Give us vision!

July 7, 2010

Despite the Middle East’s high profile failures, Australia can still learn much from the development of these dynamic global cities.

The prospect of returning to the desert when the oil runs out was once accepted as inevitable in the Arabian Gulf. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the late ruler of Dubai famously said, “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.”

Instead of resignation to the desert, the fate of this region has been shaped by vision. Vision, the ambition and power to guide a course for the future, has been deployed superlatively across the Gulf: better, faster, stronger. With this vision, cities have been constructed with unparalleled determination to ensure the future generations of the rulers, and their people, can continue to prosper – and continue to drive Mercedes (electric, no doubt) – long after the oil runs dry.

This vision is no more evident than in Qatar, where, guided by the Qatar National Master Plan 2010-2032, they have delivered projects across a wide-range of fields with startling clarity of focus. A new airport and the new 40-kilometre Bahrain-Qatar Friendship Causeway will link Doha regionally and globally. The new IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art holds an extensive collection of Qatari cultural heritage. In sport, Doha hosted the 2006 Asian Games and is bidding for the FIFA World Cup in 2022. In media, the news outlet Al Jazeera is now a dominant player in the global news feed. The Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) holds stakes in Porsche and Volkswagen while the QIA real estate arm, Qatari Diar, has amassed a diverse portfolio of international projects, including the high profile Chelsea Barracks and the Renzo Piano-designed ‘Shard’ in London. Doha’s Education City boasts branches of six US universities including Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown and Northwestern. On the diplomatic front, Qatar has been hosting negotiations with Sudan, Lebanon and Yemen to end wars. And of course, in the fields of science and technology, Qatar’s commitment to innovation has been demonstrated by the impressive new research facility designed by Australian architects Woods Bagot.

Despite the key roles Australians are playing in shaping the future vision of the Middle East, lessons from this bold approach and decisive attitude to large-scale urban development are yet to have been brought home. Regardless of numerous proposals and endless public discussion, the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne Very Fast Train link has made little to no headway in decades. Sydney’s Barangaroo development has been compromised beyond recognition as attempts are made to appease every stakeholder and interest group. Discussions and competitions for this site have also been happening for decades. There is also impasse in Melbourne. The urban growth boundaries laid out in Melbourne’s 2030 planning document of 2002 were almost immediately disregarded as the government caved into pressure from home builders, leading a promising piece of legislation to become yet another disappointment. Efforts on our own soil to deliver large-scale urban projects seem dogged by confusion and disagreement.

Australia has had many successes too; the Snowy River Scheme, the Canberra city plan and more recently Melbourne’s Federation Square and the Docklands stand as exemplary projects where bold vision was delivered, albeit with compromises. In contrast, our current climate seems to be more focused on doing what is minimally required, rather than envisioning and delivering a future.

On the surface, it may be difficult to compare Australia with Qatar. With a population of only 1.4 million, it is home to fewer people than Perth alone. Qatar is also the fastest growing economy in the world, so perhaps money is what is holding Australia back? However, both Australia and Qatar feature in the top 10 list of countries with sovereign wealth; Australia’s Futures Fund held an estimated $87 billion at the end of 2009.

Assuming we can afford it then, this rapid development model may not be desirable to us anyway. It is easy to criticise the Qatari initiatives as just ‘buying culture’, ‘buying property’ or ‘buying ideas’ – and surely they are – but these efforts are also seeds for the future. So what is stopping us from taking bold steps forward? Of course, the key difference between Australia and Qatar is political. Although Qatar has stated its aim to move toward a form of democracy, the Emir still holds incredible executive powers. For Australia to take the lead in addressing issues of sustainability or population growth for example, it would require decisive gestures of a scale that would be no doubt compromised by our system of consensus-based politics, a process entangled in community consultation, senate committees and market reality.

The limitations of Western democracy in achieving major change are not new. The Club of Rome, in its report on tackling environmental sustainability in 1972, acknowledged that “Democracy is no longer suited for the task ahead.” More recently, Jaques Herzog, of the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, took a swipe at the stifling climate of his home country while discussing a massive new museum his office is designing for Kolkata. He remarked in the Financial Times: “If you grow up in Switzerland, with its hard-core democracy, then you travel, you realise we have reached our limitations – the popular vote is not an expression of freedom anymore but of the manipulation of an agenda by the political class and politics is just a game played among politicians.” While complaints like this may be motivated by the architect’s personal desire to build a legacy (and to make money), consensus politics doesn’t merely deprive architects of their commissions, but the public of vision.

This kind of logic leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: let’s do away with democracy. Long live dictatorships and all the freedoms they give to architects! But to do this would fail to learn from history – Qatar’s history – where until being deposed by his son in 1995, Qatar’s Emir Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani stagnated the nation’s economy with corruption. To focus on our political system as the target of revision is to throw the baby out with the bath water. Though what is clear is that our elected leaders – as they try to appease every stakeholder, including their opposition – are unlikely to give us this vision or the means to deliver it.

Rather than bemoan this situation, architects should seize this as an opportunity to get engaged with vision-making. There’s no reason to wait for clients or governments to give us briefs on the future; we should take responsibility for our cities by establishing and instigating our own briefs instead. Architects create narratives that help get our challenges across to policymakers; they give shape to our objectives and what is possible in a spatial context. Furthermore, by initiating proposals for the future, architects can stake a claim to be a part of the process of shaping it from a very early stage, instead of merely being asked to determine what it looks like.

MVRDV did exactly that with its proposal for The Netherlands to host the Olympic Games in 2028. Complete with economic feasibility study, a survey of precedents and detailed spatial designs – this self-initiated scheme gave the impetus for the government to pursue the idea in earnest, and earned MVRDV a voice in how this plan proceeds.

But these visions need not come from large established practices, nor operate on a giant scale to have impact. Peruvian design student and activist, Camila Bustamante, drew attention to the halted construction of the metro line in her hometown of Lima simply by sticking up signs for the planned stations with the projected date that they would be completed. This small intervention revealed that, based on current progress, some stations would not be completed until the next millennium. This was enough to reignite the debate within the national media.

For architects, this is unfamiliar territory. Our professional training does not encourage us to initiate projects without a client, brief, site or budget, but to simply respond to a given question. To deliver vision may require us to leave the comfortable confines of our discipline and engage policy-makers and the market, and to shepherd these ideas through to delivery. It is us, as designers, that need to take responsibility for the future, a whole generation of ‘citizen Emirs’ with the generosity and enthusiasm to care.

We may not be threatened by the urgency of a post-oil future, or the terrifying prospect that our children may not drive Mercedes, but neither should we become complacent. Qatar is an example of a place with a clear focus on the future, with a political system that enables a view beyond the election cycle. Australia has plenty of financial, institutional and human capital. Now, give us vision.

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