Sweeping Views of Dubai’s Ski Lodge and Man-Made Islands
Dubai’s reputation for opulence and excess was built in no small part on its massive development projects that include the world’s fanciest hotel, largest shopping mall, and tallest skyscraper. But look beyond the glamour and you’ll see deserted construction sites and the skeletons of abandoned buildings dotting the landscape.
Photographer Tor Seidel sees these things as two sides of the same coin. His series and photo book The Dubai captures the city’s gleaming ultramodern architecture and glitzy attractions to the remnants of grand plans never realized. “Dubai has many faces,” Seidel says. “The beauty is also a beast.”
The most expensive city in the Middle East was a small but busy port city before the discovery of offshore oil in 1966. The population grew 300 percent by 1975, and the country embarked on a great building spree. The city took a financial hit during the Gulf War of 1990, but rebounded with one great building boom followed by another. Cranes sprouted like weeds as workers erected towering skyscrapers like the 163-story Burj Khalifa and sprawling buildings like the 5.4-million-square-foot Dubai Mall. The very wealthiest bought luxurious beachfront homes on the Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island shaped like a palm tree and built on more than seven million tons of imported rock.
The Dubai, Hatje Cantz, 2014.
Then came the great recession. Dubai’s economy took a big hit as the economy slowed, unemployment rose, and capital evaporated. Extravagant projects like Dubailand—an entertainment park twice the size of Disney World—and a manmade archipelago of 300 pleasure islands called The World came to a halt.
Seidel arrived just before the recession in 2008. The Abu Dhabi Cultural Authority hired him to photographic tourist sites, but he made time to visit Dubai. The bristling energy and speed of the city, not to mention its newness, astonished him. “The huge contrast between the city’s past and present impressed me,” he says.
He visited six more times before relocating there from Germany in 2013 to focus on the project, which he finished in 2014. He started out with a Linhof film camera before switching to a Canon Mark 3 digital in 2012. He often shot the same place countless times, stitching frames together in Photoshop to create a panoramic view. He wanted each photograph to function like a painting, with “many elements you can consider at the same time.”
The effect is almost hyperreal, mimicking the hyperrealistic feel of the city itself. One image shows the Dubai Mall’s magnificent aquarium, which houses 140 species of exotic animals, including the largest collection of sand tiger sharks in the world. The floor-to-ceiling tank is an unnatural ultramarine, dwarfing the tourists who almost appeared digitally inserted into the frame. The even more improbable Ski Dubai features snowy bunny slopes and a fake lodge all comfortably located indoors.
Other photographs show the city’s less successful developments—places like the Palm Jebel Ali, an artificial island project abandoned in 2008. Its deserted, sandy fronds stretch aimlessly toward the sea. “People come to Dubai having images in mind that are based on renderings,” Seidel says. “They think that a huge amazing project exists, but it doesn’t, as the images in their minds are based on advertisements.”
Dubai has rebounded in recent years, and construction is once again in high gear. Seidel hopes The Dubai offers a cautionary tale about the decadence of unchecked development. “Hopefully Dubai learns that the city needs more sustainability and projects for the community—not only projects for prestige and luxury,” he says.