“…such signs… such buildings!”

Casual Observations of Abu Dhabi’s Quiet Ambition

Kahira Ngige (MUP '19)

Collage - AD.jpg

Collage by Kahira Ngige

1. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are twin cities. Like twins, casual observers are shocked when they display divergent personalities. Dubai is ‘bling’, Abu Dhabi ‘underrated’. Both cities are notable for being casually obliterated by David Harvey.

2. I treated coming to the Gulf with a mix of Denise Scott Brown’s bemused snobbery (Vegas!) and Mike Davis’ “arch sensibility” (LA!). In the preface to the second edition of Learning from Las Vegas, Scott Brown argues that the whole point of the book “reassesses the role of signs in architecture.” In essence, she demands that architects take a back seat to pop culture.

3. Abu Dhabi is neither Vegas nor LA. As a national capital, it is self-aware (in a way Dubai is not). Here, symbolism is important, represend by Jean Nouvel’s world in miniature under a sublime dome at the Louvre, Ferrari World in Ferrari Red, and Foster’s mendacious World Trade Centre. In Abu Dhabi, architecture is ‘dumbed down’, meaning it can be literal. However, it can also escape that symbolism. Downtown Abu Dhabi is gridded with pastel colored blocks, Gulf post-modernism built for oil. Beyond this core is the new Abu Dhabi comprising themed islands and hyper-speed technological determinism built for an age without oil.

4. Abu Dhabi isn’t merely an idea in the making (its overall vision to be determed). Rather, it is the constant rewriting of history. Downtown, demolitions of the candy colored old (built circa 1970) and the banal (souks) is common. The Gulf is after all, America - built to British standards. 20th century sins are magnified here and so is constant reinvention. Unsurprisingly, fast food is the glue that binds together this two-tiered nation of citizens (those that belong) and expatriates (those that never will).

5. Unlike LA, freeways in Abu Dhabi offer no pop cultural insights. Driving on a freeway does not make one more at ease with the local vernacular or even attempts to capture that local vernacular. Metaphors in Abu Dhabi are plain in that they are not metaphors at all. A shopping mall is a public space.

6. Abu Dhabi may not be a complete living theme park. However, like one it offers timed entry.

7. Unlike most nations, the UAE does not demand assimilation. There is no test of Emirati values. Yet, bar tourists, all of us are here in the service of the nation. Renier de Graaf, in jest, captured the spirit of the expat lifestyle with the mantra: “invoice early and invoice often.” What he meant to say was “take the money and run” [my translation].

8. Abu Dhabi is a city of memories without ruins. Like all cities, it is this forgetting that allows for growth and further deepening of the city’s founding myth. The city flips the Clintonian logic “there is no them; there is only us”. ‘Them’ denotes: the army of architects, consultants and experts that appear to outnumber citizens 10 to 1, while ‘Us’ designates: Emirati nationals. This is urbanism at a vast scale – a global scale, which demand that all architectural symbols be viewed at a distance as you fly out.


  1. David Harvey described as “socially unjust and environmentally wasteful” (he didn’t bother to visit). Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital : And the Crises of Capitalism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

  2. Raksin, Alex 'City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles' by Mike Davis. Los Angeles Times. Available online at

  3. http://www.latimes.com/la-bk-mike-davis-1990-12-09-story.html# [Accessed 15th July 2018]

  4. Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour, and Izenour, Steven. Learning from Las Vegas : The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977.

  5. A 10km test track is slated to open in 2020 in time for Dubai Expo.

  6. At Your Service: Ten Steps to Becoming a Successful Urban Consultant in Koolhaas, Koolhaas, Rem, Stichting Archis, and International Design Forum. Al Manakh 2 : Gulf Cont'd. Volume (Amsterdam, Netherlands) ; Issue 23. Amsterdam: Stichting Archis, 2010.

  7. The famous quote from Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.