Building a city from the sands

Dr Katsuhiko Takahashi helped conjure the capital from a fishing village 40 years ago. The experience, he says, remains his life's most profound achievement.

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ABU DHABI // Kneeling alongside Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan 40 years ago, the young Japanese man sketched out plans for the "brand new city" of Abu Dhabi in the sand using a camel stick. "He told me, 'I want trees and green', and so I gave him trees and green," says Dr Katsuhiko Takahashi, now an eminent city planner and government adviser. Although his career has spanned the globe and has included ambitious projects for the UN, the private sector and financial institutions, Dr Takahashi maintains that the year he spent with Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, on the plans for Abu Dhabi was the "most important, most personal, most instructive and rewarding time in my life".

Dr Takahashi, 71, was responsible for the layout of the town, much of which can still be seen today in the wide roads, the Corniche and the greenery. And Dr Takahashi, who recently failed to win the contract to prepare a regulatory framework for Abu Dhabi, believes that he still has an important message for city planners. "I am quite sure that building several hundred million square feet of commercial buildings, millions of hotel rooms and luxurious condos will not kill the spirit of Abu Dhabi, but it may kill the spirit, vision and aspiration of the 'old palace courtyard people'," he says. "My goal would be to find a timely blend to mesh the two driving forces into the 21st century and beyond. I believe it to be highly achievable and most interesting and challenging."

Dr Takahashi had recently completed his master's degree at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, in New York, when he received a call from the Japanese ambassador in Kuwait asking him if he wanted to go to Abu Dhabi. "As there was limited representation of world governments in Abu Dhabi", Sheikh Zayed reached out to the embassy via Kuwait, Dr Takahashi says. The Pan American Airlines ticket office in New York "had no idea where Abu Dhabi was, and some of them asked me if it was a new town in the Caribbean", he says. But, excited at the prospect of developing a new city, Dr Takahashi managed to make it to the town in 1967, when it had a population of about 40,000.

"I stepped into Abu Dhabi in the middle of its transformation from a fishing village to a modern city," he says. For the next year, Dr Takahashi had daily meetings with Sheikh Zayed, who had become Ruler of Abu Dhabi only the previous year. The relationship between the two men was "very close" and "grew into something like a dual mentorship", Dr Takahashi says. "Over time we talked about many things, such as attributes of other cities around the world and my experiences and impressions of them," he says. "We shared a vision of how Abu Dhabi should and could progress.

"Competing with Dubai for positioning as a global city was not his immediate concern. Sheikh Zayed's priorities were for peace, security, progress, responsibility and welfare for the people of Abu Dhabi and its sister emirates, including Dubai." The relationship was such that the young planner, whose career was just starting, was able to speak frankly with the Sheikh when they had differences of opinion.

"You have hired me because I have the experience and education in this field and you have not. You should listen to me," Dr Takahashi once boldly told the Sheikh. It was a time when advisers praised everything the ruler said, with comments such as: "'Yes, your highness, you are absolutely right, what a great idea it is'," Dr Takahashi says. "I do not clearly recall the exact words I used. However, they were highly disrespectful and dangerous in the society of a feudal system," Dr Takahashi says. "I am a descendant of samurai and a long line of politicians, and in that system a man who spoke to the shogun [in that way] was long gone by hara-kiri [court-mandated ritual suicide]. I did leave Abu Dhabi alive. Inshallah."

"Planning to make Abu Dhabi a modern city at that time required a free flow of ideas first in order to have visionary plans," he says. "The decision-maker and planner had to work and speak frankly without fear or favour. "I was extremely lucky to have a brilliant, broad-minded decision-maker across the table from me. "He was a hands-on man, interested in everything. He was truly compassionate and concerned about public welfare and the progress of Abu Dhabi and beyond."

Dr Takahashi says it "was exciting and challenging to visualise and interact with Sheikh Zayed and all the many people in laying out plans, making sketches and drawings of buildings, open spaces, circulation networks, with pencils, water colours, sometimes drawing in the sand with Sheikh Zayed using camel sticks". Before he left to join the UN Centre for Housing, Building and Planning, where he remained for 10 years, one of Dr Takahashi's tasks was to give out the plots of land granted by the Sheikh to the people. Some were satisfied, while others complained that their plots were in a central area or too close to a main road.

"I explained to the people that their plots were the prime real estate in town and were valuable for future use either residentially or commercially," he said. "The ruler agreed with my rationale and told people, 'Do whatever the Japanese tells you to do.' Today, many of these people must be among the richest in Abu Dhabi."