Semiotic ghosts: Dubai’s architectural hallucinations

Bruce Bennett

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Travelling from the UK to New Zealand recently we stopped for two days in Dubai in order to make the long journey more manageable. Even allowing for the dislocating effect of flying across time zones and two sleepless nights since the hotel we were staying in was packed with raucous teams competing in the international women’s Rugby Sevens tournament, Dubai seems a jarringly strange city.

It is the materialization of a defiantly aspirational vision of the future that predates and disregards anxieties about peak oil and catastrophic climate change. The combination of high-rise office blocks and hotels, luxury gated communities and freeways presupposes an economically stable future in which oil continues to flow freely from the ground, and we continue to travel by car and jet plane. It is a city under construction and new buildings appear so frequently that, one taxi driver told us, he and his colleagues sometimes struggle to find their way around the financial centre.

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Driving into the centre of Dubai on the 14-lane freeway what I was most strongly reminded of was William Gibson’s brilliantly economical short story,’The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981). In that story, while driving through present-day California, a photographer working on an assignment on futuristic architecture of the 1920s and 1930s has visions of an alternative present that resembles the future as it was imagined in films, architectural designs, visual art and the illustrations and cover art of pulp science fiction journals and novels from that period (such as those published by Hugo Gernsback through magazines such as Amazing Stories).

“Then I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming  ziggurat steps  that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick  with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one  of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the  dance), mile-long  blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters…”

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One of the photographer’s friends reassures him what he’s seen are “semiotic ghosts”: “bits  of  deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken  on a life of their own, like the Jules Verne airships that those  old Kansas farmers were  always seeing”. This term captures very well the phantasmatic bricolage of Dubai’s spectacular architecture. Deceptively compact, viewed through the filters of a windscreen, exhaust smoke and the haze of the desert sky, these buildings could have been a painted backdrop or a hallucination. They are a striking collision of old and new forms, a point made particularly evident by the building that copies (and scales up) the clock tower on Westminster Palace. The illusion that Dubai is a future city irrupting from the past like a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was completed by the little prop-driven plane that took off repeatedly and circled over the shoreline, ejecting parachutists competing in the International Parachuting Competition.

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All buildings present us with a symbolic representation of the future – they are designed and built in anticipation of possible future uses and contexts and so they are necessarily anachronistic; they show us the future as it was imagined in the past. What is so striking about Dubai is that these coastal cities are so new and yet still they appear to imagine the future in spatial and architectural terms that are at least a century old. The future will be more of the same.

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