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Towers of power

Christopher Hawthorne is a Times staff writer.

“IF you want to be apocalyptic,” Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas writes in “Al Manakh,” a new study of Persian Gulf cities and their beanstalk towers, “you could construe Dubai as evidence of the-end-of-architecture-and-the-city-as-we-know-them.”

To be apocalyptic, you will probably not be surprised to hear, is precisely what Mike Davis wants. His own views on Dubai are included in “Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism,” a timely if uneven collection he edited with Daniel Bertrand Monk, and they possess all the razor-sharp pessimism he’s spent a career perfecting.

Davis’ view of Dubai -- one of the seven city-states that make up the United Arab Emirates, and for the last decade the biggest construction site this side of Shanghai -- is marked by stories of greed, exploitation and enough conspicuous consumption to make a hedge fund manager blush. In classically over-the-top fashion, he characterizes Dubai as “the ultimate Green Zone,” a fantasyland built on the backs of overworked and underpaid foreign workers who are violently brought into line every time they try to organize. It’s a place, Davis says, that “earns its living from fear,” with a skyline that is “a hallucinatory pastiche of the big, the bad and the ugly.”

Davis and Koolhaas are two of the most consistently compelling cultural critics working, and their subject here -- the just-add-water urbanism of nations that have made more oil money than they know what to do with -- is ripe for analysis. It is a pity that neither one decided to write a full book on the topic.

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But in the end, it is pretty clear that despite the vast ideological divide that separates them, both were attracted to the gulf for reasons that can only be called opportunistic. Neither is so different, in other words, from the planeloads of workers, developers and multinational corporations that flow each day into the region.

In Davis’ case, “Evil Paradises” is a sign that he wants to turn his singular brand of cultural criticism, for so long rooted in postwar Southern California, into a global franchise. He began the campaign last year with “Planet of Slums,” a tour of the squalid tin-roof outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria, Mexico City and other mega-cities.

“Evil Paradises” is a mirror image of “Planet of Slums,” a study of globalization’s victors instead of its victims. It surveys the ways that soaring oil revenues -- “petrodollars” is the catchy term of art -- and other newly acquired wealth are radically transforming urban landscapes around the world.

Its subject is not the ghetto but the enclave: the seven-star high-rise hotels, private islands, gated and themed neighborhoods and even special freeway overpasses that allow the super-rich, from Iran to Hungary to Colombia, to keep the toiling masses out of view. The essays suggest, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, that these new privileged realms threaten to make obsolete traditional definitions of what makes a city -- and what divides public from private.

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They also make clear that there is a steep human price to pay for the creation of luxury. In 2004, according to a report from the international organization Human Rights Watch, 880 construction workers were killed on the job in Dubai alone.

Davis, who now lives in San Diego, contributes just one of the 19 pieces here, plus an introduction co-written with Monk. But his shadow looms over the whole enterprise. The other contributors, who include an architect from Los Angeles, a writer from Orange County and a clutch of professors, cite him often.

And though none, sadly, write as memorably as he does, all share his worldview. There are chapters on gated communities in Egypt and Iran, which take their design cues directly from Southern California; on the residential architecture of the upwardly mobile in Budapest, Hungary; and on the “warlord kitsch” of new mansions in Kabul, Afghanistan. There is also a terrific essay by Joe Day -- he’s the architect from L.A. -- on how wealthy collectors including Armand Hammer, the De Menil family and Edythe and Eli Broad have reconfigured the idea of the “personal museum.”

With his 1990 book “City of Quartz,” Davis crafted a tremendously influential way of looking at Los Angeles, seeing in its segregated cityscape boundless evidence of architectural exclusion. His remains the defining critique of late-20th century L.A.

But Los Angeles is in the midst of a profound shift, growing denser and arguably more public. It is struggling to become a city with real neighborhoods, increasingly plagued by real urban-planning dilemmas. Instead of grappling with those changes, which threaten to make much of his writing on the city obsolete, Davis has chosen to apply his standard vision to the latest source of global fascination.

Not to mention that his prose style more and more resembles the cultural landscapes he is so keen to mock.

“Like a surrealist encyclopedia,” he observes of Dubailand, the U.A.E.'s version of Disneyland, now under construction, “its forty-five major ‘world-class’ projects include replicas of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Taj Mahal, and the Pyramids, as well as a snow mountain with ski lifts and polar bears, a center for extreme sports, a Nubian village, Eco-Tourism World, a vast Andalusian spa and wellness complex, golf courses, autodromes, race tracks, fantasia, the largest zoo in the Middle East, several new five-star hotels, a modern art gallery, and the Mall of Arabia.”

In that and other passages, he sums up Dubai as a pastiche-land of neon-bright, excessive and ultimately superficial pleasures. But his writing has come to rely on the same kind of flashy, formulaic distraction.

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“Dubai,” he writes, “is not a hybrid but an eerie chimera: A promiscuous coupling of all the cyclopean fantasies of Barnum, Eiffel, Disney, Spielberg, Jon Jerde, Steve Wynn, and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Although compared variously to Las Vegas, Manhattan, Orlando, Monaco, and Singapore, the sheikdom is more like their collective summation and mythologization.”

Making your way through those lines, distracted by the glittering phrases and whizzing cultural references, is not so different from walking through a forest of 80-story towers in Dubai or Shanghai. Davis is guilty of building his own rhetorical theme park -- the vertiginous MikeDavisLand, where the linguistic thrill rides are no less entertaining for the fact that they circle the same loops again and again.

Koolhaas may not see sunshine in every corner, but his take on Dubai, and the gulf in general, is essentially sanguine. He and other contributors to “Al Manakh” -- which means “the climate” or “the environment” in Arabic -- see the gulf as “a region that shows unprecedented energies” and the site of a new “accelerated urbanism.”

For Koolhaas, who contributes brief, ambivalent essays signed “RK,” the book is, in one sense, a record of the copious research he and his firm produce about the parts of the world where they work. It is also a chance to defend his controversial decision to take commissions from governments with dubious human rights records. He has used the same strategy in regard to his designs for Beijing, where his iconic tower for Chinese state television is now under construction.

Filled with charts, snapshots, diary entries by the architect’s associates and list upon list printed in agate type, the book is officially not a book at all but an expanded issue of Volume, the lively magazine Koolhaas and his firm put out with Columbia University and the European journal Archis. It includes some historical details about Dubai and the U.A.E. that Davis leaves out, notably stories about the first wave of celebrity architecture there, when Jorn Utzon (who designed the Sydney Opera House), Kenzo Tange and L.A.'s own William Pereira were enlisted to help turn the desert emirates into something resembling a Western city.

Koolhaas, who writes as well or better than any contemporary architect, is sharp about his feeling that Davis and other critics of the U.A.E.'s emerging brand of urbanism have little fresh to offer. Their complaints say “more about the stagnation of the Western critical imagination than . . . about the Gulf cities,” he argues. “The Gulf is not just reconfiguring itself; it’s reconfiguring the world.”

At times, “Al Manakh” reads like an argument Koolhaas is having with himself about whether it’s worth it, morally or architecturally, to work in the U.A.E., where most new towers are built in a garishly expedient style. “Is it possible,” he writes, “to view the Gulf’s ongoing transformation on its own terms? As an extraordinary attempt to change the fate of an entire region? Is it possible to present a constructive criticism of these phenomena? Is there something like a critical participation?”

Tellingly, he frames these issues in the form of questions -- some rhetorical, others pointed and nearly all of them, at this stage of the gulf’s history, unanswerable. *

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