Masdar City is cool.

13 Feb

If you haven’t heard of Masdar City yet, you will soon. Time Magazine has done a piece on it. It’s a city of the future being planned not far from the airport of Ab* D*abi. The goal is to create a self-sustaining, carbon-neutral city.  Internal combustion engines are forbidden past the perimeter wall of the city (yes, it is a gated community), and stairs are given prominence in the design as a means of encouraging exercise.  Cutting edge technology (magnetized pavement) and ancient building know-how (streets angled for shade, wind towers) are incorporated into a development that is currently a research campus but that has much larger ambitions.  MIT runs various programs out of the campus that’s been built, where you can see a display announcing what is going to happen. What is going to happen is a whole city.

Almost the best part is getting there. I mean after you get out of your car or a taxi at the parking lot. That’s where you pick up an electric car that drives you to campus, driverless but not on tracks. It has tires that roll on pavement, but it is magnetized pavement. Don’t they look cute?

When you get out you are on campus, which is a pretty small cluster of buildings surrounding two plazas. The best part was the wind tower.  This thing manages to cool an outdoor space, in the middle of the desert, by redirecting winds downward. It adds mists when necessary.  We sat in its vicinity and sure enough, we felt very cool.

Here’s part of the inside of the tower and a few of the other buildings.

Technological wizardry aside, it was just really nice to see some architecture designed with intelligence and taste, rather than developer-driven towers or the tacky flashy buildings one sees here and there throughout the rest of the city.

Fish-sellers, fish-buyers, fish-eaters. Muscat.

11 Feb

There is one thing that looks like it can’t have been done much differently than this for the last few millennia, probably on this very spot.

The only way to follow that was with some grilled fish, steps away.

Muscat, land of substitutions.

11 Feb

This is the Sohar, a boat named after the hometown of the famous Omani seafarer, Ahmed bin Majid. The boat is a replica of one sailed by Abdullah bin Gasm in the mid-8th century to Guangzhou in China. It was built in the boat yards of Sur from the bark of over 75,000 palm trees and four tons of rope. Not a single nail was used in the construction.

That’s all from the Lonely Planet guide. It reminded me of the Ship of Theseus, a relic of the Athenian state. In this ship the hero-king Theseus had returned from Crete together with the Athenian youths, destined for sacrifice, whom he had rescued from the Minotaur. According to Plutarch, the ship “was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus [that is, late fourth century bce], for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

Much of the architecture could be described in these terms. Old seeming but spanking new.  New, but looking like it must be based in something old. Everything looked like a substitution.

And then there’s the Royal Palace. I really didn’t know what to make of it, but I loved it.  Maybe someone can tell me what it is substituting for, but in this case I think it might really be one of a kind.

“Just say Oman and you start relaxing.” (That should be their motto.)

11 Feb

I just got back from Muscat, Oman. This isn’t a diary so I won’t go on about details of the trip. The main thing is:  go.  It’s beautiful there. You are on an ancient fishing and seafaring coast. The Indian Ocean is placid and warm. Spices and beautiful fish continue to flow in from the sea, as they have for centuries. The country was legendary for the production of frankincense–frankincense!–and the smell of it still pervades the place.  (That globular white structure near the point in the photo above is a monumental incense burner.) And Muscat’s got geologically recent–rough, jagged–mountains all around it, framing the coast.  I mean, look!

The capital city of Muscat has a layered history:  early to embrace Islam, conquered in 1507 by Portuguese seeing a chance to control the eastern trade routes, ruled by Muslim dynasties since the 17th century, and for the last 30 years plus under the remarkably enlightened rulership of Sultan Qaboos. Plus the people are really friendly and relaxed.  Especially the pedestrians…

“Well, it looks like it’s going to be just palm trees…”

11 Feb

A few days ago I went to an oasis. A real oasis in the desert. It smelled beautiful and was 20 degrees F cooler than outside it. A Dutch woman entered at the same moment as we did but after fifty steps she said, “Well, it looks like it’s going to be just palm trees” and left. Who walks into an oasis and leaves after five mins. saying oh, just palm trees? We walked through it for an hour. It was that big. The sight of hundreds and hundreds of palm trees extending mistily into the distance on all sides is unimaginably restful. Then the oasis ended and it was a dusty desert parking lot and indifferent people. Cue Verdi Prati and cry a little.

This was Al Ain. An oasis just where you want it to be if you are trying to cross this point of the Arabian peninsula. It’s been used for centuries. In fact there are some structures around here that are 4500 years old. Like this one, believed to be a tomb, which is pretty much my Flintstones fantasy of a stone age monument.

It even has figurative decoration, and it is just what you would want decoration from this period to look like. Two humans and two ibexes in a huddle.

The exhibition industry, institutionalized.

6 Feb

Here is a visualization of Jean Nouvel’s Louvre, planned for the culture island here. It is, well, I would call it sublime but it is the opposite, really. Sublime suggests transcendence, a change of state from solid to airy, whereas Nouvel’s whole conception is submersion in the shade. You move in the mottled light beneath the netted, perforated dome into a sub-world where most of the structures are half immersed in the water of the Persian Gulf. What a strange and appropriate metaphor!

One way to think about the iteration of the Louvre that are being planned here is to imagine three speeds of exhibition.  The slowest is that of the permanent collection (yes, they are actually collecting for these sites);  the mid-tempo is the continual cycling of works of art from the motherships for extended loans; and the prestissimo of the program of temporary exhibitions that will bring works of art from all sorts of other places through here. (The Guggenheim will only have two speeds because its collection will be focused on contemporary art, not “classical modern” as at Guggenheim New York.) The “permanent collections” brought together  here will also be available for loan to temporary exhibitions elsewhere.

The dominant idea is “the dissemination of the real.” Works of art have to be real, authentic, to be valuable. They can’t be copies of Rembrandts. That is the premise of the art museum as an institution.  And yet they have to be made to move, at something like the rate of the digital images and video signals we rely on every day. So we have an effort to “speed up” works of art. These museums are designed to be places of the dissemination of the real.

On the way out of the exhibit we came across another exhibit, incongruously displayed in the hotel lobby. Another maquette in fact, another exercise in futurology, in this case a future that never came to pass.  Could it be?  Yes, it is!  It’s the model for Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International!

Typically enough, I had a moment of art-world déja-vu: I had seen this very model a year ago in the Shafrazi Gallery in New York.  (This is a model replica of the original of 1920, built in Sweden in the 1960s.) I guess it is on the exhibition circuit. But, oh, how the exhibition industry trades in ironies! As the text next to the exhibit (cribbed from the Shafrazi press release) helpfully explains, the projected structure was intended to stand 1300 feet (tall as the Empire State Building!) and to serve as the headquarters of the Communist International in the birthplace of the Russian Revolution, Petrograd. The slant of 23.5 degrees corresponds to the tilt of the earth’s axis. The massive structure was never built. Utopia never came to pass. But now (for a limited time only) you can admire the model on the site of the new projected utopia, born of the alliance of culture and capitalism.

An island of culture (and resorts).

6 Feb

As you may know, Ab* D*abi is determined to make itself a center not only of business but of culture.  A Louvre, a Guggenheim, a National Museum, a Performing Arts Center, and a Maritime Museum are being built in somewhat close proximity to one another.  You will be able to walk around the shore of the island and visit one after the other. The designers are not only starchitects, but A-list starchitects: they are, respectively, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, and Tadao Ando.

In other words, being here now is an exercise in futurology.  In two different places (both hotels) you can visit exhibitions explaining the whole vision and project, and see large scale maquettes of the plans for these cultural centers, like this one:

Here is a detail showing you, from nearest to farthest, Hadid’s neo-Futurist Peforming Art’s Center, Nouvel’s spaceship Louvre, and Gehry’s lego-blocks-gone-wild Guggenheim:

The logic is as follows. It is not enough to be one of the richest nations on earth. It is necessary to be a center of culture.  Culture is very, very thin on the ground here.  There are some interesting remnants from the Neolithic period, but otherwise, for centuries, it has been impermanent dwellings in the desert around here. That is, until the oil boom of the last four or five decades. As the very notion of “culture serving national identity” is a western one, a brand if you will, the tokens of western culture itself need to be imported. Now it happens that western cultural institutions–museums–are very, very strapped for cash. But over the last couple of decades they have realized that they have the ability to leverage their collections, and their auratic brand. And that is what they are doing. So this part of the world gets what it needs–art and cultural cachet–and the western institutions get what they need–cash. It really is that simple. And it may work. The presence of these cultural institutions may really change the landscape here, and alter the profile of this place in the eyes of the rest of the world. What good it does for the western institutions, besides addicting them to a business model of cultural holdings, I’m not sure.

However, apparently all constructions toward this dream have slowed since the downturn…

The younger brother.

3 Feb
Compared to its mature sibling to the west, D*bai is the younger, profligate brother, chomping on a cigar, a girl under each arm. I admit, so far I like the cigar chomper better. The logic is clearer. The buildings are much more impressive. Here is a good read on “him”.
However, there are downsides to being a spendthrift. As everyone knows, “he” had to be bailed out by older brother during the financial crisis. Also, developers are not really thinking much about infrastructure as they rush madly to build their towers, and the result is the same as it always is:  there’s shit in the water. The septic systems just aren’t designed for all these people. Parents keep their kids away from public fountains.
Later that evening I had dinner with a few nice people, including my friend Bobby Worth, who was just back from Iran and was filing this story for the Times about the Iranian effort to rebrand the Arab Spring as an “Islamic Awakening.” All the talk over dinner was about gender relations in the Middle East, the fundamental question, it seems, the one that affects everything. Religion and politics are ways of dealing with the gender issues. More on that later.

OK, that was a mall.

3 Feb

I took the bus to D*bai.  A commissioned car would have been about $100.  The bus cost $3.  That settled it.  Also, I wanted to see what the people who rode the bus were like. They seemed to be more of the elusive middle class that does live here.

I had studied the map and when the bus made a first stop, I thought, this can’t be far from my hotel, so I got off, got a cab, told him my hotel, and the cabbie said, “It’s right there.” Across the intersection. So I apologized and got out and walked it. Still it takes ten minutes when you are dealing with a major traffic clover that wasn’t designed to be negotiated by pedestrians. But after making it across most of the traffic, I saw this:

Not every day do you get off the bus and see the tallest building in the world.

I checked in and took a cab to the D*bai mall. In its crudest form, this is the logic that underlies everything I saw. We provide oil, for which you pay lots of money; we do magic tricks in the desert with it, and you pay more money to come watch them.

I saw pampered children skating in an ice rink the size of the ones used for professional hockey games.

I saw sharks and six foot skates (I think that’s what they were) swimming around in an aquarium two storeys high and one block long.

I saw a blonde in a flouncy mini dress standing next to a woman in a black niqab, both watching a model stride down a runway.

El tango hacía su voluntá con nosotros y nos arriaba y nos perdía y nos ordenaba y nos volvía a encontrar. J.L. Borges

2 Feb