“In places as environmentally and culturally distinct as the Barents Sea, five hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, and Dubai on the Persian Gulf, new and surprising urban morphologies are taking shape. These sites, among others, are fueled by the rapidly developing resource-based wealth of an overexcited global oil and gas market.”
By Mason White
Because the world is now consuming resources at more than twice the rate of their development and discovery, resource exploitation and urban development are closely aligned phenomena; the seeds of contemporary cities are often to be found in newly discovered resources or in the great wealth that has accrued to some small oil-spoilt states.
The uneven distribution of fossil fuels has enormous global implications: it has caused wars, economic strife, geopolitical instability, and environmental degradation. Hydrocarbon resources, especially petroleum and natural gas, and the threat of their depletion, have driven the economies of cities at an unprecedented rate. National economies around the world are envisioning and creating urban developments of a kind never seen before. These visions often materialize as large-scale, almost regional, conceptions of urban and infrastructural utopias. Islands, enclaves, infrastructural megaprojects, novelty super-towers, and offshoring are the byproducts of exuberant global competition. Today, cities compete and evolve through intense urban marketing and branding: from billboards digitizing a new city to press releases announcing eco-village developments, the robust fantasies of the petro-dollar economy abound. Large-scale oil and gas development and superlative urbanism are fueled by global economic rivalries and competitive city-building.
In Russia, this process of intensified strategic infrastructural development has yielded what one could call gas urbanism. In the United Arab Emirates, the new urban forms—call them slick cities—are centered on luxury, leisure, and neo-capitalism
I: Gas Urbanism
The development of significant gas fields in the Arctic sea shelf off Russia has roused this former superpower from its recent economic slumber. Gazprom, a state-controlled conglomerate, oversees 16 percent of the world’s gas reserves; the company is the biggest extractor of gas in the world, and it ranks third behind Saudi Arabia and Iran in the oil and gas reserves it controls. With almost 60 percent of the Russian economy accounted for through the export of raw materials, especially oil and gas, there has been an acceleration in the emergence of new technologies and infrastructure. An intricate network of highly specialized works of engineering is being put in place. Existing cities are being transformed but, more than that, a contemporary urban form centered on a constellation of extraction and processing infrastructure is being born. It is a city of tankers, platforms, ports, and pipe networks. Widespread and quickly diffused, the infrastructural city is like urban form in a gaseous state. Gas urbanism, like the state of matter, is without definite shape and of relatively low density.
The Shtokman Gas Field
The port of Murmansk (population 335,000), the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, sits on the Barents Sea, where, by a twist of fate, global climate change has raised temperatures enough over recent decades to make previously inaccessible areas thought to be resource fields now developable. One significant gas field called Shtokman was discovered in the Barents in 1988, 550 kilometers northeast of Murmansk, beyond helicopter range. Estimated to contain 3.7 trillion cubic meters of reserves, the Shtokman Field has inspired an innovative Arctic urbanism of a kind never seen before. Like the extensible, networked structures imagined by Japan’s Metabolists in the 1960s, Shtokman will be an ever-evolving, self-extending organism of pipelines, tankers, platforms, rigs, living quarters, and more. The developers intend to extract the gas with the help of floating, ice-resistant platforms connected to the sea bottom with special templates, but which are also able to move out of the way of approaching icebergs. Gazprom, which owns 51 percent of the project, is constructing more than 3,000 kilometers of offshore and onshore pipelines, and has promised that Shtokman will come on stream by 2010.
Murmansk is strategically ideal for the exploitation of Siberian and Arctic fields because it remains ice-free throughout winter in spite of its location. The port is currently the region’s largest coal-exporting facility, but when the Arctic shipping boom materializes the city is expected to grow rapidly into a new role as a major transport hub. In February 2008 a special economic zone was established around the port, and a new 25 million–tonne oil terminal on the western shore of the Kola Bay is planned. This will likely replace the massive Belokamenka supertanker, which, converted into a floating oil terminal and anchored in the port, currently serves as one of three offshore transshipment facilities in the bay.
The efficient transportation and processing of the Shtokman natural gas will be essential to the economic success of the development, and Russia has created a complex sea transport organization that includes an ice-breaking fleet, cargo ships, hydrographic support for Arctic mariners, a navigation-monitoring system, and of course, new Arctic ports. These on- and offshore facilities and services allow vessels to navigate the North Sea Route almost year round and under any hydrometeorological conditions.
Another frontier resource field that is experiencing a boom is in the North Pacific, off Russia’s Siberian coast. The island of Sakhalin, a former penal colony, is at the center of this new development. The oil and gas reserves lying off its shores are expected to yield 14 billion barrels (2.2 cubic kilometers) of oil and 96 trillion cubic feet (2,700 cubic kilometers) of gas. The fields are named Sakhalin I through VI in the expected sequence of their phased development. Sakhalin I began production in October 2005 and reached full operating capacity in 2007.
At present, three platforms are at work in the region. The Yastreb, the world’s most powerful land rig, anchors the Chayvo well site on Sakhalin’s northeast coast. At over twenty-two stories high, it is capable of drilling extra-long, extended-reach wells to develop Chayvo field reservoirs nearly eleven kilometers offshore. With the rig enclosed and heated to handle extreme temperatures, Yastreb’s crews are able to work even in midwinter conditions of thick ice cover. Complementing Yastreb is Orlan, a twenty-well concrete structure serving as the offshore drilling and living quarters for Sakhalin I. There is also an onshore facility that processes the oil and gas, which are then moved 637 kilometers south to a distribution port in Prigorodnoye.
Prigorodnoye, the distribution site, was a small village just 13 kilometers east of the town of Korsakov that has now been entirely subsumed into the business of Russia’s first foray into liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing. LNG, with its greater density, boasts increased efficiency for storage and transport. Tankers access the processed goods from two loading arms on an 805-meter jetty into Aniva Bay. At peak Prigorodnoye will service about 160 LNG carriers and 100 oil tankers each year, or one every two days.
During Phase 1 of the Sakhalin field development in 1998, the Molikpaq offshore platform was installed. A converted Canadian drilling rig that was first used in the Beaufort Sea, the Molikpaq was towed across the Pacific Ocean to Korea where it was upgraded for Sakhalin II. Molikpaq was retrofitted with a steel spacer that allows it to better handle the deep waters off Sakhalin. About 150 people can live and work on Molikpaq as it is now, but two new platforms, PA-B and LUN-A, to be added in 2008, will each accommodate about 100 additional staff members. With autonomy similar to that of micronations, these rigs act as small company islands. These floating company quarters will be engineered with friction pendulum anti-earthquake bearings, safety technology commonly used in California. Expected to complete setup in 2008, Sakhalin II will be the largest oil and gas field in the world.
A controversial third new Russian urban development project—more city than infrastructure—was recently proposed by Gazprom. In November 2006 the company announced an architectural design competition and invited international firms to submit visions for a large complex, centering on new headquarters for Gazprom, to be built in St Petersburg, a city whose center is a UNESCO world heritage site. The winning design came from the London-based firm RMJM, one of six entrants. The project envisions a dense 77-hectare enclave of administrative buildings surrounding a 369-meter skyscraper complete with concert halls and shopping centers. The fact that the tower would be three times the height of the nearby historic Smolny Cathedral was considered unacceptable by many of the competition jurors, who subsequently walked out in protest. More recently, even UNESCO has requested that Russian authorities halt construction. In an attempt to fend off negative publicity, Gazprom and RMJM have announced that the construction of the tower will be at the forefront of sustainability. Putting on a good face in the big city while rampantly developing resource fields, Gazprom’s image as the Kremlin’s cash cow seems even more assured by the recent successful presidential candidacy of Dmitry Medvedev, previously chair of the board at Gazprom.
II: Slick Cities
Intense urbanization in countries across the Middle East has given rise to several unique urban morphologies with regard to scale, land use, and lifestyle. In the United Arab Emirates, the city of Dubai stands out as an example of a newly articulated urbanity. Oil was discovered in Dubai in 1966, and petrodollars funded the modernization of the emirate. However, the oil reserve, not that substantial to begin with, is due to expire in 2010. A shrewd business maneuver by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, is repositioning the city-state as a service- and tourism-centered economy based on a series of enclaves combining business with luxury, artifice with natural splendor, and excess with amenity. The growth of contemporary urbanism here is not about density or practicality: it is unabashedly about fantasy and the luring of international trade and tourism. Roughly $100 billion worth of projects are either underway or planned.
Dubai posits the post-oil city as a dizzying mix of oases, constructed islands, megatowers, and industry-specific zoning. It has faith in superlative urbanism: tallest tower, largest retail development, biggest man-made harbor, fastest-growing airline, largest land creation/reclamation projects, and the most imaginative branding of urban zones as micro-cities. In one of the largest urban investment risks of recent history, Dubai is zealously engineering artificial islands, techno-enclaves, and extensive leisure infrastructure.
Enclave Urbanism: Resorts
Will the Dubai experiment prove to be a model for other oil-rich countries anticipating post-peak fallout? And will its rapid transformation from industrial modernity to an international corporate/leisure destination be successful? Arguably the world’s first de novo urban brand writ large, Dubai, the idea, is taking shape right now. Radically fusing free zones, extreme leisure, and an investor’s dream, Dubai already had tax-free status, low inflation, and a high standard of living. In 2002 its offerings as economic haven were enhanced when its rulers decreed that foreigners would be legally entitled to own freehold property, and purchasers would be granted visas as permanent visitors. There is no precedent for this anywhere on the globe. Intoxicated by this open invitation, leisure-seekers and global-minded businesses alike have flocked to this desert city on the Persian Gulf.
An early project, the construction in 1985 of the Jebel Ali Free Zone port, with the world’s largest man-made harbor, gave Dubai an identity as a staging place for some 4,000 companies, from 100 countries, looking to gain access to the growth markets of Asia. Since that time, developers such as Emaar and government-owned Nakheel have concentrated and reterritorialized desert land to build micro-cities serving emerging global businesses. This has spawned an entirely new kind of international urbanism that combines offshoring with programmatic enclaving in some forty-odd tax- and duty-free oases puzzled together. However, enclaves are not interested in their edges, and are indifferent to the extent of territory they cover. Enclaves are certainly not interested in urban centers. Enclaves are an incomplete idea that does not need finishing.
In Dubai’s residential enclaves, internal patterns reference only themselves. Figure and ground are interchangeable. Ground is as much figure as built mass. They are not unlike North American gated suburban communities, but here the gate is water or desert or superhighway. Each zone is a sterile mini-city with clichéd nomenclature, such as Jumeirah Village, Emirates Living, and Discovery Gardens, and each offers a generic but competitive list of amenities such as waterfront property, golf, and themed gardens. Though culturally and geographically deracinated, each zone acquires identity through “theme,” which is the lifeblood of this form of urbanism.
Business enclaves behave similarly though at a larger scale. Here too there is a resemblance to the retail corridors of exurban North America. These commercial zones group their facilities in campus-like clusters, avoiding ambiguity with such blatant and Calvino-esque names as Knowledge Village, Healthcare City, Media City, Internet City, or Sports City. The brochure for
one development called “Lost City” sums up this blending of theme and branding best when it claims it is “inspired by famed cities in Arabian history and combines this with the best of modern amenities.”
Enclaving is also about imagineering familiarity. For example, Dubai International City zone contains a life-size replica of the Forbidden City. Developers are simulating an “off-world” of global familiarity, placed somewhere between the manufactured cities of the game SimCity and Philip K. Dick’s off-Earth colonies. Unreality mixed with familiarity is part of the scheme, and it is not always successful. For example, an indoor ski slope called Ski Dubai – its ability to entice tourists notwithstanding – is rumored to reek of Freon.
Dubai’s zones serve mostly as bookmarks for future investors as they test the waters of development experiments such as Dubai Aid City or Dubai Outsource Zone. Almost arbitrarily, one plot of sand is designated for sports and another for media. Combining the programmed leisure of the megaresorts of Las Vegas with the pop aesthetic of Tokyo, Dubai generates a mirage of place within a car-fueled desert suburbanism.
Island Urbanism: Fabricating Land
When potential buyers consider a Dubai purchase there is often no physical land for them to view. They are buying the idea of land the way they buy an idea of lifestyle. Land is
engineered in Dubai, as developers freely manufacture new islands and peninsulas, shifting rock and sand to replace the sea, and creating lagoons, canals, and marinas where there once
was land. Unlike Holland, Dubai manufactures land through dredging rather than draining; their enterprise is additive rather than subtractive.
Dubai’s true urban innovation, despite all its fantasy themes, is more its production of land than architecture. Sand and sea seem to be switched at will. Probably most significant are the land reclamation and dredging projects of Nakheel developers. These island-based residential projects offer a manufactured suburbanism, or a romanticized version of living offshore. As Nakheel states on its website, they offer “a portfolio that redefines home, holiday, and investment.”
Five developments—“The World,” with manmade islands as a map of the world, each in the shape of a country; “The Waterfront,” a series of massive arcing islands and three versions of “The Palm,” peninsulas branching out like fronds—perfectly exemplify the Dubai aesthetic. In name alone, each commands an authoritative, there-is-only-one singularity; the The in their designations signifies the branding. With every flight into Dubai, passengers are treated to an aerial spectacle, descending toward a stage set with choreographed advertisements for the lifestyle of these developments. And the palm shape? Well, what could better represent the collective unconscious of oases and paradise urbanism than a palm tree?
The palm figure combines a “trunk” of infrastructure and amenity with residential “fronds” wide enough for double-loaded housing, staggered far enough apart for sea-based cul-de-sacs, with a private beach extending from each house like a sandy lawn. “The Palm Deira,” at 80 square kilometers, is the size of Greater London, and larger than Paris or Manhattan. Yet Deira offers only eight thousand villas. What matters is not
density but exclusivity, not urban planning but living in a postcard. “The Palm Jumeirah” project has become so enormous that low-paid laborers have been living offshore in cruise ships during construction in order to avoid traffic congestion on the one bridge that provides access to the site.
The World’s re-creation of, well, the world, as a series of private customizable island plots ranging from 23,000 to 83,000 square meters (and costing an average of $15 million apiece) is a mutant miniaturization of countries as islands, allowing the purchaser to conflate the owning of land with owning a nation. This act of dividing the land from the sea also serves to edit our real world, taking liberties with the shape of certain countries while omitting others entirely; there is no Israel in this “World” and no Northern Ireland either—too politically loaded for an oasis. By some counts the combined reclamation of The Palms, The World, and The Waterfront accounts for 2.5 billion cubic meters of rock and dredged sand. Taken together, projects like the recently completed Palm Jumeirah have added sixty kilometers of coastline to the Persian Gulf.
But who would be capable of such a massive land and marine engineering project? Who but the Dutch? A marine contracting company called Van Oord that specializes in dredging was hired in 2001 for The Palm Jumeirah. Since then, Van Oord has had a fleet of dredgers in Dubai working twenty-four hours a day. The primary equipment is the trailing suction hopper dredger, which allows the fleet to move 200,000 cubic meters of sand every day. Since the water can be up to 11 meters deep, the first sand deposits are unloaded through a base hatch. The remaining sand is moved by a machine that spits an arc of filtered sand through the air, in a process called “rainbowing,” to the desired location, until the land surface appears above sea level. For The Palm a perimeter breakwater was established first, to protect the potentially fragile “fronds” of the palm tree as they were built up.
Every twenty-four hours a boat equipped with a sophisticated multi-beam echo sounding system issues a fresh survey of the entire adjoining seabed topography to the dredgers. This guidance, combined with GPS technology, allows the drivers to deposit sand in precise locations relative to palm tree or world map layouts. In the end something designed from above is built from above, through locative data and surveying systems.
Slowly and steadily islands rise to the surface, in a process halfway between Smithson-like “aerial art” and a kind of freewheeling pop urbanism. Simultaneously inviting and mysterious, Nakheel’s developments exhibit a Koolhaasian “bigness,” but without dependence on the small-scale technical infrastructure of elevator, steel, and air conditioning. Instead these fantasy islands are a product of the infrastructure of global tourism, global positioning systems, and land-moving technology. Like Koolhaas’s escalator or HVAC, these are all mechanisms in their own right, though operating at a scale bigger than “bigness.”
With six million visitors a year, Dubai has emerged as one of the fastest-growing holiday destinations in the history of the travel business, a global hot spot for the information age. Lessons learned in Miami, Las Vegas, and the Netherlands are in the next stage of their evolution here on the Gulf coast. In many ways, the physicality of Dubai is less important than the idea of its physicality.
III: Conclusion: New Utopias
The urbanisms fueled by hydrocarbons in Russia and the United Arab Emirates are two extreme examples of evolving city-forms ultimately presenting new forms of utopia. Russia’s Sakhalin and Shtokman fields yield a utopia of infrastructure and connectivity. Dubai’s Palms and World produce a hallucinogenic post-peak leisure land. No place on earth can lay claim to such ambitious utopian projects, at such a massive scale, as these two. And this is how they should be confronted, within the lineage of the cultural production of utopia. Utopia is not necessarily a place that all would seek to inhabit. In fact, as here, utopian imaginings can often be the result of fantasy on overdrive, reaching a condition simultaneously alluring and repulsive.