marcus westbury

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Gehry’s Mirage

October 26th, 2009 by marcus


I SPENT a day last month searching for a mirage in the desert. Oil-rich Abu Dhabi plans to get into culture in a big way. It is building a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim and Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre as a pair of brand-name museums the likes of which the world has never seen.

It is part of a $US27 billion commercial, residential and leisure mega-project on a reclaimed and reinforced area of low-lying wetland called Saadiyat Island.

The project is, to say the least, ambitious. It is the pinnacle of the recent trend that has gradually blurred the line between starchitect-designed mega-museum and theme park. The Guggenheim has become synonymous with franchising its name and collection. It has done well in Bilbao and somewhat less well in Las Vegas (where it closed last year). The Guggenheim either has plans or museums in places as far afield as Vilnius, Venice, Guadalajara, Berlin and now the United Arab Emirates.

For the Louvre, this is a new step. Internationally franchising its brand has been fiercely controversial in France. Debates have raged about the meaning and role of art, French nationalism, and even the idea of putting a museum of largely Western art in what is a comparatively conservative Arab nation. Regardless of the debates, the $US1.3 billion being paid by the Emirates has smoothed the way considerably.

I wanted to see it in progress. To get there from neighbouring Dubai is an interesting experience. My driver, Mustafa – one of the many subcontinental migrant labourers who are the backbone of the economic miracle – has never heard of any Guggenheim or Louvre or even of the planned Saadiyat development. Mega-projects are a dime a dozen here. To get there, we pass the world’s tallest building, the extraordinary Palm Islands, the world’s largest shopping mall, and a long series of roadside signs boldly proclaiming a development that is ”adding 70 kilometres of waterfront to Dubai” and noting that it is ”twice the size of Hong Kong”.

The pace is relentless. It seems that normal economic concepts such as supply and demand are inverted here. Money is the product in supply and ways to spend it are in demand. It totally messes with any sense of ”sustainability” as I’ve always understood it. The whole collection of mega-projects is continuously threatened by the sand or the sea or any number of financial or human forces.

As Mustafa explains the ambitions to bid for the 2020 Olympics, I recall a 1960s video I once saw promoting an Olympic bid from a then-confident Detroit. I find it much harder to imagine a scenario in which all this survives, rather than any of the many ways it could end, either gracefully or spectacularly.

Clearly, the imperative to diversify from oil to financial hubs, airlines, mega-malls, mega-towers and mega-museums is driven by the ambition to sustain this place. Perhaps it will work or perhaps it will all go to seed in a way that would dwarf the ruined remnants of today’s Detroit – Motown no longer.

When we finally arrive at Saadiyat Island, it is still a desert wasteland. Due to a rare holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan, it is a construction site without much construction. I walk right to the edge and wander around. There are no obvious signs yet of the signature Gehry architecture, there is no bold proclamation of a coming mega-museum, just a giant ”Welcome to Saadiyat Island” sign pointing to the road out.

I am fascinated by all this precisely because it is the opposite of everything I believe and have experienced. That is a slightly different thing to saying this is all wrong or misguided, more that it is premised on an assumption I’ve never had – that there’s always plenty of money.

Mustafa then shows me the shopping malls and glitzy hotels. It looks as if the United Arab Emirates is grasping at all the prestige it can buy. From sports stars to expensive cars and luxury brands, the place is rapidly acquiring any signs of success. Why not a Louvre and a Guggenheim as an extension of that?

Somewhere there is a real culture here, but I can’t find it. The whole place could be a melting pot of cultures and characters. Yet they remain separate. The potential for cultural fusion is palpable but it is a generation or two short. It will require a lot more than money. It will require the imagination to realise that not all things can be bought complete, contained and fully formed.

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  • 1 Uselesslines Oct 30, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    I’ve always been fascinated by the construction boom in the UAE. Thanks for an interesting read! Funnily enough, the final line of your post also reminds me a little of attitudes towards building Canberra, with the government declaring areas to be ‘arts precincts’, in the hopes that they will wake up tomorrow and it will be so.