Why Israeli Architects Shouldn't Look to Dubai's Skyline for Inspiration

The gleaming skyscrapers of the UAE were designed aggressively, in disconnect from the local context and after architecture had already moved on. No wonder they’re admired in Israel

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Credit: Victor Fraile Rodriguez / Corbis
זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell
זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell

It’s not hard to imagine the hordes of Israeli tourists that will storm Dubai the moment it becomes possible to visit the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. If the thrilled reports filed by the Israeli journalists who have already been there are anything to go by, paradise awaits us, just a short flight away.

It’s very easy to be bowled over by the city of gleaming skyscrapers that happily embraces every tourist who show up with cash to add to the local coffers. But in the heat of the moment we seem to have forgotten the fact that behind the glimmering image and the impressive economic success lurk a plethora of pitfalls – especially for those who are prone to adopting ideas via the copy-paste method. There’s nothing new about that particular propensity: It’s been with us Israelis since the creation of our state, and it continues to exact a steep price even now. Indeed, one can’t look at some of the building proposals now under consideration by local planning committees without wringing one’s hands in despair.

At the same time, the UAE is a phenomenon that manifestly merits admiration. The speed with which a small country on the margins of the developing world morphed into a major player in the international arena is the result primarily of efficient professional management. The Emirate’s leaders for the past 50 years have concretely exemplified the realization of the concept of “progress.” Of course their country’s petroleum deposits underlay their success, but there are other countries whose natural treasures have not helped extricate them from a dire fate.

The UAE has exploited to the hilt the potential offered by advanced technologies and the blossoming of global capitalism. The winds of neoliberalism of the late 20th century have also been warmly welcomed in the Islamic kingdom. Its conservative leadership has been adept too at adopting the “Western” values of rationalism, pragmatism and universalism as a basis for their sophisticated development of infrastructure and the successful effort to attract foreign investments.

The UAE’s investment in architecture has also had its part in a well-planned campaign to build the country’s public relations. An international team of top architects was given a free hand to forge its advanced image, which could then be used as an attractive source for drawing investment and global tourism. Hence the construction of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower, which at 828 meters is both the world’s tallest building and a calling card for a country with sky-high ambitions.

However, before Israeli tourists begin gasping in wonder at the sight of the city’s glittering towers, it’s worth noting that there’s another side to this shiny coin. The execution of the whole enterprise is certainly deserving of emulation, but the UAE as a whole should not be taken as a source of inspiration. It is under the rule of an authoritarian regime, fewer than 20 percent of its residents enjoy citizenship, and it maintains Islamic culture in its rigid patriarchal version. In a country without a free media, it’s also difficult to know what’s going on in the backyard, and we must not lose sight of the price paid by the masses of foreign workers employed there who lack rights.

From a critical perspective, it is also important to reevaluate the model of rapid construction of cities based on high-rise buildings as an image for innovation. That model has been replicated vigorously in places from the Far East to the Gulf States. At the same time, this phenomenon, which began toward the end of the 20th century, also gained the theoretical backing of the top ranks of international architects. The “life force” of global capitalism and neoliberalism was adopted by star architects, notably Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, who were able to build modernist monuments in distant corners of the globe and acquire everlasting glory.

However, a conceptual shift occurred during the past two decades. A growing sensitivity to the damage caused by ecological issues, by corporate economics and by the disregard of social problems also fomented a change in global architectural discourse. From this perspective, the architecture embodied by the cities of the Gulf States embodies a worldview whose time has passed.

In this Dec. 31, 2016 file photo, the sun rises over the city skyline with the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, on a foggy day in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Credit: Kamran Jebreili,AP

Furthermore, the criticism being directed these days at the architecture that Dubai represents underscores the massive waste of resources there, the indifference to pedestrians (despite harsh weather conditions most of the year, there are in fact periods when one can be outside) and the destruction of the city’s natural landscape. The skyscrapers themselves, which consume endless amounts of energy, are intended above all as showcases. In many of them, as Haaretz’s Esther Zandberg has noted, their upper floors are not even in use – their only purpose is to break records. The UAE can be considered to be the “world record-holder in illusory height,” she writes.

All these facts should be enough to deter Israeli architects and entrepreneurs from flocking to Dubai and trying to import its antiquated ideas to a country whose energy sources are limited and whose past efforts at replicating ideas with the cut-and-paste method were a resounding failure. The most conspicuous example of applying imported architectural concepts and of planning dictated from above that ignores the local context, is the master plan for Israel by architect Arieh Sharon. Drawn up in the state’s early years, the plan went a long way toward determining Israel’s physical character. Its long-term influence on national life – social, economic and in the final analysis also political – can hardly be overestimated, and it merits re-examination today before a new wave of towering construction sweeps over us.

Fomenting a revolution

From this point of view, the huge catalog that accompanied the 2018 exhibition “Arieh Sharon: Architect of the State,” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, constitutes a valuable historical document that’s still relevant today. The catalog, which was compiled by the exhibition’s curator, Prof. Eran Neuman, at the time the head of Tel Aviv University’s school of architecture, offers a detailed and comprehensive portrayal of the work of the person who was very justifiably known as the “architect of the state.”

From a critical perspective, it is important to reevaluate the model of rapid construction of cities based on high-rise buildings as an image for innovation.

Sharon, who was born in what is now Poland, in 1900, immigrated at age 20 to Mandatory Palestine and became a member of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, but took a leave of absence to attend the Bauhaus school in Germany. Upon his return to Palestine in 1931, he became a central figure in the group of modernists who fomented a revolution in local architecture, which included envisioning Tel Aviv as the “White City.” A productive and successful architect, Sharon, who died in 1984, has some 600 projects to his name, some of which have become architectural icons. However, his principal contribution was heading the 170-member team that labored between 1948 and 1953 to prepare a National Master Plan for the young state.

This was a project of monumental scale. The mission was to draw up a comprehensive, multi-systemic vision for the physical development of a new state within a relatively short period and under limited budgetary conditions. Above all loomed the need to find rapid housing solutions for hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to Israel, while also dealing with the political issues of establishing ownership of empty areas, including those from which the Arab occupants had left or been expelled. The primary goal was to disperse the population, 80 percent of which, at the time of independence was concentrated along the Mediterranean coast, between Haifa and Tel Aviv. It was the newcomers who ended up bearing the brunt of the population dispersal project.

Reams have been written about the methods by which the planning team’s blueprint was realized and about the resulting social, economic and cultural scars, which still remain today – criticisms that have tarnished Sharon’s image. The 2018 exhibition catalog allows examination of his contribution from a wider perspective than the local one, and thereby also reveals a surprising overlap between the conceptual world from which the Israeli master plan sprang and the rapid establishment of the cities of the UAE.

Much justified criticism arises from the catalog over the mechanical way in which the plan was implemented and was transferred directly from the drawing board to reality, without attention being paid to the country’s residents themselves – to their wishes, their way of life and the cultures they brought from their countries of origin. The shaky economic foundations of the new communities, and the absence of sources of employment were important elements in the failure of the immigrant-settlement project .

Neumann’s catalog presents two main points of view on this subject. One of them, from sociologist Smadar Sharon, the architect’s granddaughter, does not spare her grandfather. According to her point of view, the master plan he spearheaded is an example of a total mobilization of the interests of the state and of a colonialist-orientalist approach. The aggressive policy underlying the plan was intended to wrest control over people and society in general. The remote, new communities created the separation between the center of the country and the periphery. They were built without a proper employment or transportation infrastructure, and gave rise to class and ethnic disparities. The residents, Sharon continues, were treated as cheap, mobile labor, and it’s superfluous to note the complete and outrageous disregard of the Arab population.

Arieh Sharon, at the Technion in Haifa, 1964. Credit: Collection of Yael Aloni

Curator Neumann himself presents a more balanced picture when he places Sharon and his life project in a historical context. Sharon, he writes, was a professional and a pragmatist who knew how to comport himself in his dealings with the political establishment. Despite his past as a kibbutz member who was educated at the Bauhaus, he was not carried away by utopian ideas, and sought to adapt the principles of universal modernism – such as distinguishing between different kinds of land use, and design according to repetition of prototypes – to the local context.

Source of all evil

The point of departure for the architect’s worldview, which is also addressed by Smadar Sharon, lies in his perception that big cities were the “source of all evil.” As Neuman points out, this was also the basis for the principle of population dispersal. Under the influence of those who conceived of the British garden cities, who tried to find solutions to the plight of crowded urban areas by reconnecting humanity with nature, Sharon believed that he was providing inhabitants with superior quality of life. That principle was one of the fundamental problems underlying the master plan for Israel.

Arieh Sharon and the members of his planning team, which included first-rate professionals, were captive to approaches that were already outdated at the time. This was a period in which opposition to the rigid modernist doctrine, opposition that had emerged even before World War II, only intensified. Ideas from earlier years, such as those of Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes, which played an important role in planning before the state’s establishment, were less relevant in the reality of the second half of the century. Indeed, the alienated desolation of the “development towns,” as they were called in the new country, that became the home of the new immigrants, did not exactly recall the pleasant little homes enveloped in green that these British planners dreamed of.

At the same time, and despite its shortcomings and problems that continue to exact a high price even today, Sharon’s master plan was a heroic project. It offered a quick fix for problems of distressed population groups in a country still reeling from tortuous birth pangs. Sharon did not design luxury towers for privileged classes and he did not build malls or expressways for fancy cars, as the efficient planners of Dubai have done. Still, Dubai and the Israeli plan were both based on problematic “modernist” worldviews that were already antiquated by the time they were realized. In both cases, planning rested on an approach that dictated a reality without reference to the local physical and human contexts.

But from a contemporary viewpoint, in which the moral dimension of architecture has once again become of crucial value, Sharon’s social vision is estimable. His failures notwithstanding, he did not worship the Golden Calf. In the historical reality of his age, he believed that he was doing his duty not only as a faithful patriot, but also in terms of realizing a social vision in which the state takes responsibility for all its citizens.