Dubai forced OMA to reinvent ideas on urbanism says Rem Koolhaas

Dubai has changed the way the world looks at cities, said OMA founder Rem Koolhaas who is in the emirate for the opening of Concrete, a new arts and events hub designed by the studio’s Dubai office.

Set in Alserkal Avenue and currently housing a collection of Syrian art by the Atassi Foundation, it is the Dutch firm’s first completed project in Dubai.

However, as he explained to an audience who had come to hear his public lecture just outside the newly completed building, he has a long history of involvement across the Middle East.

“When Dubai was developing it was unbelievable opportunity [for architects]. It was like being in the middle of a fairy tale,” he said. “Extreme forms were required.”

He said the city had presented him with a dilemma over whether the existing architectural language would still be relevant when the city was pushing design boundaries in such an innovative way. He said it led to self-criticism over whether existing work was still relevant.

Koolhaas said the evolution of the city also taught him a number of lessons.

“The first was in modesty,” he said. “Our supposed originality was matched by Dubai and it was a combination of elements from the west and local Emiratis [developing the city].”

But he admitted it wasn’t lauded across the world, pointing to US academic Mike Davis and his book “Evil Paradise” which calls Dubai a “nightmare of the past where Walt Disney meets Albert Speer on the shores of Araby.”

Koolhaas said: “I was offended and saw it as my mission to create another view.”

He highlighted the development of the city in a couple of publications and during his talk emphasised the multi-cultural mix of the city which he said was “supreme for tolerance demonstrated by a Muslim population and regime.”

He added: “Dubai was an example, especially to Europe where it seems to be increasingly difficult to live alongside minorities.”

Koolhaas ended his speech by saying: “I am exposing myself to ridicule by saying that 14 years of intense involvement in the Middle East by a large office that focuses and spends an enormous amount of intellectual capital on this region. Hence this single building: modest in scale but ambitious in program.

“But I think I consider myself saved from ridicule simply by the fact that we have recognised the impact of our engagement with the Middle East. It has brought us many insights but also allowed us to reinvent our office, regardless of statistical success of actually building.”

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