Dubai mirrors Vancouver in Maraya
At Centre A until December 17
Seven years ago, during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Trevor Boddy made a fascinating discovery. The Vancouver-based architectural critic observed that the Dubai Marina, an immense luxury development situated on a man-made body of water in the Arabian desert, was being consciously modelled on the look, if not the spirit, of the north shore of Vancouver’s False Creek. From the tall, thin residential towers with townhouses, restaurants, and shops at their bases to the seawall walk paved with rosy bricks and bordered by curving metal handrails, the Dubai Marina mimics much of False Creek’s post-Expo 86 appearance.
In a local daily, Boddy reported that a number of Vancouver planners, developers, and architects had been “lured” to Dubai to create its marina project in our image. He also reflected on the emergence of both Vancouver and Dubai as “portal cities”, which he defined as “points of connection that trade in ideas, lifestyles and zones of refuge”.
Much of what Boddy wrote about in 2004 is reflected in the photographs and videos that make up the exhibition component of Maraya. A multifaceted project with a public presence that includes walks, talks, bus-shelter images, and an interactive website, Maraya looks at the master-planning connections between the north shore of False Creek and the Dubai Marina. The project’s creators, Vancouver-based artists and educators M. Simon Levin, Glen Lowry, and Henry Tsang, have spent five years researching, documenting, and promoting dialogue. What they register here is what Boddy and other journalists have observed: that Vancouver has developed a distinctive, internationally exportable brand of urbanism. The title “Maraya” derives from an Arabic word meaning “mirror” or “reflection”, and there is much mirroring going on, literally and metaphorically, in the photos and video projections on display at Centre A. Many of the still and moving images of the Dubai Marina and False Creek’s Concord Pacific Place, shot from various levels and angles, are paired. This reinforces likenesses, but mixes things up, too, so that we could be looking at two images of Vancouver side-by-side, or two of Dubai. We’re given twinned images of everything, from bridges and bollards to plazas, paving stones, swimming pools, construction cranes, and sun umbrellas.
The Maraya exhibition at Centre A is apparently not designed to stand alone and, as such, seems on first viewing to be lacking in critical content. The way the photos and videos are shot and presented (without labels, didactic panels, or curatorial essays) means that they project a cheerily promotional character. Endless sunshine glints off glass towers and green water, white yachts gleam in spotless marinas, individuals stroll at their leisure. As an articulate audience member remarked at a recent public talk, the show at Centre A could be mistaken for a real-estate developer’s display at a condo pre-sale centre. Some oblique scenarios are enacted in the videos—a man looks for something under a blackberry bush; a group of people walk one way, then another; something in a plastic bag is passed through a fence—but they don’t seem to address the more problematic social, political, economic, and environmental aspects of the subject. Not least among these problems is that international investors like to park their money in “portal cities”, leaving many high-end residences standing empty and catapulting real-estate prices far beyond the reach of the majority of citizens.
Still, it’s possible to see the show at Centre A as a starting point rather than a conclusion: certainly Maraya’s organizers have broached a number of issues through their public programs and online platform. A two-hour walk that Levin led around False Creek last Saturday was wonderfully illuminating about what works (the community centre and other public amenities, view corridors, Seawall access) and what doesn’t (public parks that appear to be private, empty courtyards with no benches). A week previously, at a “salon” at Centre A, Lowry spoke about “the rhetoric of excess” and also cited urban philosophers Jane Jacobs and Michel de Certeau to explain why some of the photos and videos were shot at ground level and some from a godlike spot in the sky.
Levin noted that the Maraya project was intended as “a provocation—to raise questions about who makes cities”. So it’s up to us to be provoked, to think about the issues and then take a stand on the moral complexities of transporting a high-density urban development model from a temperate-zone democracy to a desert sheikdom. Up to us to register our curiosity, our amazement, and our dismay.
Jan 24, 2012 at 3:58pm
For those who may have missed this at Centre A, it will be on at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) from February 29 to May 20, 2012.