The Appropriateness of Appropriation: building the United Arab Emirates, by Kevin Mitchell

This paper examines the relation between ethics and aesthetics of architecture within the context of broader nation-building efforts in the Gulf region The speed, scale and the variety of architectural production in emirates like Dubai can certainly induce anxiety of the sort that motivated nineteenth-century German architect Heinrich Hübsch to pose the question “in what style should we build?” Considering the relevance of this question in relation to early twenty-first century Gulf states requires an examination of how globalizing forces and liberal economic policies have contributed to a lack of visual and spatial coherence in the built environment. The difficulty in addressing Hübsch’s question begins with the use of “we” as it implies communality and the potential for consensus regarding a singular “style” of buildings reflecting and responding to inhabitants. While developers indicate that their projects will create “communities”, it is unclear whether shared norms and values will emerge and lead to the development of institutions and social capital that may mitigate the adverse effects of a market-driven economy. Official figures indicate that UAE citizens currently make up less than 20 percent of the population. And meeting economic growth targets would require an additional increase in the number of expatriates. This gives rise to fundamental questions related to how “nation” is defined and expressed through architecture and design.

Focusing on tensions between the desire to create cohesive collective narratives that bind a loosely defined federation of independent emirates and the reliance on an expatriate labor force to compete in a global economy, the paper analyzes how the visual has been privileged in aesthetic expressions of architecture appropriated from other times and places. The paper considers the ethical role of architecture within the Gulf by addressing the challenges and contradictions inherent in attempts to structure the built environment and build an emerging nation state.

Kevin Mitchell, American University of Sharjah, UAE

Harvard Citation Guide: Mitchell, K. (2012) The Appropriateness of Appropriation: building the United Arab Emirates, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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