Credit: Znera Space

Dubai is at it again. Another megastructure, another questionable use of their relatively newfound wealth. This time, instead of building a massive tower, like the 182m Burj Khalifa, they plan to build what’s being called the Downtown Circle. These renders are just concept art and many online have been quick to criticise the architecture firm behind the concept, Znera Space, as they haven’t built anything in their eight years of existence.  

The Downtown Circle is an admittedly impressive design and immense in scale with the circle’s circumference measuring over 3,000m. Five massive columns keep the circle in the air.

Who is this for? Designed by architecture firm, Znera Space, they plan for residential spaces (most likely gated communities), commercial spaces, and cultural spaces within the entire building. The intent here is to challenge Dubai residents’ perception of what a skyscraper can be.

Znera Space founders, Nils Remess and Najmus Chowdry, told UAE’s The National: “we wanted to go down to the basics of how gated communities were established as a very horizontal built environment but you can’t have that here because of the dense urban fabric of Dubai. The best way to explore and practise this concept was in Downtown itself.”

“When Covid-19 hit hard, we thought a lot about suitability and how can we change things, and how we can create better urban planning. We looked at aspects such as garbage disposal, food production, traffic problems, and pollution. We put all these things together and came up with the concept.”

“It also raises the discussion of what we can do better. The way we build cities, the way we plan things. There can be negativity around this type of discussion but also solutions in how we ca change things for the better.”

Znera Space Doesn’t Actually Build Anything

While it’s an impressive concept design, that’s as far as this project will go. If you look at Znera Space’s website you will find no pictures of any real buildings they’ve made, only renders.

In 2018, the firm made headlines for their “Smog Project.” This was a proposal to build towers to clean the air in polluted cities like Delhi. The project was shortlisted for a World Architecture Festival 2018 award in the Experimental Future Project category, for “proposals that challenge conventional thinking.”

Chowdry told CNN at the time that the project was “a conversation starter.” Chowdry argued that curbing the processes that create smog could take generations to achieve.

“The situation at hand is so grave that it requires a top-down scheme,” said Chowdry.

While discussions as to whether this is a long-term solution to pollution or a very expensive short-term band-aid solution are rampant, they are irrelevant. Why? While Znera was in talks with AirLabs in Copehagen to produce simulation models, the firm were still “looking for development funding,” according to CNN. Since 2018, no word has been mentioned about the project despite Chowdry claiming a working prototype would appear in 2-3 years.

What was most telling in Chowdry’s chat with CNN was this: “There are bodies in (the) Dubai government which actually encourage you to take such steps… to come up with such prototypes.”

While the Downtown Circle isn’t an urban air filter, the plan is to build a technological advanced (some say unfeasible) building that sounds and looks like science fiction in Dubai. Given that both projects have been described as a “conversation starter” it seems likely that the Circle will meet the same end as the Smog Project. These proposals merely exist for marketing purposes and aren’t intended to ever reach fruition.

Arabian Megaprojects Are a Mixed Bag

The Line | Credit: Neom

The Arabian Peninsula has been no stranger to questionable projects. Saudi Arabia’s recent Neom project has been hailed as a “blueprint for tomorrow in which humanity progresses without compromise to the health of the planet” but the reality has turned out different.

The $500bn USD project will cover an area bigger than Israel (the area is named Neom as well) and will apparently exist outside of the jurisdiction of the current Saudi juridical system. Instead, it will be governed by an autonomous legal system created by investors. The plan is to create a futuristic city that’s completely self-sustaining and green as part of an effort to reduce Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil production.

There’s a lot of promises being made about Neom, but our main concern is the experimental city, The Line. This city is a planned 170km (105 miles) long linear city that will hope to house 9 million people. According to the Saudi government, The Line will “embody how urban communities will be in the future in an environment free from roads, cars, and emissions.” A high-speed rail system is said to be able to transport people from end to end in just 20 minutes. The layout of the city is based on a concept called “Zero Gravity Urbanism” which will allows for three-directional movement via a stacked program. This will allegedly allow for residents daily needs to be accessed within 5 minutes.

Does this sound too good to be true? It seems that it is. Even the press release mentions the need to “significantly advance construction technologies” for this to be possible.

The Neom project as seen in Google Earth

Satellite imagery has shown that just a single square has been built in Neom. Ali Shihabi, a former banker on Neom’s advisory board, told the BBC that this square is the camp for Neom staff, but this hasn’t been verified.

What we do know is that the project has been subject to setbacks for the last five years. According to Bloomberg, this is because of “the difficulties of implementing the prince’s gran and everchanging ideas, according to current and former employees.”

Not only has all this occurred, but Saudi Arabia once again has triggered human rights campaigners calling out their practices. Neom isn’t an abandoned stretch of desert, it’s home to the ancient and traditionally nomadic Bedouin Huwaitat tribe. Campaigners say that two towns have been cleared and 20,000 Huwaitat have been forcibly located without adequate compensation.

Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti via YouTube

In April 2020, Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti refused to leave his home in Tabuk and was shot by Saudi security forces. This was something he predicted would happen as he began posting videos online before his death. The Saudi embassy disputes the allegations of forced removal but didn’t dispute the killing, calling it a “minor incident.”

Sarah Lea Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, said:

“The efforts to forcibly displace the indigenous population is one that breaches every norm and rule of international human rights law.”

Will The Line actually appear? Again, it’s difficult to say, but it’s more likely given the backing of the Saudi government than the Downtown Circle. Experts think the project unfeasible, much like the Downtown Circle, and those on social media tend to agree.

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