Karl Sharro







Dubai Max



It may seem strange that anyone would chose Dubai as a starting point for discussing the future city, for the cityís name has become synonymous with all that is wrong with the world today: greed, environmental vandalism and social injustice. The skyscrapers along Sheikh Zayed road are seen by many as modern day towers of Babel daring to challenge the authority of our beloved Gaia. But it is easy to forget that turning living cities into easily digestible parables about the human condition often tells more about the biases of those passing judgment than the reality of those cities themselves. Rather than agreeing with those keen to dismiss Dubai as the ultimate folly of our age, I am going to challenge their assumptions and argue that they are the result of myopic vision induced by a chronic pessimism about mankindís ability to transform the world. Rather than agreeing that Dubai has gone too far, I will argue that it has not gone far enough.


The title of this session invites us to re-write the rule book and where better to start than the city that seems to have broken all the rules? Dubaiís promise stems from its ability to offend the sensibilities of the urbanistas who are desperately trying to revive the 19th century city while pretending that modernism never happened. Dubai challenges the prevailing wisdom in urban design circles on every level: itís big, brash and doesnít give a shit about the public realm. Yet for all its ambition, Dubai is being prevented from fulfilling its potential by outdated ideas that still dictate the way that cities develop and that have changed very little over the past century. What began as a way for rationalizing the development of cities has today become a barrier that needs to be overcome.

The modern era established a model for the city that relies on a number of elements: clearly defined development plots with corresponding air rights, ground level transportation and a subterranean infrastructure network. Rational as this model was, it meant that the city became populated with a series of extrusions adhering to their prescribed property boundaries and connected to other buildings at ground level. State agencies reduced modernism to a number of easily applied rules that could be reproduced endlessly, for such is the limitation of the bureaucratic mind. The streets in the sky never really materialized.

Despite Dubaiís chaotic appearance, it does largely stick to this model albeit by constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Over the past few years, Dubai has created a number of unique engineering problems that have required innovative solutions, ranging from vertical transport and structure in the tallest building in the world, to satellite controlled sea reclamation. Recently, Dubai started operating the first phase of the longest elevated train network in the world. Dubai has an unquenchable thirst for space and connectivity that can only be fulfilled by breaking the rules of the modern city and fundamentally transforming the way in which city space is organized.


Dubai Max proposes a series of horizontal skyscrapers and elevated circulation networks that aim to challenge the inherent two dimensionality of the modern city. Dubai Max proposes eliminating all existing property lines and replacing them with three-dimensional spatial configurations that allow buildings to bridge over streets and stitch the city together on various levels. Train lines and maglev elevators connect buildings at high levels transforming the space of the city and liberating it from the constraints of ground level movement. Say goodbye to traffic jams.

There are no public spaces as such in Dubai, only shopping malls and hotel lobbies. Dubaiís harsh climate means that itís an indoor city, the perfect place to reinvent streets in the sky. 

Read about Burj Dubai.


Karl Sharro 2009

From a talk given at Minimum or Maximum Cities at the University of Cambridge.