The Politics of Starchitecture in Abu Dhabi

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The Politics of Starchitecture in Abu Dhabi
© Michele Nastasi

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

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!” […]