On Monday evening, students piled into Ellison Lecture Hall in Watson Fine Arts to hear Todd Reisz present on widespread connotations and general misconceptions that currently surround the city of Dubai. Entitled “It Smells Like Dubai,” the lecture is a part of a series on professional development for Art History students at Wheaton. Reisz is the Daniel Rose Visiting Assistant Professor in Urbanism at Yale University School of Architecture, and is currently working on a book about the early modernization of Dubai and how such convictions within that era shaped the city that the world knows today.
Before delving into a discussion about the media and Dubai, Reisz began by defining journalism. He flashed a photo on the screen: a woman holding a cardboard sign with a George Orwell quote written on it: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” Reisz argued the extent to which such a quote is true, and explained that Orwell is relevant to the current status of Dubai as it is often referred to as a futuristic city, much like Orwell’s 1984.
“I wonder sometimes about journalism,” Reisz said. “When does it actually become something that’s overtly critical for the sake of being critical?” Reisz then turned discussion to his experience as an architect in addressing the facades of Dubai that are so often critiqued by architects and tourists alike.
“Today we see the facade as something false, something we must take down in order to come closer to a truth,” he explained. “Dubai has taught me the value of the facade. Shouldn’t we be keeping ourselves busy understanding who built the facades, what they are leaning against, and what keeps them standing?”
With this question still lingering in the air, Reisz turned back to his profession as an editor, emphasizing that while he is both trained and licensed as an architect, he is affiliated with the cities of the Gulf region as a writer, researcher, and editor.
With a group of architects from regions across the globe, Reisz published two books entitled “Al Manakh” and “Al Manakh Cont’d.” The phrase al manakh has two meanings in Arabic, as it could refer to the physical climate as well as the social environment. In addition, al manakh has the phonetic connection to the English word “almanac.” The book focuses on new urban developments that are unfolding within the Gulf region, analyzing how cities like Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai are dealing with the global economic crisis at hand.
“We were interested in documenting how these cities are being portrayed in media,” Reisz said. “As good architects, we also relied upon mapping of data” to showcase the growth of the cities. He explained that approximately 100 authors from around the world worked on this project.
“When you write or talk about these cities, you’re as much talking about elsewhere as you’re talking about there. These cities really dissolve the idea of ‘here’ or ‘there.’”
This idea is something that has fascinated architects for years, as Dubai itself is often labeled as being temporary, a project bound to fail. Mike Davis, an American author and political activist, referred to Dubai as a “utopia of greed.” Reisz explained that everyone is a critic of Dubai, which is often deemed as “overly flashy” and “a temporary city-state.”
“We can always talk about a city or say something about it, but in the end we’re always saying more about ourselves,” Reisz explained. “Cities are this paradox; they become hyper-absorbent of whatever we want to place upon them. And as architects, we get in on that as well.”
Transitioning back to the notion of cities dissolving concepts of “here” and “there,” Reisz went on to explain the dreams that many architects held in the early modernization of Dubai. Dubai was considered a tabula rasa in many aspects, as it was thought to have no cultural or political associations.
“There was this idea that you could actually find a place where there’s no context. And I think that’s a really horrific thing that happened,” Reisz said. “If there’s any message I want to convey, it’s that this idea is entirely false. Even when there is no visual or physical culture, there is always an understanding that people have of the space around them.”
He then continued with a slew of headlines and quotations on the screen emphasizing how the media portrayed Dubai: as a city that had risen out of the sand. Reisz argues that these statements are entirely false, as Dubai’s modernization began a little over 50 years ago, but its history includes a great state of turmoil. He believes such descriptions are insensitive to very specific, personal histories of people who leave their homes and travel to Dubai in search of work and prosperity.
Reisz pointed to a spot on a map where this immigration occurs: a lightly populated providence in India called Kerala. According to Reisz, 60% of Dubai’s residents come from South Asia, and 60% of that percentage come from Kerala.
Reisz explained that almost every house in the village of Calicut, Kerala was empty, and would be re-inhabited in the summer, when money is brought back from Dubai, creating a need to express the wealth gained.
“People want to show what the Gulf provided for them,” Reisz said. He also stated that it was unfortunate, however, that “people come back with this money and it’s often unintelligibly managed. Families are often duked by contractors or run out of money while building new homes for themselves.”
Reisz explained his fascination with Kerala, as the villagers often referenced the smell of Dubai, one connected “to luxury, to being modern, to having it all.” The people of Kerala see Dubai as a certain land of opportunity in which they can obtain riches to bring back to India. They are so enthralled by the idea of Dubai that they have come to dream of the way it smells.
“These smells become exotic in the way that exotic loses its distinction between here and there,” Reisz closed. “The exotic is indeed something that’s placeless, because it’s everywhere.”