Has Dubai, with its forward-thinking advancements in technology, architecture and design, become the unlikely ‘Utopia’ that retro-futuristic artists were humorously portraying in their works?
What better place to write a piece about retro-futurism than a building that has a sky-high helipad that doubles up as a tennis court and a restaurant built in an aquarium. When the likes of Bruce McCall, Syd Mead and Frank R. Paul playfully imagined how those in the past saw the future, a building like The Burj Al Arab wouldn’t have been out of place. The architecture of the Burj Al Arab may be more modern than futuristic but the aforementioned dining and transport options are reminiscent of McCall’s book Zany Afternoons, where hobbies include dining on the wings of ﬂying planes and playing ‘tank polo’ in the Hamptons. Retro-futurism is the meeting of the absurdly hilarious with the impressively unimaginable and the Burj Al Arab, and indeed Dubai as a whole, certainly tick those boxes.
“... The Damac twin towers in DIFC, with their double curved facades and antennas on top, look like they are straight out of an old sci-fi movie” — Janus Rostock
The architecture is the ﬁrst thing that strikes a chord. The skyline, especially once the Dubai Creek Tower is constructed, will mirror Syd Mead’s sci-fi retro-futuristic promo artwork for Disney ﬁlm Tomorrowland. Janus Rostock, head of architecture at Atkins Middle East and Africa, the company responsible for the design of the Burj Al Arab and Dubai Opera says, “Because of its rapid development over the last two decades, Dubai, with its modern architecture and many skyscrapers will be seen by many as a futuristic city. The city’s iconic skyline has been the backdrop for a number of science fiction movies including Star Trek and Geostorm. The fact that the city has so many iconic and instantly recognisable buildings in steel and glass makes it an easy reference for futuristic architecture. In terms of retro-futuristic architecture, the Damac twin towers in DIFC, with their double curved facades and antennas on top, look like they are straight out of an old sci-ﬁ movie.”
Although a special mention has to be made to the fantasy-like constructions of the Burj Khalifa, the Cayan Tower and the rotating Dynamic Tower which after years of media coverage looks like it might ﬁnally see the light of day, it’s not just skyscrapers that make the Emirate a retro-futuristic landscape. “The increased use of media screens on buildings is something that historically was associated with the future in ﬁlms like Blade Runner and this is now becoming more common on buildings in Dubai,” says Rostock. “The Burj Khalifa, Taj hotel, City Walk, The Beach are all integrating the screens as part of the architecture and the experience of our public spaces.”
And there are other architectural elements of Dubai that show obvious retro-futurism in their extreme absurdities, such as having a ski slope in the middle of a desert, man-made islands in the shape of palm trees or a map of the world – where you can buy your own ‘country’. But there’s also divergent genres like cyberpunk or its subgenre of steampunk, evident in the form of the Mad Max-style Last Exit Mad Ex truck stop on the road to Abu Dhabi.
Five humanoid robots have joined the staff at Dewa, and Pepper the Emirates NBD’s robot has now learnt to speak Arabic
And transport itself seems to be a theme that retro-futuristic artists use in the form of oversized vehicles, ﬂying cars with wings, even blimps used to take commuters to work. Rostock explains, “Dubai has pushed the envelope for cities and some elements are futuristic, such as the driverless metro, the monorail on The Palm and the idea of ﬂying drone taxis.”
And it doesn’t end with transport. You can ﬁnd retro-futuristic elements all over Dubai if you think of it simply as ‘an unlikely and humourous future as seen by the past. We’ve just heard that five humanoid robots have joined the staff at Dewa, and Pepper the Emirates NBD’s robot has now learnt to speak Arabic – that’s pretty unlikely and funny. And the theme is spreading into the culinary world too. Dubai has borrowed experiences like dining in the dark and ‘Dinner in the Sky’ from other parts of the world and made them it’s own. Could anyone from the past have imagined that people would actually eat at a dinner table suspended 50 metres off the ground by a crane? It’s right up there with eating your ﬁsh dinner while a stingray swims past.