“The smart city is not so smart,” says Reinier de Graaf

Sustainability has become an ultimate goal for architecture, a quest to creating the perfectly ‘green’, eco-friendly, recycled, reclaimed and upcycled community that answers all our urban needs – and the Middle East is no exception.

When looking at all the potential sustainable solutions planned for the region, it is automatically clear that all these solutions are products of Western technology.

Reinier de Graaf, partner at Dutch firm OMA and director of AMO (OMA’s think tank) pointes out that this is not at all surprising.


“Unfortunately, not only the solutions to fix the problem are taken from the West but also many things that cause the problems were taken from the West as well,” he says.

“You are looking at a city with a lot of air conditioned buildings that have all imported Western technology so therefore it is not strange that the remedies come from the West as well.”

He adds that in the past, the desert landscape had been a great inspiration in executing sustainable architecture, however “those principles have only in a very limited extent informed the way cities are being developed” today.

“So much of contemporary urban planning operates on such an artificial ‘tabula rasa’”, he says. “The desert is often seen as a blank canvas on which you can inscribe any identity given but of course, the desert is a context too. I think in the rush to modernise, one tends to overlook the inspiration that is closest.”

De Graaf also adds that the more sustainability invades our architectural vocabulary, the “less it seems understood”.

He comments on what he calls “the complete loss of memory” in the discourse of sustainability.

“We think sustainability can be created through new devices, digital devices, new technologies … but a lot of sustainability is actually imbedded in tradition, is imbedded in a discipline of urbanism and architecture and building that is much older than this new technology. It has an inherent intelligence which is entirely overlooked in our fascination with the newest and the latest thing,” he says.

“We forget a whole body of knowledge that is much older and I wonder how smart that is. I think in that sense, the ‘smart city’ is not smart, not smart at all.”

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In 2007, OMA worked on a development plan in Ras Al Khaimah that aimed to shape the structure of the Emirate. De Graaf explains that at that time, “being sustainable wasn’t a matter of fixing or retrofitting, being sustainable was a matter of doing the right thing straight from the start.”

The plan involved creating a “compact, super high density, almost Yemeni-inspired city which through its behaviour would already be much more sustainable, even before the measures”, he describes.

This was to be accomplished through the use of materials, climatising outdoor spaces, and “based on a landscape plan that worked with the desert rather than against the desert, using the forces of nature to our benefit”.

“I think the solution [here] is always to work with the weather conditions, to work with the climate and to be smart and have nature working for you rather than you working against nature,” comments de Graaf.

Rating systems have long since become the answer in assessing whether buildings today are being executed sustainably, with the emirate of Abu Dhabi using the Estidama Pearl Rating System as part of its Vision 2030 goal. But how much are we limited with such measures?

“I think the limitations of ratings is that they are lists and lists are by definition finite whereas in theory, the list of criteria that makes something sustainable is infinite,” says de Graaf.

These ratings have a distinct issue which results in the fact that “the worst you can possibly be is good”, he says.

“Then you move to excellent, outstanding, exceptional, mind blowing and world class, so I think the whole inflation of superlatives has affected those lists where the worst you can be is good.”

He points out that although he is not fully aware of the Estimada ratings, other such rating systems like LEED and BREEAM, both partake in this faux pas.

“So I think we ought to drastically adjust that list where the best you can be is good and if you are exceptional, then you really have to be exceptional.”

He also explains that having to follow lists and tick boxes in order to create sustainable architecture is uninspiring for architects.

“As soon as you start ticking boxes it becomes an obligation,” he says. “When something is an obligation it is almost by definition not an intrinsic motivation. It is often by definition not an inspirational thing… it becomes an obligatory thing and hence the language around it becomes incredibly obligatory- sounds incredibly like paying compulsory tribute and then you start to wonder what people really think.”

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De Graaf adds: “I think there needs to be a whole recalibration of honesty and sustainability.”

The ideal case, he says, “is that architects and planners strive for it without having to be reminded of any lists. That is what we want to get towards”.

He also adds that there is a problem with architects’ inability to merge good architecture and beautiful architecture.

“As long as they are two completely different things, we will continue to encounter an inspirational problem. And we will continue to encounter a creative industry that is almost by default hypocritical. And rather than simply rebelling against the language, I don’t know what to do,” he admits.

OMA is currently in the process of opening its regional office in Dubai, which de Graaf describes as “a city in a pretty unlikely place”.

“It’s a metropolis in the desert and that is not a very likely concept and I have a huge sympathy for it because I live in a country that is in a location that is not very likely to have a country.”

He explains that he understands the results of resisting and opposing nature in Dubai as his own country, the Netherlands, is a product of that because of its low lying landscape which is very vulnerable to flooding and only a century later has it begun to work with its situation rather than against it.

“That type of thinking is inevitably the evolution that Dubai is going to face as well,” he says.

Some of the initial, hard-core resistance of the climatic conditions by importing American air conditioning…is a phase. And you have to grant places like this the time to change and evolve.”

Preserving memory OMA has a lot of work in the pipeline for Dubai, one of which focuses on preserving part of Al Satwa which is a community comprising of high-density retail outlets and residential components. The project aims to save 50% of the area with alternating bands of new and old.

“It was a statement partially against blanket modernisation but it was also a statement against blanket preservation,” says de Graaf. The project states that “it is not essential to preserve heritage, it is essential to preserve memory.”

“We proposed to preserve [Satwa] as an integral part of the city’s history, where all is not yet manicured, where all is not yet conditioned to a level of supposed perfection,” de Graaf explains.

“You need to keep parts of the city, not necessarily those that are the most beautiful or the most worth-keeping, you need to keep a slice of the city that in an honest way reflects the evolution of the city,” he says.

De Graaf says the the process lies in applying “a brutal zoning system where we take the city, we make a cut and in that cut are the different elements of time”.

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