Kari Rittenbach

United Future Ruhrabia: Dubai-Düsseldorf

In the dimension of design, architecture’s communion with science fiction is not only ostensible, it’s inevitable: both pseudo-scientific fields court overwhelming totality, fetishize minutiae, and exert an almost naïve authoritarianism in proposing alternatives to reality. Builder and writer of future society are comrades-in-arms, reckless dreamers equally as fanatical and fantastical as they are often wrong. And in our digitally deterministic age, in which Google and Wikipedia foretell the future as much as Nostradamus ever did, science fiction is no longer located in outer space (40 years on, the lunar-landing controversy still persists), nor plumbed purely from the depths of inner psychological space (social networking having trumped more traditional forms of isolation). Instead, it holds sway in urban space: the sites of amphetamine-fueled urbanization in the newly developing world, where imported speculators of spectacle have promulgated “urban planning as conspicuous consumption.” At this current “crisis” moment in late capitalism — as skyscrapers from Sharjah to Shanghai reach Babel-esque heights — the present, it seems, has sublimated the future.

So the question now is: what next? As part of a long-term experimental research collaboration, a mostly German group — fashion designer Ayzit Bostan, artist Antje Majewski, architects Markus Miessen and Ralf Pflugfelder, filmmaker Eva Munz, novelist Ingo Niermann (with Peter Maximowitsch and Stephan Trüby), and the design studio Z.A.K. — has imagined a universe of potentiality in the projected collusion of two distinctive urban centers: Dubai — gem (and sometime prodigal son) of the United Arab Emirates; and Düsseldorf — post-industrial wunderkind in Germany’s densely populated Rhine-Ruhr region. A synergetic if unexpected twinning, Dubai-Düsseldorf is a maximalized maxim that is fun to pronounce — both an urbanist’s ideological wet dream and a manifestly fanciful reflection on the future city of the 21st century.

The premise of Dubai-Düsseldorf — and that of the eponymous exhibition which was recently on view at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf (August 29–November 8, 2009) — is an especially ambitious one; not easily folded into a particular practice, let alone a pocketbook, it is not simply another paper utopia. Because the project members span a larger cross section of creative industries than do formulations drawn up by the likes of the incorrigible Buckminster Fuller, the reclusive Lebbeus Woods, or the eccentrically energetic Winy Maas, megalomania is presumably resisted. The like-minded individual authors each explore a different angle of the equation, ultimately working towards a more variegated, more forgiving fictional setting under the banner of an ideal and internationally applicable urbanism.

The idea for this unlikely civic pairing developed two years ago, when Markus Miessen and Ingo Niermann found themselves sitting through a mini-interview “marathon” during the International Design Forum at Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah Resort hotel. In patented style, Rem Koolhaas and the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulrich Obrist spent an evening questioning a select cross section of city officials and cultural workers from various Gulf states. When Dubai’s director of transportation Mattar Al Tayer was needled on the topic of increasing traffic congestion, he drew an unprecedented comparison and unwittingly ignited a Promethean flame. Expressing admiration for bicycle lanes and outdoor pedestrian thoroughfares, Al Tayer drenched Düsseldorf in accolades, even calling it his favorite city ever. How might a budding global metropolis with a penchant for adjectival intensification and a high-rise-shaped chip on its shoulder benefit from a mid-sized and in most senses mediocre West-German metropolis?

In the ur-narrative of Dubai-Düsseldorf — which laid the groundwork for each collaborator’s creative output — 2009 marks the end of the known world: global recession has set in and rapid exodus from the once-booming desert capital is expected (it is a scenario not terribly unlike that presented by the mainstream media today). But rather than resorting to hysteria, Dubai’s leaders remain rational in a rather Hegelian way, reckoning that renewal will follow on the heels of ruin. In the fine interests of wealth and the regeneration of business, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum recognizes Düsseldorf’s infrastructural, industrial, and social sophistication — Autobahn roundabout, railway hub, convenient commercial airport; telecommunications industry capital; second-largest expatriate Japanese population in Europe — and strikes a strategic alliance with Düsseldorf’s mayor Dirk Elbers. The first official cooperative act of the new twin city’s joint leaders is to overcome the dialectic of disparity by rebuilding Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center in the manner of Postmodern German Schloss reconstruction, i.e. in façade only (thus resuscitating the magical spirit of invincible capital rather than that of aristocratic feeling). One in Dubai, the other in Düsseldorf, united under the epithet “The New New York is a Twin” (to quote Ingo Niermann), the Friendship Towers begin to stabilize the ebb and flow of displaced populations, and elicit from the agglomeration of Dubai-Düsseldorf an entirely new brand of civic pride.

Because travel and tourism are critical to the economy in Dubai-Düsseldorf, the twinned city demands a logo and, even more, a flag. For if a territorial land mass (despite temporal, geographical, or cultural inconsistencies) cannot be represented, does it really even exist? The Dubai-Düsseldorf municipal monogram, conceived by Z.A.K. (Zak Kyes and Grégory Ambos), contains two halves; it is a figure that can be read as a mask, a scimitar, or simply an overlapping double D — the luxury symbol which falls alphabetically after Mlle Coco Chanel’s. This apposite logo appears on the Dubai-Düsseldorf flag, consisting of a gold and black east–south diagonal descending from the upper-fly to the lower-hoist corner.

The same division is mapped onto the standard currency of the Dubai-Düsseldorf dollar, which is tendered only within the confines of the dual municipality and thus protected from volatile foreign markets. Pattern motifs on the faces of the bills depict more or less “real” landscapes: the Japanese Gardens of Düsseldorf merged with the manicured beachfront resorts of Dubai; Düsseldorf’s media harbor chock full of Frank Gehry and Dubai’s censor-free Media City; the Kö (or Königsallee, Düsseldorf’s prime retail strip) and Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main drag; all emblems of consumerism, meant to inspire still more consumer confidence, and, perhaps not so abstractly, cultural equivalence. Monetary imagery is completely done away with during the post-2009 recessionary years, when economic recovery plans and all sorts of surplus values introduce a new form of exchange: the Dubai-Düsseldorf Pandora’s Box, a sealed golden cube 12 centimeters wide containing a mystical selection of contents. Its value is intuitively user-determined, and even shifts with each transaction. The DDPB eventually replaces all paper-based currency.

Contemplating fin de siècle Vienna, the architect Otto Wagner once said: “The art of a nation is not only the measure of its prosperity, but also of its intelligence.” A century later, his words have found rather earnest reverberations in quickly urbanizing Emirati metropolises. Having acquired an appetite for contemporary collecting, Dubai and Sharjah are active on the art world’s fair and biennial circuit, and the U.A.E. participated in the pre-eminent Venice Biennale for the first time in 2009. For its part, Düsseldorf has been something of a fertile crescent for contemporary, and especially conceptual, art production since the beginnings of modernity, and the city cultivates a well-schooled coterie of Germany’s top art collectors. Its Kunstverein (an institution found in many German cities, comprising an art society and attached exhibition space) boasts the highest membership in all of Germany.

In the year 2024, when Dubai-Düsseldorf’s wealthiest forward-looking female art collector pursues the world’s final work of art, it is no wonder that she commissions the piece from Düsseldorf-born artist Antje Majewski. A realist painter influenced equally by Stanislaw Lem and Paul Thek, Majewski dreams up an idyllic sculptural piece which should theoretically defend against a future of consumer-driven degradation.Years of research in concert with a biotechnology company produce a vaguely feminine object, an ontogenic yet utterly useless thing which Majewski titles The Entity. It is a biologically minimal, amoeba-like work with neither sensory, nor reproductive, nor motor, nor nervous, nor excretory systems. Self metabolizing at an extremely slow rate, The Entity lives almost imperceptibly, and then dies. Neither representative nor iconic, it is a “new type of image”, life in the abstract, which bears no likeness (Allahu Akbar) but simply is.

The art collector deeds The Entity to Dubai-Düsseldorf and, for the public good, subsequently recruits architects Markus Miessen and Ralf Pflugfelder to build a proper Kunsthalle in which to house it. Because of overwhelming admiration throughout the twinned city for The Entity — which is able to rouse thorough self-reflection in the most arrogant of citizens — it must be physically shared across both parts. Miessen and Pflugfelder develop an unadorned, unaesthetic arc-of-the-covenant style bunker with a plan that is identically reproduced in each location, establishing a MoMA-like interior apparatus for viewing “clarity” that at the same time confuses the external urban context. Entombed within a womb of travertine-like stone, both Entity and the viewer are equally omnipresent and absent, properly unseated from time and place. In Düsseldorf, the maximum-security structure takes the shape of a plinth across the river from the Rhine promenade, while in Dubai the same totalitarian wedge is sunk below ground near a traffic circle in the old city of Deira. The Entity, enclosed in its shrine, constitutes the entirety of the Kunsthalle’s permanent collection, however impermanent its contents may be. Under lock and key, The Entity stokes nationalism and humanist reflections among the population. Other museums fall by the wayside as archives and institutional memory succumb to dementia. In 2101, a catastrophe destroys both Kunsthallen, and The Entity is liberated from its casing; in a state of slow disintegration into non-spectacular (and fetid) organic material, Majewski’s installation under glass at the Düsseldorf Kunstverein reveals the venerated object to be an old, dry, sarcophagus-skinned lemon.

Novelist Ingo Niermann is preoccupied with solutions, and not only the arithmetic kind. His collection of essays Umbauland (2006) addressed the sociopolitical problems of greater Germany since reunification 20 years ago, just around the time when Düsseldorf’s cachet as an economic powerhouse began to wear thin. Niermann’s utopian hypotheses often revolve around healthcare and other demographic statistics that have become paradigmatic problems of contemporary Europe: falling fertility rates, steadily aging populations, unemployment. In the universe of Dubai-Düsseldorf, Niermann traced the source of transportation director Al Tayer’s acquaintance with the city on the Rhine to an infamous orthopedic surgeon who treated the sheikh’s family for its knee problems. Conflating medical tourism with Dubai’s greatest terra-forming project — a constellation of artificial islands in a loose configuration known as “The World” — he contrived a 21st-century sanatorium to treat diseases of affluence. Originally planned as the ultimate escape into exclusivity (“There is nothing after ‘The World,’” Hamza Mustafa, director), Dubai-Düsseldorf’s “World” development is reserved entirely for diabetics.

Known as “Sugar World,” it is a completely self-sustaining enclave of medical facilities populated by the insulin challenged — solar panels and muscle power provide energy in the complete absence of electricity. The scenario is survivor-like with a therapy plan of forced activity: fishing for food and traveling between islands via rowboat (wheelchairs adequate for roaming the desert are provided for those with walking disabilities). But “Sugar World” patients are not secluded from the temptations of reality that forced them into rehabilitation: rather tortuously, rock sugar is cultivated throughout “Sugar World” in spectacular amounts, forming sweet sculptural lollipops in the seductive form of over-sized syringes. A veritable candy land of moral proportions, “Sugar World”’s success rate skyrockets because treatment in isolation is really no treatment at all.

When it comes to clothing, fashion designer Ayzit Bostan advocates an almost über-German obsession with wearability and understatement that she calls romantic minimalism. Her Dubai-Düsseldorf future garment, cryptically titled “With or Without You,” is as practical as it is perhaps frustrating for its lack of structure — a black fold of a drape that can be used to reveal or conceal, or, as Bostan maintains, to “act worldviews out.” Its aesthetic is one of variable uniformity in the creative professional’s favorite color, defining a base level of shared identity that requires a body to provide it with form. And bodies from all corners of the twin city take to the task: men, moms, German great-uncles, Pakistani nationals, art-school students, oil barons, the bankrupt, Japanese fashionistas. Bostan remains ever skeptical of sartorial provocation, and “With or Without You” melts easily into a wide spectrum of wardrobes, proliferating as an accessorized leitmotif among the fashion conscious without problematizing the nature of the veil. The semi-transparent fabric is simple because cotton is as futuristically pliable a material as they come — lightly transparent cambric, cut to 140 x 280 centimeters and labeled with the municipal name in Arabic.

Bostan’s scarf also attires the protagonist of Eva Munz’s familiar 11-minute-short film, Chandigarh-69. Emirati-born-and-bred actress Simone Sebastian plays the title role as a genetically encoded alpha-laborer overseeing the construction of Dubai-Düsseldorf’s Friendship Tower East. When an incident on her watch causes catastrophic collapse, she is subjected to psychological review. Probed in an antiseptic cell, several floors above Sheikh Zayed Road, a La Jetée-like sequence of collaged television commercials is mined from her memory bank. Somehow, despite market-driven cultural manipulation, Chandigarh-69 has preserved the ability to empathize, and ultimately abandons the relentless urban hardscape for the sea. While The Entity has evidently had some effect on Chandigarh-69’s female psyche, Munz focuses more on the undiscussed politics of gender in Dubai-Düsseldorf, where women supervisors exploit sexual appeal to spur male-worker productivity.

As a feel-good fabrication, the “Dubai Düsseldorf” exhibition is remarkably diverse, sketching a neither utopian nor dystopian society with a peculiarly pastiched aesthetic while avoiding New Age raptures of self-congratulatory progressivism and any sort of sustainability clause. Its strong point is a certain lack of neoliberal earnesty (as well as missing the usual charts and graphs), its pert proposal not any more preposterous than the average post-Burj plan. For its multi-layered-ness, “Dubai Düsseldorf” only nurses fascist impulses at times, mostly sidestepping the political (eschewing words like “same,” “difference,” “other”) because it’s all really just a bit of fun.

Visually, Pflugfelder’s sleek shrine, Majewski’s canvases, and the rest inspire moments of concerted reflection but, as a consummate whole, “Dubai Düsseldorf” retreats into something more formulaic, like brand loyalty. And yet, it is a brand that is tough to assimilate: the municipal flag and Bostan’s black cover-up, for instance, rival one another materially in terms of textile, sheen, and typographic severity, only dovetailing under similarly syllabic “slogan urbanism.” Have too many creative hands in the kitchen over-boiled the broth, or is it merely the trap of Postmodernism? In any case, “Dubai Düsseldorf” is a fragment — for this reason perhaps more “real” and more stimulating as a proposition. But because the excitement of science-fiction fantasy lies in the exclusive territorial scope in which to propose a unified vision of the otherwise impractical, it can be dissatisfying when propagandistic furor dissipates in so many multidisciplinary directions (and without engaging the possibilities for Dubai’s newly inaugurated metro). Spinning their tales in different languages, each collaborator employs a slightly different grammar, constructing a prolix and mangled text that can be difficult to follow. Yet every future narrative contains inherent critique of the contemporary — Frederic Jameson’s end-of-history theory advocates that the best view of present conditions is from the future, when the present has just slipped into the immediate past.

So what Dubai-Düsseldorf accomplishes is a significant transfer of power, delivering the control of images within urban space from the vise grip of the architect (or developer) to the shapers of identity. A premier marketing campaign in its own right, the city of Dubai has branded itself into something of an identity crisis. Miessen describes it outwardly as a commercial jumble on the shore, where sunburned British tourists schlep endlessly through high-end stores in a labyrinthine system of air-conditioned indoor shopping galleries. In fact, the retail typologies crowding Sheikh Zayed Road have transformed the city into a trade fair of urbanisms — the city as mall of malls, a desert oasis riddled with resorts, a testing ground for global development analogous to Coney Island’s fabled prefiguring of Manhattan. With a skyline that is a Potemkin village of economic power, too many signatures have transformed tabula rasa into terrain vague. It is a situational allegory to the “Dubai Düsseldorf” exhibition, as well, in which the conundrum of present-day Dubai severely outweighs that of Düsseldorf, begging the question: What‘s Düsseldorf got to do with it?

Düsseldorf’s identity crisis is more commonplace, and yet so much more subtle. Concerned redevelopment during the post-war era (the city center was flattened by Allied bombs during WWII) has finally aged into thriving irrelevance on the international scale. Quality of life is good — according to the 2009 Mercer index, Düsseldorf ranks sixth worldwide — and while the Kö commands the highest rates for commercial retail space in all of Germany, stagnation looms. The problem of Düsseldorf is in fact the problem of the mid-sized city, and ultimately the problem of New Urbanism: are cultural programming, infrastructure, and density still enough to avoid the “suburban kiss of death”? The predominance of mobile capital and immaterial labor have long rendered the choice to live in a particular city an aesthetic one. And somewhat remarkably, it is photographers of the Düsseldorf school — from Thomas Struth to Andreas Gursky to Candida Höfer, all students of Bernd and Hilla Becher — who have most informed the aesthetic of the global city in the early 21st century. So what’s a city to do when its je ne sais quoi is ideological dispersion, casting her wayward children out into the globalizing world? If Düsseldorf-bred bands like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and La Düsseldorf anticipated the diffusion of the self in contemporary pop-music composition long before the widespread availability of digital technology, the city itself followed suit, and is now due for re-branding. It may require a heroic re-purposing of the less-than-spectacular, though at this particular moment of iconographic exhaustion, juste milieu might just be avant-garde enough.

Raising more questions than answers, “Dubai Düsseldorf”’s most lasting image is Majewski’s. The Entity as an art object as ersatz religion, institutionally enshrined after Georges Bataille: “The museum is the colossal mirror in which man, finally contemplating himself from all sides, and finding himself literally an object of wonder, abandons himself to the ecstasy expressed in art journalism.” Here, however, the self-congratulation is a bit less enthusiastic, the reflection city-inclined. Perhaps there is a dialogue to be had between Dubai and Düsseldorf, after all — if only Dubai will