OPINION

A Drop in the Canal

Dubai

9 November 2016

Utopia has made for an unusual theme for 2016. As dozens of exhibitions and events have marked the 500th anniversary of Sir Thomas More’s book, the planet's geopolitical climate has grown more volatile than ever.

Yesterday, prior to the once unthinkable election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, architecture practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) revealed its latest video for Hyperloop. BIG is one of several companies competing to realise engineer Elon Musk’s ambitious transportation concept, first proposed in 2013. In the slick visualisation, the destination eventually appears on the horizon, a futuristic metropolis punctuated by an unmistakable inverted icicle: Dubai.

Even upon seeing it in the flesh, Dubai is a kind of imaginary city, where tally-like crane booms quantise the city’s swelling construction, ghosts of future skyscrapers. Viewed from the Dubai Design District (d3), the Burj Khalifa abides as the cynosure of the skyline; venture further into the desert hinterlands and a cataract haze envelops the cityscape, a permanent fiction more Koolhaas than Borges — the apotheosis of elevators and air conditioning — and unlike any other city in the world. It is here, between the 24 and 29 October, that the 2016 iteration of Dubai Design Week (DXBDW) took place.

DXBDW is one of nearly 100 design weeks currently operating worldwide. Like many design week models, DXBDW seeks to promote the local while attracting international brands and visitors. If the most prominent design weeks are commercial affairs like Milan’s Salone del Mobile, or inimitable offerings like Dutch Design Week (which this year coincided with DXBDW this year), Dubai’s foray stems from the city’s broader effort to establish itself as the “global crossroads” of the 21st century.

“One of Dubai’s primary benefits is that it's all about being a meeting place: it has an amazing airline, a good visa policy, and a lot of things that make it a very easy place to do an event like this,” says Brendan McGetrick, the curator of the Global Grad Show. One of several tent-pole presentations at d3, the exhibition has expanded substantially following the success of last year’s inaugural event, which brought one student from each of 10 international design schools to Dubai (there were 35 projects in all). For the 2016 iteration of the exhibition, McGetrick set out to redress the lack of local representation, growing the exhibition to 145 graduates from 50 institutions in 30 countries, including six schools in the MENA region, as well as Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and more.

“We put a lot of work into building our network, and I have to say it was not easy,” says McGetrick. “It's really a rich-get-richer situation, because all of the big schools have PR departments … Other schools, they don't think in the same way – they don't have a media department.” Although the Royal College of Art and ECAL quietly dominated this year’s Global Grad Show, McGetrick’s efforts paid off with a radically diverse cross-section of design from the world over, skewing towards socially conscious and sustainable design.

It was the Art Dubai Group’s patronage that made it possible for nearly 150 students, hailing from locales as distant as Lima and Limerick, to convene in Dubai for the exhibition; education being the latest focus of its ongoing investment in design. This patronage dates back to 2012 when Design Days Dubai, a design fair that caters for galleries and collectors, launched. The Downtown Design trade fair (now part of DXBDW) was inaugurated the following year, and ensuing years saw the launch of the Dubai Fashion Council and Dubai Design Week, as well as the opening of D3, a purpose-built community for both local and international design, luxury and fashion brands, in 2015.

This year’s DXBDW kicked off with the announcement of a partnership between the Dubai Institute for Design and Innovation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Parsons School of Design. The institute will offer undergraduate design degrees, commencing late-2018, in a new Norman Foster-designed campus, the second site in the three-phase development of d3.

Meanwhile, other benefactors serve other agendas. As with the Global Grad Show, DXBDW 2016 reprises its Iconic City project, a series of exhibitions that explore the culture and design scene of the Middle East's urban centres, with a survey of Cairo’s design scene. Billed as “the first and the largest exhibition of contemporary design outside Egypt since the revolution,” Cairo: City Incomplete features some 60 designers working in various disciplines. “It would be amazing to actually be able to do the exhibition in Egypt,” says its curator Mohamed Elshahed. “The problem is when, where, and more importantly who would pay for it?”

“Luckily,” he continues, “Dubai Design Week provides the infrastructure, the space, and the finances to be able to put this together.” Five years on from Tahrir Square, the fragmented design scene finds itself under-appreciated in Cairo, unified only in the so-called “global meeting place” that is Dubai. “Many of the designers who are part of the exhibition,” Elshahed, explains, “are meeting for the first time here in Dubai.” In the show’s accompanying publication, the curator describes the exhibition as “an act of activism” to catalyse Cairo’s creative community. McGetrick was similarly enthusiastic about convening the Global Grad Show exhibitors for a design-education summit during DXBDW.

The soft-power play is a bid to put Dubai on the map as an entrepôt not only for commerce but also for creative capital, where generous financial backing affords the freedom to realise these vaguely utopian forms of social design. Sure, DXBDW includes international brands — Ikea, Hay and Tom Dixon, to name a few at d3, to say nothing of Downtown Design — but in the case of the Global Grad Show and Iconic City, the organisers also offer significant funding and a relatively free brief for well-intentioned curators.

Whereas the Global Grad Show grew exponentially and Iconic City honed its focus, a third returning exhibition split the difference between global and city scale. The second edition of Abwab — translating to “doors” in Arabic — more or less retained its original mini-biennale format, in which Dubai-based architects A Hypothetical Office designed pavilions for each of the six invited countries from the MENA and South Asia regions. From Bahrain’s webapp-formed ceramics to the India’s rubber-tile workshop, Abwab was a highlight of DXBDW 2016, not least for its admirable (and obviously well-funded) execution.

However, the narratives run deeper than the objects and materials. Designer Hozan Zangana sought asylum in the Netherlands as a teenager, where he subsequently studied design. Working with Baghdad-born Rand Abdul Jabbar, who studied in the United States before moving to Dubai, Zangana translated ancient artefacts and typologies from Iraq into abstract sculptures. Zangana and Abdul Jabbar met only upon the invitation to participate in DXBDW and they now look forward to continuing to collaborate. “Dubai is essentially a place that gathers us all,” says Rawan Kashkoush, creative director of DXBDW, in her prefatory statement about Abwab. Zangana and Abdul Jabba’s ongoing collaboration is evidence of this statement.

The subtext may well be that it is generous funding that has gathered the 40,000 visitors to Dubai. But DXBDW is ultimately but a drop in the bucket – or the new Dubai canal, which opened during the design week – compared to the prodigious flow of capital in construction and real estate development. A 1,000+m new pinnacle by Santiago Calatrava, known as the Dubai Creek Observation Tower, is set to open on the occasion of Dubai’s Expo 2020.

Compared to this architectural and infrastructural scale at which the city itself is being shaped, DXBDW offers a more measured investment in design. Speculate as one might about the Gordian knot of socioeconomic and geopolitical interests at stake, there is no denying that Art Dubai and d3 have assembled an impressive design festival in these first two years.