Dubai’s Fractal Development – with Todd Reisz

The Big Rethink: A Weekly Conversation

Photo by Johannes Schwaerzler on Unsplash

Before the Burj Khalifa and before the Palms, there was the British architect John Harris, tasked with drafting a town plan for Dubai in 1959. This would be the first iteration of the emirate’s fractal modern history — the visionary sheikh, the Western consultants, the “Dubai Model” and “Dubai Inc.” Architect and Showpiece City author Todd Reisz joins us to invert the myths of Dubai’s breakneck development and what today’s greenfield cities can learn from its successes and mistakes.

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Transcript

Greg Lindsay
And so with that Todd I would encourage you to come on out of the zoom hiding. And let’s begin.

Todd Reisz
That was amazing, Greg. Wow, you did such a great job on that.

Greg Lindsay
Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed my cheap tricks and green screens as well. Well, it’s great to have you in here. As I said, NewCities has this piece of the Greenfield Cities Alliance, which was created really as a support group for developers of the instant city. So it’s great to have you on here to talk a bit about the dark art and practice of building a city from scratch and really what we can learn from there.

But I guess the first question is, how did you get interested in the history of Dubai when you found archival documents that no one had really unearthed. And Dubai has really become this place where, no one really wanted to know the origins. It’s like if it’s too good to fact check, just print the legend. Just getting back to these, but you unpacked some of these original myths.

Todd Reisz
Yeah, it’s a process of unpacking. Um, Robert Vitalis wrote a book called America’s Kingdom, which was looking at Aramco and the development of basically company towns for Aramco by American‘s in Saudi Arabia. In the introduction to the book, he described it as reverse engineering. Like taking these things and literally taking them apart in order to see kind of how that happened. And I love that term, and so I constantly refer to it in describing what I’ve done. But also, like helping me keep on my own message, on my own path to what I needed for this project to become.

I got started as an architect. And so, the two books that you showed, Al Manakh and Al Manakh II, they were my introduction to Dubai and also to other cities of the Arabian Peninsula. And so I went there as an architect. I was there representing a company that was getting a lot of new projects and not necessarily projects that we’re going to get built, the projects that were bringing money in that were giving us chances to supposedly think big and think about the future. And I think one of the wonderful things about working with OMA AMO was this kind of commitment to the idea of context. Not necessarily this kind of old fashion way that context is taught in architecture school, more like social context; economic context; geopolitical context, and trying to really understand why these cities like Kuwait, like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, were suddenly online literally for us to learn about. And so my process of getting to know these cities was also the process of OMA getting to know them really.

Greg Lindsay
So how did you hook up then with OMA AMO in the beginning here? Let’s talk about your introduction to this because Al Manakh was really your way into this and you are one of those architects so to speak of those publications. So yeah, what was the particular thing that fascinated you about Dubai? In about, supposedly that lack of context, right, that’s another one of the great tropes of this that it was a truly tabula rasa landscape, which of course it wasn’t.

Todd Reisz
Right, it wasn‘t. Clearly not. And even though that is a kind of trope that some of the OMA projects used. That wasn’t kind of how the research project started. It really started with let’s find out what was there and why, why there was this interest in it just kept taking us further and further back. And in that process, we were working on a project to show the city of Dubai and other cities along the Gulf Coast in Venice Biennale, Architecture Biennale 2006. And so, we were just kind of trying very quickly, using post it notes and Photoshop, and Google, I don’t know if you remember how bad Google was in 2006. And simply, just there wasn’t much academic material either on these cities. It wasn’t, you know, we have access today so quickly to things like you know, Newsweek in 1985 today if you have some sort of access to university materials, university access, but then this wasn’t really the case. And so we were, just looking for what we could. And within the office, one of the team members put together that there were was one architect named John Harris. There was one slight mistake in your presentation, John Harris did not work with Halcro, he actually had to his own architecture company and Halcro was a larger engineering, planning company. And we found out John Harris was both the creator of the first town plan and the architect of the first sky scraper in the city.

So that was something that we represented in the exhibition and in the first Al Manakh book we featured John Harris, probably one of the first times since an early monograph was done on his work. That this story was told. That stuck with me, and so John Harris‘s son, Mark Harris, was a contact of mine, and I reached out and visited him a couple times in London. I just realized, seeing what there was within the Harris family’s archives. There’s a story that had to be told. So quit my job. I’ll write a book in one year. Twelve years later, the book is here. So yes, I‘m incredibly indebted to access to John Harris’s photographs, files, correspondence, his projects, through the Harris family, through Mark Harris. And also a lot of the material comes from public records, British public records. So most of the time spent on this project was in my home in Amsterdam and in London really, not a lot in Dubai.

Greg Lindsay
So, who was John Harris? Was John, is he the archetypal western consultant, is he the intellectual forefather of all the architects that have come through since with all their plans? And yeah, how did he define Dubai?

Todd Reisz
I mean he graduated from the architectural association, which today we associate with supposedly avant-garde design and the cutting edge of where architecture is today. But, I wouldn‘t really describe him as cutting edge. You know a lot of times when people see the work of the firm, they look at me like “what are you doing with this stuff?” You can‘t publish this. There’s nothing photogenic really attractive about it. And I just think that’s such the wrong way of looking at architecture. I think Architecture, writing about architecture has changed. You know, since I’ve started the book 12-13 years ago, where there is more interest in these kind of mundane topics of again, what actually effective architecture is. That’s what this is really what the body of work is. The firm was known for institutional work and specifically hospitals.

So you know, one of the first hospitals they do is in Doha. It’s the first major project that the firm had, and the firm at that point, really John Harris and his wife, Jill Harris, who eventually steps back from the firm, even before the Doha Hospital is completed. But in the process of getting these small projects in Dubai, he’s also getting these increasingly larger projects in Kuwait, in further in Southeast Asia, and then by the time Dubai is ready for a large hospital in the mid 70s. He has the resume to do it, and quite quickly too.

So that’s really the kind of, he was an effective architect and he knew how to build up a team of architects, who took over the design process, and the development process and he was really the one maintaining the relationships and also attracting the work, specifically keeping the relationship for example with Sheikh Rashid in Dubai. So, he was the first architect that Sheikh Rashid probably ever meets. In fact, the master plan that he gives to Sheikh Rashid is actually, arguably, the first time that Rashid ever sees a detailed map of the city. And so the first time he sees a map, he holds on paper, what is essentially a map of the near past and a map of the near future all in one document.

Greg Lindsay
So that raises the immediate question then, where does the Dubai Model begin? In the popular story it’s Sheikh Mohammed today who has the visions of what Dubai is and Sheikh Rashid is portrayed as the as the wise father figure who builds the port, who puts in the fundamental infrastructure, but it’s Mohammed who elevates that. If the moment of Dubai‘s realization starts there when Sheikh Rashid looks at the map. When does he begin to embrace the Dubai Model? And there’s a story in there, which I hope you‘ll tell, about his visit to America, which strikes me as the best Mad Men episode that was never made of his delegation coming to peak New York in the 1960s, and him being utterly exhausted by it. So there, disgusted by New York in the 60s, at the apogees of its power. Where do the origins of Dubai Inc begin?

Todd Reisz
Interesting enough. So something I cover in the book is perhaps the earliest moment we see the term Dubai Model. It’s actually used in in the late 50s. So posted in Dubai, is a British official from 1954 to when the British leave, and the UAE is created in 1971. And the kind of ranking official in Dubai had the title of political agent, so the second political agent who was stationed in Dubai was Peter Tripp and he talks about the Dubai Model. And, the Dubai Model at that point was actually the idea of, at first, the political agent was supposed to be overseeing relations and kind of keeping everything kind of in line between Abu Dhabi on one end of the Trucial coast and Russel Heima on the other. And the idea was that Dubai was actually the one that had the most chances of making a profit on trade, had the most evidence of municipal government at the time. And so his idea was to concentrate any development effort from the British government on Dubai, so the other Emirates would look upon Dubai and think, oh wow, we could be that as well. But it also came with the idea that, but no, those other Emirates will never be as good as Dubai because we’re not going to give any attention to them. So that that was the Model in the late 50s.

Greg Lindsay
And it’s so it’s a colonialist project from the very beginning of course, which again, never comes up in the official histories of this. That’s fascinating.

Todd Reisz
Um, that being said, what I love about the use of this term Dubai Model so early is that it then then kind of pulls it away from what it means today, because it’s a kind of slippery term. And, it’s one of many examples, when we talk about Dubai, something’s put out there, and the city’s champions can grab it and celebrate it and make a lot of money on it. And then up on the other side, the critics, the people who just want to see Dubai, described Dubai, as this thing that represents all the illnesses elsewhere, then they grab upon it too. It’s an example of this, a thing that’s kind of sloppily put out there. But then everybody pounces on, no matter from what angle they’re coming at it, Dubai Model is that, Dubai Inc is that.

The first time I see the term Dubai Inc used, was in the London Times, it may have been The Financial Times, but it was one or the other. And what’s interesting about its use then, is that it’s already being used to celebrate small governments. So already we had this kind of even before Thatcher is in government, this is probably the mid 70s when it was used. A lot of British commentators were looking at Dubai, before Thatcher, and saying, look at the things that they’re able to achieve with little to no government interference. And so that’s what Dubai Inc is already then.

Greg Lindsay
That’s also amazing, because instead of being like the product of neoliberalism, it’s the inspiration of neoliberalism. Again, inverting cause and effect in the in the official story of that, that’s remarkable,

Todd Reisz
Even Prince Philip. So, you know, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visit the Gulf in 1979.

Greg Lindsay
On Concord, I believe.

Todd Reisz
Yeah, they arrived in Saudi Arabia on Concord. So, again, that’s a sales pitch, right? Because it had just gone on market. And then, they eventually arrived in Dubai. And they cut the ribbon on the World Trade Center, which is the skyscraper designed by John Harris. And, a video that I saw, actually in the offices of Halcro one day was, they were asking Prince Philip in Oman about his travels through the Gulf, what he found, and instead of talking about these wonderful desert nighttime dinners and the cruises up and down, desert rivers or whatever. He talks about Dubai. He says it’s just amazing what they’re getting done. He’s seeing this giant Port of Jebel Ali, he‘s seen the dry docks, he‘s seen all of this work that British engineers are doing. And he‘s just like it’s amazing what’s happening in Dubai, when everything gets stuck in the UK and basically talking about unions, he’s talking about approvals and regulation. But already celebrating Dubai‘s ability to avoid all that.

Greg Lindsay
Well there was a question, I say I haven‘t completed the book, so I don’t know where you raise it, but when is the first zone appear in Dubai? Because of course Dubai is also seen as the apogee of taking special economic zone, which of course goes back a ways and then is associated with Shenzhen, but like Dubai is the one that took that and basically built the city of zones. So when did they embrace the zone model? Because here it sounds like they’re incepting that idea into the UK.

Todd Reisz
Yeah. You know, a kind of running theme in the book is the idea of the zone and it’s not a zone at the beginning. I talked about in one of the very earliest chapters, Harris’s first architectural project, which is the Al Maktoum Hospital and the Al Maktoum hospital, I mentioned, there was a kind of barracks hospital existing at the time, but more valuable than the hospital itself was the fence around it. Which was preserving land for future development. And it wasn’t protecting doctors and nurses from desert marauders coming in and stealing their medications or whatever, but it was there literally to protect land around it from speculation and from people developing it into something else. It was literally preserving it for future development of a hospital. And to me, that is very much tied to this idea of zone. And it already begins to create the system of how Dubai developed. But also how architecture already was working, how planning was working. They already have this idea of the site. The site is defined by kind of delineation with geographical coordinates. And within those geographical coordinates, a certain number of people are given licence to do what needs to happen. There‘s a kind of narrative shift within and without, and outside that fencing. And that‘s already happening, that happens with the creation of the political agency before the hospital, it happens with the hospital. And then with the hospital, we have the fence also then begins to describe the financial limits, the political limits  of what happens within that zone. The funny thing about free zones though, the free zone idea, it begins to get mentioned rather early, like in the 70s. One of Sheikh Rashid‘s advisors, hears it being described for Singapore, and he just starts, they talk about a billion dollars for this free zone, but they never talk about what it is. It‘s just a bunch of money, for an undescribed lot of land. And to the point that Dubai is a free zone, it doesn’t matter. It’s what I love about it, is that it’s just completely already at the very beginning, already kind of self criticism of the free zone itself. That it’s essentially a marketing gimmick and it’s used to deploy any sort of financial or even political maneuvering that’s necessary. But it‘s essentially, it’s not a thing.

Greg Lindsay
But that’s exactly the language, again we can see the history rhyming because I’m sure you’ve heard it from some consultants who had been working with Singapore and that now echoes all the way through to the so called Ministry of McKinsey over in Saudi Arabia where the consultants are now writing economic policy. So we can again see the echos of this.

Todd Reisz
Yeah, of what you called fractals. I think that was a very good way or the echo chamber, right? It just reproduces itself.

Greg Lindsay
But my question is what did John Harris particularly do right? You know, one of the things that is interesting of him working off a very minute Dubai in 1959 and drawing up town plans, is can we build cities from scratch and how do we plan for the future? So I’ve been thinking about, the Paul Romer over a decade ago proposed charter cities, which is basically the zone, only taken up a whole other level. And he was working with folks at NYU like Sally Angel, who‘s written books about how do we design for massive urban expansion. And their ideas come back to like, we‘ll delineate the roads, delineate the major corridors. Sort of what you were speaking about with the hospital, right, put up the fences to protect the critical infrastructure and let the city plan itself. Their ideas have not been put into effect quite yet. But, what was Harris able to achieve with the town plan in guiding Dubai‘s growth? Because it did sprawl into a ton of zones. I mean, is it possible to plan for the future at the kind of scales that we now expect from a city? Or is it destined to be this welter of different marketing gimmicks?

Todd Reisz
I mean, I want to answer your question in two ways. One is feeling of the successes of Harris but also telling you about where the firm wasn’t successful. And I think where they weren’t successful probably leads to kind of what you were talking about, specificity something like Paul Romer. And these kind of larger scale attempts at planning really, or design. You know, the master plan, he‘s an architect, so his training as a planner wasn’t more than, I don’t know this officially, but he had, I think, some sort of certification as in town planning. And town planning existed before Word War II, but it‘s really in the reconstruction that there’s this narrative that town planning is required in the UK. And so we see this idea of the neighborhood unit. You know, it’s floating in the US, and it’s also floating in the UK and it arrives in Dubai via the town plan. And so Harris beat out an experienced town planning firm for the Dubai project largely because he was eager for the work, and largely because he answered his mail. That’s the advantage of going with the young, small startup, right, they‘re eager. And so that’s how we got the work.

And so the town plan doesn’t really, you know the road system gets built as it‘s drawn, but the city he describes is almost dead at the moment he issued it.He saw it as a new town, as a one story buildings spread out across the city. It didn’t happen. There was just too much to be made in selling land so early in 1960. But I think, going back to the idea of like, of consultants working within delineated spaces, working within the boundaries that they’re created , we start to see these boundaries getting larger and larger. And Harris becomes a professional at creating campus hospitals, which were a thing in the early 70s-late 60s in the UK. Sheikh Rashid visits Wexham Hospital outside of London to see his campus hospital could look like. And Harris becomes very aware of how you develop, from the UK working with British professionals, how you literally kind of set up a system where you can ship all the supplies, ship all the professional knowledge that you need to do that elsewhere. And the idea was then to reproduce that over and over again throughout the world.

At the same time, this kind of use of expertise, computer software starts to come in, but also the agglomeration of architecture firms . And, you know, you’ve mentioned KAKE, you‘ve mentioned, NEOM, I mean, we associate these with large scale architecture, building management, engineering firms, Aecom being one of these. And how did Aecom get big? It did it by just buying up, buying up, and buying up more and more firms, planning firms, architecture firms, engineering firms, management firms. And it seems like, the boundaries of these projects, they get as large as the consultants can manage them. And we’re kind of at that edge of where, how big can they go? You know, Paul Romer, he, as you demonstrated, he kind of overestimated. Like the economist trying to kind of define the edges of his expertise of geographical limits. I mean, right. So, I think that’s kind of what happens, the firm just doesn’t grow like that. And so, you pulled up the page from Al Manakh introducing and we started to find these firms that were growing, huge firms, there were Canadian firms American firms but also Lebanese firms H, you know H grew to be a serious regional heavyweight through work in the Gulf, and especially in Dubai. DH is another one. So it’s not just the ones we think of in London, and New York, and Chicago, it’s a kind of international concept really at this point.

Greg Lindsay
We have time for one more question but yeah since you brought it up with Aecom. I’d love your thoughts on the future trajectory of the Dubai Model, of Dubai itself, of the Dubai Model, of the firms that design it, because as you point out, we can trace a line right from John Harris, startup architect, to Aecom. And I say the only part I would dispute you is, is it the size of the firm that dictates the project or it’s the size of the project that then dictates the size of the firms and the vast integration of consulting and engineering services into these firms. I mean, we’ve reached the point where like, I’m sure you’ve seen it, I’ve seen with my own eyes under NDA, like the young consultants copying and pasting into spreadsheets cells best practices learned from other countries to define these new projects from scratch. Like the levels of abstraction are required, are crazy on one hand, and then the levels of completion of expertise required. I guess my question is, is there an upper limit on this perhaps? I mean, NEON is going to push it, it’s the size of Belgium. Where do you see it, does it collapse, does it continue to integrate or what?

Todd Reisz
But it also it starts to kind of cave in on itself. I mean, NEOM in some ways is completely ridiculous. I mean, look at what we know about it, and how we know about it. Actually, there are only a few real articles out there that are looking at what is happening. No one knows. The Wall Street Journal, does kind of undercover, you know, we’ve seen documents created by McKinsey and Oliver Wyman and who is Boston Consulting, 2300 pages, and you’re like, no, it’s probably not 2300 pages, it’s probably 2300 slides on a PowerPoint. I mean that’s how these things are.

Greg Lindsay
That’s the Gulf. It’s a rendering ,it’s a fly through, it’s all those things. Keller Easterling has done that so well, as well. You know we go out to space, we then zoom in, we say it’s the center of the world, animated fly through. Yeah, but the powers of hundreds of thousands of lives watching it.

Todd Reisz
But we also just don’t know what it is. We know that there’s a lot of movement of money around, and these firms are really being paid and they really are like, again this is what you call fractal. And just the distribution of ideas and words, just words, like you could almost become a kind of linguist. And following this, and tracing the use and development and the etymology of words. For one example NEOM was a smart city and now it’s a cognitive city, you know, why is it a cognitive city, because that’s just the new word that everyone’s using to either scare us all or to inspire us all. You choose which side you’re on. And I guess, it’s just, it’s a tough thing because we can’t take our eye off the ball. But at the same time, we can’t take it for what we’re being told it is. It’s almost like, it becomes a kind of fantasy, no matter what, whether you see the fantasy as a kind of fantastical thing, that is inspiring and telling you about the future, or it’s this kind of dystopian nightmare that was going to come about after all. You brought up like Dave Eggers A Hologram for the King, which some people think, it’s kind of this orientalist story. The orientalism is real, you know that’s like Alan Clay. I‘ve met dozens of Alan Clays in my life in the Gulf. These are kind of, slightly over middle-aged men, who are trying once again to build up a pension. And who just get in to this racket, ready to, as you said, copy and paste not just young startups, I call them more like old man startups. Just trying to hang on for 10 more years to pay for college education for the second or third child. That’s also the kind of motivation behind these projects. So, we just have all these layers of interests, that are in the end giving us promises of glow in the dark sand and waterfalls in the desert. It’s really difficult to keep your eye on that ball, but I think we need to keep it on.

Greg Lindsay
Alright, one last quick question then for you Todd. You’ve spent years on Al Manakh covering Dubai as it emerged, you’ve now gone back into its history. Is there a third book in your trilogy or quadrilogy, I suppose of sorts. Like what is the last remaining or the next remaining untold story of the Gulf and Gulf urbanism?

Todd Reisz
I don’t know if I’ll talk about the Gulf. This was something that I really felt like I needed to get off. I needed to finish this. And for me it’s not so much about I need to write something, but I really felt with the Al Manakh projects, I was very lucky about the timing, that OMA was interested in these projects and OMA had the capability to attract attention for those projects. And then with this book, I had access to archives that no one yet had access to. And for me, there was this, I was compelled to write this, and I need that feeling again if I ever. I’ve told myself many times, you know this, like writing a book is complete self flagellation. So, if I’m going to do it, I have to feel compelled. What that would be, I don’t know. I’m interested in the role of the architect and the kind of mythologies of the architect. And the Gulf, and specifically Dubai has allowed me to see much more clearly than ever, what those roles are so maybe something along those lines.

Greg Lindsay
Right. Well thank you so much for joining us Todd.

Todd Reisz
Yeah, well thanks for having me Greg. This is fun.

Greg Lindsay
Well, great. Well, for those of you watching. Thank you so much for joining us. By the time you are watching this, it will most likely be on the other side of the US presidential election. We’ll be back soon In November with some extra thematic episodes dealing with various aspects of US policy, but for now I hope you enjoy this little bit of counterprogramming here in the rest of the world. Take care and we’ll see you again soon.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai