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Eight Books on the Growth of Middle Eastern Super Cities

The Middle East grows at a hyper speed – but not without controversy, contradictions, and a unique amalgamation of approaches and results. While Dubai is often seen as the quintessential case study, many of the main cities through Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia forge ahead with as much verve as a perceived conceptual confusion. With innovation and determination, the decades since the mid-70s have seen cities rise from humble villages, carving out their own independence and urban identities to become mega-cities with ever-changing skylines. These eight books outline the continuous battle between political and economic growth, historical preservation, contentious social concerns, and homegrown cultural evolution.

The Arab City - Architecture and Representation

This book takes a critical look at the core components behind the contradictory motives of tradition and modernity in the Middle East. Breaking it down into two main areas of investigation – “The Arab City” and “Islamic Architecture”, Amale Andraos considers the buildings, cities and landscapes in both perspectives, not categories, as the terms are inextricably linked despite aesthetically and conceptually pronounced differences. A heavy and thorough collection of essays are included by key figures in the Middle East architectural scene that tackle cultural representation, the architectural, political and urban evolutions, and future potentials of developing space in the Arab World.

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Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle

Yasser Elsheshtawy, one of the main experts on the development of the UAE’s architecture and who endeavours to preserve the rapidly disappearing architectural heritage of the nation, has published numerous books on the topic. This one explores Dubai's history – tracing its origins as a fishing village with the Trucial States through to the glittering megacity it is today, via historical narratives, travel stories and existing novels, as well as incorporating fictional accounts by local writers adding a human touch. Elsheshtawy’s approach fleshes out Dubai’s oft-overlooked history and diverse “inner city” life – far from the high rises. He hones in on specific case studies and surveys to explore the economic and political forces behind Dubai’s growth, its state of context flux, and positioning in a global network. 

The Superlative City

This publication, also looking to Dubai as its main resource, delves into the oil wealth, land rent and “informal economic practices” that have allowed Dubai to become a city shaped by developers, as opposed to organic growth from necessity and heritage. Kanna asserts that the resulting urban landscape caters to the globate elite, is fuelled by migrant workers, and progresses frenetically with a smorgasbord of aesthetic canons, leaving academic and theoretical classification at a loss for anything more significant than stereotypes and over-simplified analyses. Gathering the opinions of industry experts from across the globe, the featured texts attempt to pause to truly grasp Dubai’s architecture, social theory and capitalism – all while the city forges ahead – to contextualise, de-exoticise and de-sensationalize the city’s strategies, visual appearance, pace, and perhaps most contentiously – its “underground”: worker camps and informal spaces. 

Architecture in Context

Published in 2017, architecture expert and consultant Hassan Radoine provides the most updated understanding of architecture and design in the Middle Eastern region. Presenting a contextualised overview of the academic and theoretical know-how present within regional practitioners and institutions, he also outlines the potential of creating a “sense of place” through local design vocabularies. While many books consider modernity and tradition as complimentary but still opposing entities within the region’s urban development, Radoine classifies them as much more connected, feeding off each other, if not stemming from the same foundation. Drawing parallels between independent, localized production and contemporary architectural concerns, influences and trends, this tome endeavors to rethink global/local boundaries, using architecture throughout a geographical zone spanning North Africa through to Turkey and Iraq as supporting evidence.

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The Singular Objects of Architecture

Adopting a visual language derived from Middle Eastern culture but without the socio-political or economic elements, French architect Jean Nouvel has been fixated on incorporating elements of Islamic design into his works for decades, ever since his first foray into it with Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe. This book provides an insightful conversation between two major figures in visual culture who incorporate philosophical concerns within architectural practice, influencing the tactics applied to politics, identity and aesthetics on projects including Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao and the pre-9/11 World Trade Center. Nouvel, whose creations toe the line between design and architecture (he describes himself as an architect who simply does design), guides the way in thinking about the future of architecture, modernity, and its effect on life.

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Zaha hadid architects

Not all of the Middle East’s production is consumer driven – late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid is an example of what the region has on offer in terms of creative innovation and urban planning. With structures that defied expectation and displayed impressive physical prowess, this 2017 publications summarizes and celebrates her unique practice through her architectural firm Zaha Hadid Architects. Focused on fluidity, innovation and organic progression, Hadid’s 1000+ projects across the globe simultaneously dialogued with natural topographies, man-made systems and cutting-edge technologies in a sharply sophisticated aesthetic.

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Temporary People

Despite being a work of fiction, this series of short stories presents an important and deeply controversial perspective. Gulf cities are acclaimed for their built-up landscapes, and rarely shed light upon the huge “guest worker” population that sustains them. This book, while surreal and peppered with elements of Kafka-esque allegory, addresses critical, serious issues throughout the migrant community in a digestible tone. From urban slavery and sexuality through to social hierarchies and human rights violations, with an uncomfortable underlying tone of isolation, Unnikrishnan speaks of a fringe population that is given no audible voice. 

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Urban Planning in the Middle East

Though published in 2011, Yarwood’s book is one of the most comprehensive resources on the region, describing urban planning in Turkey, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Albania, Syria and Yemen. More than an outsider eye, Yarwood has firsthand experience working on all of the projects he outlines, granting the book more authenticity and anecdotal fodder to remove the austere, theoretical and economic slant that many books on the topic possess. Accessible and digestible, it is broken into different chapters and themes that use separate regional case studies to holistically address urban development in the expanded region. This includes upgrading illegal or informal slums; urban conservation; traditional building construction as a reference for modern design; urban design of new city center areas; post-war recreation of urban planning systems; historical; and urban economic regeneration, all while touching on tradition versus modernism; regionalism and identity; the property market; privacy; arts; industrialized construction; the impact of automobiles and infrastructure; and public administration, politics and corruption.


Katrina is a contemporary arts editor/writer and TCK based in the Middle East with a special fondness for abject art, gourmet cheese and asking too many questions.


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