Saturday, February 7, 2004

False Creek in the Arabian desert

False Creek in the Arabian desert
Except for the dome-like fins on the towers, Dubai Marina is a virtual clone of Vancouver’s famous waterfront community
Trevor Boddy, Vancouver Sun
Saturday, February 07, 2004

DUBAI - Set at the edge of an incongruous lake carved out of the desert, a half-dozen thin apartment towers rose 20 to 40 stories out of the dusty ground, each sprouting from a continuous row of townhouses. I was standing in the middle of a hive of construction cranes in the desert outside Dubai with Blair Hagkull and Robert Lee, both former Vancouverites and senior managers for Concord Pacific Developments, when the realization of what I was looking at began to dawn.

“Take a good look at the shoreline, then tell me what it reminds you of,” said Lee, then general manager of development for Dubai’s EMAAR Properties. I stared at the water’s edge, then had the twinge of a thrill when I saw what looked like a familiar seawall along its edge. When I recognized the familiar forms of the artificial bay, I couldn’t contain my excitement.

“I can’t believe it — you guys have rebuilt False Creek, full-scale, out here in the middle of the Arabian desert.” I turned to a laughing Hagkull and gave him my critical verdict: “It’s Very False Creek!”

It’s actually known as Dubai Marina, but it’s a virtual clone of Vancouver’s own little inlet, created by carving away 49 hectares of sand, lining the depression with stone and filling it with 227 million litres of water diverted from the sea. I soon learned that many more Vancouver-style condominium towers are planned for the site — a squadron worth up to $2 billion, much larger than our Concord Pacific development that inspired it.

The only clue that this was Dubai and not Davie or Drake Street was the dome-like fins at the top of the condo towers. I would later learn that Islamic religious authorities had rejected more fully rounded earlier versions of these as too closely resembling mosques. Dubai Marina is “Very False Creek” in both senses of the phrase: an intensification of the Vancouver original and very false looking to anyone who knows and loves its source. In an era when all architectural history is plundered in Las Vegas’ fantastic new constructions — and even Dubai boasts a saturnine Planet Hollywood — it still seemed strange for me to find so perfect a clone of a Canadian city here.

But what is amazing is not just that Canadian expertise built a mirror image of a prominent part of Vancouver so far away, but what this borrowing says about our city’s place in the world. Dubai Marina reveals the collision of our self-conception with how the world actually regards us.

The similarity of Dubai Marina to False Creek is no accident. In 1999, developer Mohammed Al Abbar toured the world looking for the right approach to the largest housing project ever undertaken in his country and stopped in Vancouver on the last leg of his journey home. One of Al Abbar’s closest advisors had worked at Grosvenor International Property’s Vancouver office with Stanley Kwok in the late 1960s, when the Shanghai-trained architect had just arrived from Hong Kong.

Kwok has since become the eminence grise of Vancouver’s development scene and one of Vancouver’s ultimate power brokers, counting among his accomplishments the top job at BC Place Corporation and his role as master planner for Concord Pacific. He also played a key role in shaping the city real-estate department’s plans for Southeast False Creek. While strolling the False Creek seawall with Kwok and then-assistant Robert Lee, Al Abbar was struck by the notion that Concord Pacific-style towers grouped around an artificial marina would be the best possible option for his immense Dubai housing project. Kwok was hired then and there to start working on the design. Within weeks of his visit and on Kwok’s recommendation, Al Abbar lured away from Concord Pacific marketer Lee, development manager Hagkull and others. “We had a week to decide whether to move our families to a place none of us had ever been to,” Hagkull says. They could not even find Dubai on a map.

Kwok said his original concept for Vancouver’s Concord Pacific development came out of 1970s tropical resorts, combined with the tall, thin towers of Hong Kong he knew well from working there. To these distant sources was added something already established in Vancouver’s False Creek South — a commitment to mixing social classes and building community and wealth for all through public amenities like parks, day-care centres and arts facilities.

This social diversity is missing in the Dubai project, designed and built as it was by imperial fiat, not democratic process. The will and financial wherewithal of EMAAR’s Al Abbar and the company’s effective owner, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, made Dubai Marina materialize with blinding speed because the company functioned as developer, banker, marketer, city planning department and even community, all rolled into one and all rolled out instantly.

But the tiniest of Dubai Marina’s details echo their Vancouver source. The first building constructed there was a light-filled “pre-sales centre” for prospective buyers, a near-twin to Concord Pacific’s slick pavilion which stands on the shores of False Creek, containing a similarly room-filling site model built by the very same Vancouver technicians.

The video theatre is a crucial stage in the sales sequence in both Vancouver and Dubai versions, and their walls ring with the same schmaltzy music and “bold new tomorrow” narration — even if the actors in the Dubai clips wear burnooses and chadors and speak Arabic, instead of sporting Tilley hats and Gore-Tex anoraks and speaking English, Cantonese and Mandarin as they do here. Vancouver prototypes are tracked with ghostly precision in computer-graphic suite tours of Dubai Marina and digital simulations of apartment vistas over the desert and artificial bay, plus the hard sell of furnished mock-up suites and marketing brochures: Is it live, or is it Mahmoud-Ex?

I had a hunch that Dubai might prove a distant cousin to Vancouver even before I spent a few weeks teaching architecture at the American University Sharjah just outside the city. But I discovered there are more profound lessons to be learned from this curious and diverting doubling between Gulf of Arabia and Gulf of Georgia.

Both Dubai and Vancouver are what I call “portal cities” — 21st-century entrepots of business, ideas and, most of all, people. More than just ports, airports or even data-ports, portal cities are points of connection that trade in ideas, lifestyles and zones of refuge.

Viewed positively, a portal city concentrates into its streets all the best on offer in this post-industrial, post-national world. Viewed negatively, they are the balmy resorts where the rich, the connected and the corporate will increasingly find refuge from the dire problems swamping the rest of the planet — Grand Cayman or Monte Carlo on a metropolitan scale.

The essential industry in portal cities is housing development, and the fire in their economic engines is an enhanced quality of life, strengthened through communities of moneyed others seeking the same sense of creative refuge. These cities are unpredictably inventive in cultural matters, as the now-tired metropoles of Northeastern North America and Europe once were, places where music and cuisines are fused artfully. Miami is the portal city for all of Latin America, and Chileans, Brazilians and Colombians are now far more likely to meet there than on their own continent. Dubai has an analogous function as the shopping, business, cultural, even drug- and sex-trade outlet for the ultra-conservative Islamic Kingdoms all around it.

And us? Vancouver is the portal city for a group changing the world more than all the Latins, Arabs and even Americans put together: the Chinese, and more specifically, the 50-million-strong diaspora of overseas Chinese, an entrepreneurial group now without rivals as the most electric force in reshaping global industry and commerce. Dubai Marina is a challenge to the emerging self-conception of Vancouver, an adolescent city that has only recently started coming to terms with who it is and how the world regards it. (Cruelly but somewhat accurately, I’ve heard it described elsewhere as a “bimbo town.”) I, for one, have never seen Vancouverites of all ethnicities celebrate Chinese New Year as they did this year. Is this new reality starting to sink in?

But a disturbing signal comes from Vancouver’s planning department, which confirmed in December that no one is building office buildings downtown here any more, only condominium towers. Even worse, we learned this week that Vancouver’s most lauded office tower of the 1970s, the cable-supported former Westcoast Transmission building, will soon be converted into condominium apartments. Many of downtown Vancouver’s condos are sold to a mobile golden class speculating globally and many more to Canadian baby boomers waiting to retire. Don’t be distracted by the vital energy of younger renters occupying “safe haven” condos these days, giving our downtown its temporary patina of diversity — this group will be kicked out just as soon as the arthritis kicks in.

Judging by Dubai Marina, the world regards Vancouver affectionately, though as a jejune resort, not a mature and serious metropolis. Anyone not desiring a descent by this city into permanent status as a “resort” needs to join the debate soon, because perceptions build realities even quicker for cities than for people.

Dubai’s thinking in this regard may be more advanced than ours, obsessed as we are for the moment with our condo boom, plus an Olympic building crest to come. The Jan. 4 edition of their daily English-language newspaper Khaleej Times drives home that point, saying: “Dubai has to start thinking less about construction as a driver of growth, and more about qualitative improvements that can make assets more productive.”

That may be one reason why Lee, Hagkull and Daniel Hajjar, a Canadian who was project architect for the Dubai Marina project, are all still in the United Arab Emirates, although the first two are with new employers. More impressively, Lee and Hagkull are now raising families in a city they regard as safe, stimulating and full of superb infrastructure.

And they’re not alone. While in Dubai, I met many other members of the expatriate Canadian community there: Ismaili Muslims with families in North Vancouver, bankers from Calgary, building product salesmen from Kamloops, SFU students starting in the hotel business, Quebecoises out for adventure. “We were astonished to learn that there are now 4,000 Canadians resident in the Emirates,” Christopher Thornley of Canada’s U.A.E. Embassy told me, “which makes ours one of the largest Western business communities here — and the only reason we know this figure is that they all chose to register with us in the weeks of worry after Sept. 11.”

Even though we Canadians are the world’s greatest exporters, we don’t often think of ourselves as such. Because of our inundation with the cultural production of the United States, we seldom see how far and wide our ideas and innovations have already spread.

We have been a nation of chameleons, but may be changing. Personally, it took coming to Dubai to understand Vancouver’s emerging role in a broad world flush with modernity, the churn of change.

Trevor Boddy’s report from Dubai was part of a fellowship funded by the Aga Khan Awards for Islamic Architecture, and American University Sharjah.