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Tale of cities #43: how Dubai’s World Trade Centre sold the city to the world

Approminence App News Tale of cities #43: how Dubai’s World Trade Centre sold the city to the world

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Tale of cities #43: how Dubai’s World Trade Centre sold the city to the world

Posted By John Allen

In the 1970 s, the World Trade Centre stood beyond the leading edge of the city and convinced the world that oil-rich Dubai was open for business

There is a story told about Dubais World Trade Centre. It is about a businessman who came to the city in the early 1970 s. He entered the court of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum and asked for a piece of land on which to build. The sheikh consented, and sent a surveyor to reveal the businessman the site. The following day, the businessman returned to court and declined the offer saying, as politely as he could, that he had expected a site much closer to the city centre.

Months subsequently, upon find how quickly Dubai had sprawled outwards, he returned to tribunal and grovelled. He had failed to see the sheikhs magnanimity, he said, and wished to have the plenty after all. The sheikh informed him that the original site was now already spoken for, but offered another in its place. Once again, the businessman was taken to the site, this one much further out than the original offer. He turned his face in abhorrence and never returned. The second piece of land was the site of the World Trade Centre.

Caught in a reversal telling of Tantalus, reaching for but never willing to pluck fruit from a bountiful tree, the businessman wasnt alone in scoffing at Dubais future expansion. The city at the time seemed still focused on the hustle around the water of what was known as Dubai Creek. When the World Trade Centre came along, it was often photographed as marooned in a distant patch of desert a desert that somehow was also various kinds of swampy; there was a bad mosquito problem. The writer Jonathan Raban ensure the tower as he entered the city from Abu Dhabi. He called it smug.

Now the World Trade Centre is the gateway to the most memorable stretching of Dubais Sheikh Zayed Road, or E11, lined by duelling skylines and the subject of endless gleaming photograph pitched to investors: two rows of skyscrapers, in fractious opposition, facing off across a 12 -lane highway. With an exterior that is like a lattice made of tusk, the World Trade Centre is Sheikh Zayed Roads opening act but for decades it stood as a signpost, a marker for where Dubais development would eventually reach and surpass.

Dubai was an important port city for foreign merchants before the discovery of oil. Photograph: Sipa Press/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Today it is magisterial, if also a little quaint. At 150 m, its height scarcely qualifies it as a skyscraper. Up close “youre feeling” you could nearly put your limbs around it. When a new celebrity architect arrived at the township, he is often asked what he( its almost always a he) thinks of Dubais architecture. If he is sensible enough to conjure up a compliment, he will express admiration for the World Trade Centre. It will become a hip place some day soon. For now, its meaning derives from another epoch.

In 1974, Dubai was a very different place than it is today. Oil had been discovered in the emirate merely eight years previously, and the former trading town which merely watched its first asphalt road in 1960 was rapidly growing into a modern city. Banks vied with international hotel chains for a opinion over the creek. Europeans, Arabs, North Americans and south Asians were arriving by airplane and barge to profit from a city whose population had doubled in four years, to more than a million.

And yet you could still watch wooden dhows from Pakistan, Iran and India shipping rice and canned goods, and residents still use the old souks for at the least some of their shopping asking a favourite tailor to copy this seasons London manners, for example, or getting a radio repaired. Traffic was becoming unbearable. Dubais wealthier residents had begun to catch suburban fever, and city officials claimed the city needed to quadruple in sizing to meet demand. The Financial Times growled that Dubai was a city under strain. Western expatriates were known to complain of hissing empty taps, the blackouts, and the telex breakdowns.

Sheikh Rashid who the British press liked to call the merchant prince and had travelled to enough financial capitals to witness the ongoing merge of business with leisure commissioned his trusted designer, John Harris, to design an exhibit center for trade fairs. Within a few months, Harris returned with a campus of six-storey buildings. Rashid demanded a tower, and Harris who had entered with a proposal for an exhibition centre left the meeting with the mandate to design a World Trade Centre, a de facto franchise of the now world-famous brand.

Sheikh Zayed Road viewed from the 154 th floor of the Burj Khalifa, currently the worlds tallest building. Photo: David Cannon/ Getty Images

He dutifully visited the ones in New York and in Tokyo, and set about constructing a 33 -storey giant, by the far the tallest building in Dubai at the time. Halfway into construction, Sheikh Rashid insisted it be taller. It eventually topped out at the equivalent of 39 storeys.

If a skyscraper helps convince the world your city is for real, the World Trade Centre persuaded Dubai that it was open for business. The complex included all the elements supposedly needed by a global city: a luxury hotel, three towers of expensive apartments, an exhibit centre, a parking garage, tennis courts. You came in from the desert via a ramp, arriving at a raised entryway that kept sand off the marble floors and emphasised how the World Trade Centre was leaving the old ways behind: the city was going inside. Twenty-four hour management, security guards, a businessmans club, a traveling agency, a post office, a cinema, all of it promised smooth commercial transactions. Air-conditioning no longer meant a boxy division hanging out of the window, but a temperature-controlled environment where it was always 22 C.

The World Trade Centre was an early version of the city-within-the-city. You could live, work and play there. And every interior space not to mention the oasis gardens was carefully calculated into your management fees. The floor of the exhibition centre itself was modular it could become an ice-skating rink or a boxing ring with stadium seating.

Recreation merged smoothly into work. Marketing consultants indicated a mezzanine lounge with a rich Middle Eastern decor[ and] free coffee. Shared spaces offered desks, local telephones, news service tickers, and notice boards[ to] assist visitors adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. Sheikh Rashids consultants emphasized to Harris the importance of amenity and recreation in the interest of trade.

Dubais economy was based on revenues from trade until petroleum was discovered in 1966. Photograph: Paul Popper/ Popperfoto/ Getty Images

The Hilton, meanwhile, offered minibars and room service standard today, but at the time businessmen were known to arrive in Dubai to discover that they had reserved not a room, but a bed in a room. Tales abound of British purveyors and consultants arriving to drum up business in the 1960 s and 1970 s and having to sleep on stoops and freshen up in a public humen room before the pitching satisfying the next day. With the opening of the World Trade Centre, there was now a temporary glut of high-end rooms. Dubais global industrialists could eat Maine lobster, chilled on ice. The complex even operated on its own power plant.

It was also an operating city, especially when the 500 luxury apartments furnished by the Hilton opened next door, allowing you to live like a guest who pays for his own hospitality. Owned by Dubais ruler, the entire complex was meant to function independently from the rest of the city. The sheikh even owned the management company whose marketing campaigns in British newspapers pitched the superstructure as the natural centre of the Arab world.

But if the complex functioned as its own city, it wasnt abandoned outside the rest of the city. It was connected, by Dubais largest roundabout, to the vast staging site for Port Rashid, a 15 -year building project. Between the tower and the port lay Quonset huts and temporary warehouses, mounds of ground, tents and sheds assembled for labourers, forgotten debris from earlier the stages of construction; all of it manned by a small army of south Asian men wearing loose-fitting clothes and sandals. The World Trade Centre offered a sky box to watch the depict. From the windows of the tower, it was apparent that Dubais ruler was taking modernisation away from the existing city. The old Dubai Creek the existing centre of the city that the apocryphal businessman wanted so badly had faded behind a cloud of construction dust.

The Dubai World Trade Centre in 1999. Photograph: Rabih Moghrabi/ AFP/ Getty Images

Cordoned off from the rest of the city, Dubais most modern tower and port were the testing ground for a new various kinds of urbanism: for the first time, big tracts of land were being disengaged from the city. Urbanisation was now connected with the non-urban.

One might reduce the World Trade Centre at the time, the tallest building in the Middle East to an early example of Dubais pursuit of superlatives, which in the subsequent decades of the Burj Khalifa and Palm Jumeirah would reach such a hysterium of hubris and, eventually, spectacular debt-saddled collapse. But that would miss the fact that the tower was a message: a constrained, cost-efficient facade that incorporated an Islamic character in its pointed archways, but radiated the international signs of a place of business. The radio steeple on the spire constructed the World Trade Centre seem to be receiving and sending signals to other confluences of fiscal power. The sheikh bought advertising space in the Times and Financial Times , not just to sell space in the building, but also to sell Dubai to the world.

One way he sold it was to stress its British-built quality. Historically, Dubais development had always relied on mastering trade routes, acting as a hub for hardwood, steel, food, labor. The World Trade Centre, on the other hand, was about merely one connection: Dubais access to British design and engineering. The heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, glass, aluminium fittings and kitchen appliances are always manufactured under Britain and shipped into Port Rashid. Press releases reassured that British engineers were even supervising the mixing of cement. The only major part of the building that wasnt British were the people who assembled it: largely from Pakistan, living temporarily in barracks at the towers base.

In 1981, Margaret Thatcher, on a visit to sell limbs to Abu Dhabi, made a brief stop in Dubai. Sheikh Rashid took her to the top of his tower. They squinted out at the newest developing, Port Jebel Ali, the worlds largest manmade port, newly operational 30 km away, another example of British engineers and financiers delivering the infrastructure that would help ensure Dubais global dominance.

Peering outward, Thatcher could see the thin line of asphalt stretch away from the tower and fade. That asphalt would afterwards swell to become what is todays Sheikh Zayed Road. At the time, city officers didnt yet know how it was going to supply the 23 million gallons of water it would need to keep its citizens hydrated daily. A convincing, singular tower would do its part to trumpet Dubais viability, and secure its future line of credit.

Does your city have a little-known narrative that made a major impact on its development? Please share it in the comments below or on Twitter employing #storyofcities

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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