Within a heathland that has become layered with forests, absorbing the coincidences of musical genius and painterly talent means that an unexpected lane will lead to a high tech recording studio, or a long, low malthouse will disclose a symphony orchestra in rehearsal. Behind the next hedgerow some philosophers are comparing the wine being grown in the field beyond with that lying in their cellars, while their neighbours behind another hedge are tuning-up racing cars.
In the same way, Dubai sits there as the plaything of a privileged world - with its hinterland scaled-up some dozens of times. The achievers of Pakistan or Iran rub shoulders with the Germans and Brits - though noh plays or the English watercolour tradition are unlikely to be their tipple. Yet one suspects that when Dunwich thrived and the sheepskins were being packed into those old sailboats, life might have had a similar hustle and bustle about it.
Does our present architectural response have to push us back into the middle? Does this energetic, opportunist, enterprising new metropolis need to reproduce the blandest of quotations from Miami, Singapore or Dusseldorf? A life in the sun (or dextrously escaping from it) could surely result in some new activities and new typologies. If there is no need for hedgerows to shield the eccentric or the original enterprise, then couldn’t those zany artificial palm-tree peninsulas and artificial oases host some form of studio/ capsule/ artificial hidey-tree? Somehow, I don’t believe that my strange cross-recollection is entirely off the wall. History is too often treated as a one-way service. Cities are too often studied as a one-value system. Strange little places are too often dismissed as irrelevant to the urban experience.
One day the world will become bored by the en-suite bathroom, grilled sea bass, Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, undulating concrete ribbons, the Picasso print, the Time Out recommendation (and yes, of course there’s a Time Out for Dubai).
Interestingly, those rather older escape cities - Kyoto, Aspen, Poona, Vancouver Island or St Ives - have the reputation of attracting eccentrics. So how about a different kind of ‘Club Med’ for Dubai: reduced rates for inventors, composers, parrot-stuffers? And the architecture for such an enterprise? Well, the palm tree peninsulas are a start. Aren’t they ?