I recently viewed a public art commission at Dubai's foremost cultural district - Alserkal Avenue: it was an installation by an artist collective - METASITU, who had transformed a warehouse on the Avenue previously known as Nadi Al Quoz, into a 21st-century ruin. The work titled: 'we were building sand castles_but the wind blew them away', was inspired by the perennial demolitions that have become an integral part of contemporary placemaking around the world. Through this piece of work, METASITU reflects on the extractive city-building processes, while contextualising them within different human and ecological timelines. The long-term vision of the artists was to deconstruct the building and return its constituent materials to their ‘original state’. Later this year, they plan to further deconstruct the installation into a public landscaped environment.
To create the installation, large swathes of the facade of the Nadi Al Quoz buildings were carefully demolished and replaced with heaps of sandbags stacked up to cover the demolished section of the wall. Inside the warehouse, large trenches were randomly carved off the concrete foundation slab, exposing the natural ground upon which the building was built. Massive heaps of pulverised concrete from the demolished concrete floor lay on a corner of the warehouse, while heaps of the excavated soil lay on another. All across the building, fresh shrubs and small trees were affixed to the ground to create an illusion of active vegetation. And the lone internal wall of the building had a carefully cut opening that framed the view of an extensive wall-to-wall bed of fine sand within. For me, peering through this opening, unleashed a window of childhood reveries– fond memories of play; where abandoned construction sites were often temporarily expropriated by us as children – a rendezvous for our daily play.
In spite of my personal reservations about this sort of artistic expression, especially one which explores a delicate subject such as demolition, the installation presented a rare moment of creative laissez-faire, one devoid of the social schism or any other concerns beyond the artistic face value of this work of art. In the real world, demolition remains a very divisive topic, especially when it’s forced (I had written about this in the past). Demolitions are deeply emotive events, often birthing the twin emotions of angst and nostalgia, occasioned by memories hitherto created in the demolished spaces and the realisation that those moments would most likely never be re-enacted again. Nevertheless, beyond its artistic merit, the piece highlights the spatial transience that has become hallmarks of our constantly evolving cities. It demystifies existing spatial narratives of avant-garde cities like Dubai, which represents the grandest of the world's 'bling' architecture and urbanism and also demonstrates the ephemeral nature of contemporary megacities and of the latent reality that they could all end up in a landfill someday or become weathered ruins, whenever our flight of fantasies take us elsewhere.
METASITU, as the studio's website quotes, is a collective that explores the way we relate to territory across time and disciplines. Founded in 2014, METASITU's work has largely focused on shrinking cities in Eastern Ukraine and the Russian Far East; largely through their ongoing project 'The Degrowth Institute', where they explore ways of incorporating notions of degrowth in urban masterplans. More recently, they have been researching vacancy in office towers in Dubai, and ruinification processes. Their practice incorporates non-hierarchical pedagogies, architectural interventions, social experiments, and video.