Dubai and Sicily – growing old gracefully

Towers at Barsha adjoining Dubai Marina

Travelling in the weeks leading up to Christmas was interesting as it allowed informal cultural comparisons between Sicily and Dubai. Last month I was standing alongside the water at Dubai Marina, a spectacular and very impressive melange of towers, contemporary construction, neon light and retail outlets. It’s a new and artificial inlet that frequently appears as a backdrop in Dubai’s publicity and was created, I suspect, simply because it could be. At night the coffee-shops and cafés that border the promenade are filled with the conversation of the dispossessed and translocated of the Arab Spring and the air is apple-scented with the smoke of shisha. Nonetheless, it still manages to feel a lot less Middle Eastern than one might expect. The stainless steel and machined copings are as far removed as they could be from the worn quay faces of the harbours of Marsala and Mazara dell Vallo in the south-west of Sicily and the irony is that those towns also formed the bridgehead for an Arab influx that, unlike in Dubai, brought with it a culture and style of building that still characterises the region.

In Sicily you experience history and a built environment that has substance; a cultural background and a population that can trace its roots back to 800BC. In Dubai, the vista is one of a city-state that exudes such a redolence of newness and impermanence that one begins to doubt it might even be there on the next visit. In December the President announced that all homes in the northern Emirates less than twelve years old would be demolished and replaced with new and one anticipates that all the new buildings will be the same shape, same size and same colour. And probably similar to what you might see in Florida or on the Costa del Sol.

And so Dubai pushes on but is guilty of forgetting one or two minor details in its headlong rush to cement a permanent presence in the 21st century. Thirty years ago the buildings we designed took on a form that reflected the local climate and traditions while meeting the exacting standards that were used in the West. [Much to the chagrin, I might add, of finance departments in our clients’ offices that were trying to keep costs low]. With more questionable probity and a worrying reflection on the greed all too commonly seen here we have recently discovered – well, some of us knew already but it’s now in the public domain – that some of the material used in some of Dubai’s iconic towers isn’t fireproof. That’s bad news if you purchased an apartment off-plan and probably cause for some sleepless nights if you live above the first couple of floors. Talk now is of new fire regulations and improved vigilance but I wonder if my reverie at the Marina will prove prophetic – will they start taking the towers down when they’re twelve years old?