Sunday, January 03, 2010

Megalomania or a Grand Achievement?

Dubai, like no other place in the world, epitomizes globalization, "innovation" and "astonishing progress," as US President Barack Obama said admiringly in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June. But it also stands for mind-boggling excess. In Dubai, utopias almost feel real sometimes, and reality is sometimes nothing but a mirage.

Megalomania or a Grand Achievement?

Nevertheless, the excessive building of cities and towers seems to be a cross-cultural constant, a dream and nightmare alike for mankind, from the Babylonians to the heroes and villains of the present. The ruler of Dubai isn't the only one who has carried out his plans in reinforced concrete and gleaming facades.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan had Astana, an entire city of monumental avenues, triumphal arches and pyramids built as his new capital, where marble contrasts with granite, buildings are topped by gigantic glass domes and, on the Bayterek Tower, every subject can place his or her hand in a golden imprint of the president's hand.

In the Burmese jungle, dictatorial generals had an absurd new capital, Naypyidaw, or "Seat of the Kings," conjured up out of nothing. Yamoussoukro, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire and a memorial to the country's now-deceased first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, is even a step closer to the brink. The city is filled with grandiose buildings, but there are hardly any people to be seen. The Basilica of Notre Dame de la Paix is a piece of lunacy inspired by the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, but the African church is even bigger than St. Peter's. Indeed, it is the world's largest Catholic church.

It is easy to ridicule the megalomaniacs and their hubris and to rail against the record-breaking mania reflected in their ostentatious buildings, phallic symbols of the rise to power of nouveau-riche potentates.

And yet, aren't Brasilia and Canberra, the South American and Australian versions of the man-made model city, remarkable successes? Hasn't history proven at least a few visionaries right, people whose achievements we continue to marvel at today: the creators of Giza on the Nile, Machu Picchu in the Andes and Angkor in Cambodia, or the planners of St. Petersburg?

Today, the pyramids of the pharaohs, the mountain fortress of the Incas and the sacral ruins of the Khmer are admired as part of the world's cultural heritage, places that attest to man's greatness. They are the great and magnificent achievements of past eras. Nowadays, the center of St. Petersburg—designed on the drawing board, like Dubai today, more than 300 years ago—is still considered an ideal city and an example of successful urban planning.

Where the emirates are built on sand, the banks of the Neva River were once swampland. At the behest of the czar, St. Petersburg was not just created as Russia's window to the West, but as a reflection of what the modernists of the day defined as utopian. "Now, city of Peter, stand thou fast, Foursquare, like Russia; vaunt thy splendor! The very element shall surrender And make her peace with thee at last," Alexander Pushkin, the congenial poetic counterpart to Peter the Great, wrote in his poem "The Bronze Horseman." It was pure hubris, cast in the form of magnificent verse.

What happens today in Dubai—or in Shanghai or Astana—generally happens under the conditions of an authoritarian form of government. In democracies, people cannot be dispossessed and driven off their property but, instead, can hire attorneys to assert their rights. In democracies, more or less reasonable building codes and ordinances, as well as licensed appraisers, ensure that uncontrolled growth and injustices are kept in check. But this limiting effect also applies to creativity, spontaneity and "positive" megalomania, resulting in a general leveling of things.

The Virtue of Taking the Plunge

"This society is mediocre," the poet and sharp-tongued contemporary critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger once wrote about German reality. "Its political leaders and its works of art are mediocre, as are its representatives and its taste, its joys, its opinions, its architecture, its media, its fears, vices and afflictions." And then, in his essay "Mediocrity and Delusion," Enzensberger writes: "There is something cathartic about this realization."

Somewhere between Western suburbs and Yamoussoukro lies Dubai. Whether its Burj, its tower, will ever become a part of the world's cultural heritage is still open, as is the question of how long it will remain the world's tallest structure. China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are already planning towers that will be much taller than the Burj Dubai, reaching more than 1,000 meters into the sky.

In the Book of Isaiah, the Bible describes the fall of Babel as follows: "And suddenly your downfall will come, and it will come unexpectedly." If the words of the Old Testament are to be believed, the megalomaniacal tower builders of today cannot expect external support: "Thus shall they be unto thee with whom thou hast labored, even thy merchants, from thy youth: They shall wander every one to his quarter; none shall save thee."

The Burj Dubai was not cheap, and perhaps it was even unaffordable. But at least the sheikhs of Dubai have taught their contemporaries one virtue: the virtue of taking the plunge.

Taken from SPIEGEL.

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