An uncanny replica of Vancouver's False Creek – in the heart of the Middle East. It goes by the name Dubai Marina.
In a globalized world, goods move, capital flows, people travel, but cities stay put. Streets and buildings and seawalls are the ultimate fixed assets, each set on the map, locked into its own particular site. Or so I thought. Now, I am not so sure, after touring an unsettling new urban development in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a development that sprawls over what used to be an empty stretch of the Great Arabian Desert, just west of Dubai. Called Dubai Marina, it’s almost a perfect clone of downtown Vancouver – right down to the handrails on the seawall, the skinny condo towers on townhouse bases, all around a 100-per-cent artificial, full-scale version of False Creek filled with seawater from the Persian Gulf. I first stumbled onto this uncanny replica of False Creek in November 2001, when I travelled to Syria at the invitation of the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture. I was the only North American architecture writer to accept this invitation to the heart of the Arab world, though colleagues from Europe and Asia were less inhibited. Typical of the graciousness I encountered from the Arabs eager to assert their humanity in such trying times, I received a further invitation to travel on to Dubai for a public talk. I was curious to visit a place that had only recently landed on the radar of architects and developers worldwide. A hereditary sheikdom under the Al Maktoum family, the emirate of Dubai was investing its dwindling stream of oil revenue in extravagant urban development, predicating its future on a new role as resort and service centre for the whole region. Eighty per cent of the residents of Dubai are expatriates, ranging from the lowest levels of construction labourers and service employees shipped in from the Indian subcontinent, to large numbers of Europeans and North Americans attracted by the climate and tax-free environment.