The plan behind Saadiyat Island is filled with landmark designs. It also shows how little influence architects can have on city building initiatives today.

Michele Nastasi

Excerpted from the book, Starchitecture. Scenes, Actors, and Spectacles in Contemporary Cities by Davide Ponzini and Michele Nastasi, published by The Monacelli Press, 2016.

Abu Dhabi’s urban development is based on a tightly organized oligarchic system. Large-scale projects are discussed and decided upon by the royal family and a specific and cohesive network of relatives, consultants, publicly funded agencies, and development corporations.

The objective of diversifying Abu Dhabi’s economy and creating development opportunities has thus driven a shift in focus toward business and luxury tourism and, more recently, cultural and leisure activities. The government intends to reach beyond the Gulf area and to compete with other global destinations. For this reason, cultural offering, as well as marketing and branding through spectacular architecture have been perceived as crucial. In recent years, the use (and proposed use) of mega-development projects has dominated the urban landscape in Abu Dhabi, with much use of spectacular architecture.

One significant large-scale project in Abu Dhabi is Saadiyat Island, a 10.4-square-mile development, which is in the process of creating about 30 hotels, 3 marinas, 8,000 villas and 38,000 housing units along over 12 miles of coastline. The project includes the creation of a Cultural District aimed for status as an icon in the international scene. One of the officers I interviewed stated, “Abu Dhabi is trying to use international contemporary architecture in order to express the newborn identity of the nation. ‘Abu Dhabi is a global capital city’ is the message, and it is certainly different from the mere business of Dubai!”

(Michele Nastasi)

From the beginning, the creation of a collection of iconic buildings in a short period of time has been the driving idea behind Saadiyat Island. The concept of a new Cultural District for Abu Dhabi apparently occurred in a meeting between the Crown Prince and the then director of the Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens.

Krens described the meeting as follows: “[the Crown Prince said] ‘What would you do?’ And so I did a drawing on a napkin at the hotel where we met. I said ‘Here’s the Guggenheim; here’s the Louvre; here’s the Maritime museum; here’s the national museum; here’s the opera house’ I basically sketched it all out, even the canal, because I wanted to have a grand canal’. He took the drawing and said, ‘Okay, that’s what we’ll do. Who are the architects?’

In the managers’ expectations, star architects were supposed to grant identity to the city and to endow their fame and style upon Saadiyat Island. The plan to collect different branded elements in a highly visible megaproject was also intended by the TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company) to distinguish Saadiyat Island in the overcrowded real-estate market.

Two years after the 2004 Gensler master plan for this area, the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm confirmed the advantages of creating a cultural district in order to attract tourists from around the world, based on the fact that the nearby Gulf cities did not have any exceptional cultural attractions. In 2006, SOM designed a canal along which pavilions were to be created in order to be complementary to five large cultural facilities along the coast.

The managing agency (Tourism Development and Investment Company) directly commissioned Frank Gehry for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, Jean Nouvel for an Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre, Zaha Hadid for a performing arts center, and Tadao Ando for a maritime museum. Norman Foster was selected for the Sheikh Zayed National Museum in a competition with twelve other firms. For the pavilions along the canal, SOM, Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid of Asymptote, Pei-Zhu, Charles Correa, Shigeru Ban, Khalid Al Najar, and, once again, Frank Gehry were selected. One can see how names were used mainly for suggesting that this cultural district was going to be the largest and most branded in the world, despite the fact that the decision makers did not know whether they were all going to be realized or not.

This project embraced the “Bilbao effect” literally, involving Krens and Gehry, the protagonists of the Bilbao deed. The official description of the island reads “the only place in the world to house architecture designed by five individual Pritzker prize winners […] an irresistible magnet attracting the world to Abu Dhabi, and taking Abu Dhabi to the world.”

But most of the other parts of the Saadiyat Island megaproject postponed their completion dates due to various financial and planning factors; in early 2012, the TDIC announced a new strategy for delivering the cultural facilities. The Abu Dhabi Louvre Museum was expected to open by the end of 2015; the Zayed National Museum has an opening projected for 2016, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2017. This staggering of releases is officially aimed at inducing visitors to come back and see the new cultural offerings throughout time, but it’s evident that the implementation of the original program encountered significant planning difficulties beyond recent economic constraints.

The media and marketing goals have certainly been achieved, fostering the image of a contemporary global capital city, open to Western culture and business. The use of famous architects and international cultural institutions was and is key to these accomplishments, as well as to consolidating the international political legitimization and financial credibility of the operation, while generating a tremendous revenue for cultural institutions themselves.

(Michele Nastasi)

The symbolic dimension of the Cultural District, and of the other megaprojects in Abu Dhabi, is now linked to the image of the nation’s progress and strengthened by the artistic aura of iconic architecture and cultural institutions in a contradictory way. It’s evident that if such initiatives are to be really successful beyond selling entrance tickets and attracting international tourists, they might generate innovations in local culture; but it is not clear to what extent the local elite would allow this evolution and its potential political pressure to manifest. In this sense, the media exposure of the Saadiyat Island Cultural District may generate greater difficulties in matching global objectives with local identities and politics than the already problematic management of labor for the construction of cultural facilities themselves.

The Saadiyat Island megaproject attempts to appreciate the value of the desert area in an unprecedented and, at the same time, very traditional way. The creation of such a vast cultural oasis through one single master plan in an expanses of isolated desert has not been attempted anywhere else. However, the planning, financing, and value-capture processes are mainly grounded in the real-estate, retail, and tourism activities in the schematic Saadiyat Island master plan composed of stand-alone development units—which limits the opportunities for a richer interpretation of public places by actual users, once and if completed. If eventual adjustments to the plan do not occur in the implementation phase, a potential resulting mix of disconnected coastline development, a smattering of cultural facilities, and the improbable canal pavilions may induce the alienating effect of a high-culture theme park in a Western-style luxury suburbia.

(Michele Nastasi)

Even if Abu Dhabi has almost unique economic and institutional conditions and rests for now as a borderline case of development profiles, it still highlights several problems that are common in contemporary large-scale development projects and in the use of star architecture in other parts of the world: little care for the context of branded projects, de-politicization of urban development, weak and inconsistent public planning in the face of economic diversification and the use of spectacular architecture as a means for global competition and media exposure.

This story also tells us about how little star architects can do for city making. Under the observed conditions, they are generally asked to produce a spectacle—and to allow their aura to be linked to projects and developers— without having the opportunity to critically intervene on the structure of the city (or district) nor on the destiny of one area, even less on capitalization objectives, or the creation of urban rent and monopoly.

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