Review: Al Manakh Gulf Continued Debate

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By Timothy Moore

Al Manakh Gulf Continued Debate
May 19, Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), Rotterdam
With Hani Asfour, Rem Koolhaas, Ronald Wall

After a year in the making, the mammoth Al Manakh marched into the NAi in Rotterdam on May 19, just after being launched a few nights earlier in Abu Dhabi.

Editor Arjen Oosterman commenced by presenting the publication itself. Unlike the first Al Manakh, which ‘looked like it had been dragged off the internet and onto the page’ (wrote Justin McGuirk from the Guardian), Oosterman mentioned Al Manakh: Gulf Continued had another look and feel, which was delivered by editor Todd Reisz and designer Irma Boom: with less focus on architectural extravaganza and more nuance on voices in the region. These voices were structured into four chapters (Crisis and Crises, Vision, Export and Cohabitation) and connected through a system of cross-references developed by Editor Todd Reisz to bridge the often contradictory and overlapping views.

Rem Koolhaas explained that there is a need to counter the usual media coverage on the region. We need to get ourselves informed on an important and influential part of the world, which we often prefer to mock or ignore. He also questioned the perspective from which we see the region. Underlying all of the articles in the publication, Koolhaas commented, is the notion of economics, which he challenges as being the ultimate default in the world (of architecture). He asked whether there are other underlying values: do we not dream of other things?

Following Koolhaas, Hani Asfour, an architect working between Dubai and Beirut, continued to dream. However, his dream was one of a Gulf region that could transform into a post-oil knowledge economy. Hani Asfour conjectured that the bubbling and exchange of knowledge could already be witnessed in spaces like Shelter and Traffic in Dubai. However, one could also take the example to KAUST in Saudi Arabia, where traditional university departments have been replaced by clusters of academics forming around problems (see John Gravois, Al Manakh: Gulf Continued, p. 412).

Dubai was also singled out by economic geographer and Al Manakh contributor Ronald Wall. With a dazzling and complex network diagram of the world, Wall highlighted the relations of global investments between cities, and championed Dubai as the only GCC city with a diverse portfolio beyond oil.

Due to all of the hyperbole that Dubai attracts, there were several other cities that were seldom mentioned during the evening: Jeddah, Riyadh and Kuwait City among them. In the discussions after the presentations, Hani Asfour stressed the diversity of the region at stake because the cultural, economic, religious and social differences are enormous. Publications like the Al Manakh – according to him – could help in a better understanding of the region’s specificities. But on the night, social and political conversations were overshadowed by talk of economic transition. Perhaps, with the decline of the euro, Westerners have money on their mind. In the Gulf, people go about their business as usual.