In May 2006, I was preparing to move to the UAE to start my first job here, very excited about the prospect of living in a new city, Dubai, and eager to get to know all about it. So much exploring to do, so many undiscovered places. I couldn't wait to arrive. A few days before I left the UK, a piece appeared in the Financial Times by an architect named Richard Hywell Evans that was headlined: "Sprawling, soulless Dubai is an architectural flop", which rather deflated my zeal.
It was clear the author, an award-winning professional with numerous architectural gongs to his name, did see many things to be admired in Dubai: Burj al Arab; the Palm Jumeirah (just being built then) and the free-zone "cities" of southern Dubai. But he picked up on something architecture critics have returned to time and again when analysing the fast-growing city: "Its relentless colonisation of the desert has led to 'LA syndrome'. There is so much urban sprawl, the city lacks a metropolitan heart," wrote Hywell Evans.
I soon found out that he was only partly correct. As I began to explore Dubai, I discovered there were lots of small metropolitan centres, such as Bur Dubai, Deira, Jumeirah and Barsha, linked by motorways and bridges. Each had its own characteristics and idiosyncrasies, and each was distinct and interesting in its own way. But Dubai itself still lacked that central place, the beating heart of the city, that was the focal point of civic, commercial and cultural life.
Hywell Evans's piece attracted quite a response, much of it along the lines of: "But Dubai is not finished yet". This week, with the opening of the Burj Dubai, it moves a major step closer to being as "finished" as any evolving, quasi-organic entity like a city can be. Burj Dubai, with the Downtown and Old Town developments around it, fills in the big space between "old Dubai" (to my mind, anything north of Trade Centre roundabout) and "new Dubai" (south of Mall of the Emirates). Only time will tell how far it develops to become the "soul" of Dubai.
To mark the opening of the Burj, the Government of Dubai is holding a one-day symposium of talks, discussions and panel sessions on Tuesday to discuss the role of architecture in the development of urban areas, based on the theme: "Architecture for sustainable societies". The meeting will be held under the auspices of Brand Dubai, an element of the Dubai Media Affairs Office that is designed to maximise media coverage of the city's economic, cultural and social development.
The conference will examine how architecture influences, and is influenced by, environmental, social and cultural factors. With experts from all over the world flying in for the event, it promises to be an interesting and provocative day. I am on a panel charged with discussing "media perspectives", including the role of the architectural critic, the responsibility of the press, and the part played by journalists in shaping architectural trends.
Given the bashing Dubai has had at the hands of some architecture critics, it should be a lively discussion.
On the subject of the media, I took the opportunity over the Christmas holidays to read one of the trilogy of novels by Stieg Larsson, the late Swedish writer who has become a "must read" for everybody with serious ambitions in pretentious after-dinner conversation. Lots of media friends were reading his work, and many of them were holding him up as a beacon of journalistic excellence. If only we were all like Mikael Blomkvist, the investigative hero of the novels, brim-full of integrity, with an unswerving dedication to the pursuit of the truth. Even the gnarled old pundit Roy Greenslade mentioned him in a blog as a role-model for young would-be Pulitzer candidates.
On the basis of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the last in Larsson's trilogy, I cannot agree. Investigative journalism seems a lot easier in Sweden, where the novels are set, than either of the places I've worked, Britain and the UAE. The Swedish authorities are in awe of the media, it seems. In the book, one senior policeman says: "The last thing we want to do now is to interfere with the press." In my experience that's usually the first thing senior policemen want to do.
Blomkvist quotes the "sanctity of sources" like some universal mantra. But I wonder how he would hold up if he faced the prospect of a long jail sentence or a bit of finger-nail pulling, as has happened to journalists in some parts of the world when the authorities wanted to know where they got their information. Larsson's Blomkvist is the hack as hero and, to me, it just doesn't ring true.