Aidah An Invisible City
Boano Prismontas & Ricardas Blazukas @ Dubai Design week 2017
The Middle East Region has boomed in the last 50 years with an economy based on oil. This growth rate and the incredible wealth has made the unthinkable possible. Cities bloomed from the arid desert and the whole region became an incredible and alluring place, attracting people from all over the world. But this semi-utopian development approached its climax almost 10 years ago. The region had to re-imagine its future and create its own new, enticing identity. This process had to be planned and didn’t happen spontaneously under the leveling action of history, people and time.
Dubai’s time scale is on steroids, and its future had to happen, now. Aside from the obvious business vocation, the new-unknown identity focused on tourism, fun and wonder. Now, events like Dubai Design Week aim to widen the city’s foundation spectrum and focus on art, design and architecture as active tools to make the city, a city.
The Middle east region started as an inflated reality, balancing on the verge of becoming a theme park made of a collection of expensive capricious architectures. But now, the present time, it seems able to combine together its cultural, social and political input, creating a new city vision with a strong identity. If the region wants to strengthen and develop its future in the long term, it has to tie itself to a sustainable reality, not limiting its narration to just hyper bombastic urban scenographies.
Aidah is a project that plays with what is described above.
Aidah is a provocative representation of a process, a diagrammatic illustration of a portion of Middle Eastern history translated into architectural forms. Most of all, Aidah is a dream, a suggestion, an immaterial city that aims to investigate what makes a city a city. Our intention, is to use a temporary installation not as a self-referenced narcissistic display, but as a device that positively contributes to a debate about the future development of the Middle Eastern Metropolis.
In Arabic culture Aidah means “one’s who returns”. We chose this name to build an a-temporal city where the cyclical idea of returning was present and celebrated. In a symbolic way, we want to highlight how the future of Dubai and the whole region cannot rely on temporary present conditions.
With respect and humble admiration, the project homages Italo Calvino “Invisible cities” imagining an additional chapter to the famous book. This time, the emperor narrates the story of Dubai to Marco Polo. Words can be liberating, they can explore the concepts without any demand for reality. Starting the project by creating its story, allowed us to focus on the concept, giving great importance to the core idea that we then transformed into real spatial relationships and architectural forms.
We really enjoyed turning the usual architecture-illustration relationship upside-down. By writing a story first and then creating an architecture about it we used architecture as a tool, as a form of three-dimensional representation, as a medium to express a narrative, which allowed the concept to retain its powerful role.
The installation is made of 50 black balloons, 500m of black ropes and 50 foam bricks. These elements are combined together generating a floating landscape that belongs to and is in dialogue with the desert, the origin of everything. These flimsy structures evoke a sense of transient fragility and at the same time inform Aidah’s bold and distinctive character.
The floating spheres are the foundational element of the city (ref. Dubai’s oil), but at the same time its Achilles heel. Much like the bubble of wealth created by the finite resource of oil, the city might burst or float away and it needs ballasts to anchor it firmly on the ground. The economic stability of the Middle east is granted by its foreign investments, that are here represented with black foam “London Bricks” we especially crafted for this installation.
By building in the desert, Aidah also aims to question the idea of “land value”. The installation shows that the occupied square meters might have zero “land value” from a real estate point of view, but they generate a fascinating space, adding a qualitative, symbolic and artistic value to the deserted land.
Kublai Khan entered the courtyard. The pace of his stride sounded majestic and calm, with each step echoing in the arcade clearly but with an audible heaviness, as if tired from carrying the burden of the whole empire. The sun gently filtered through the green leaves and reached Marco Polo who was sketching under the tall tree. Surprised by the approaching footsteps, Marco looked up and a hint of a smile appeared on his face. Kublai stopped, and the silence flooded the courtyard with palpable tension. Even the old pavement stones seemed to be respectfully waiting for the emperor to say a word.
“Marco,” said the emperor, “Look at these beautiful flowers. They will be dead one day, when we are not here to look after them. And even your sketches will vanish in a rainy night. What will be left of this beautiful place?” Marco replied: “My emperor, the solid stones of this palace will be here forever. Architecture stays, it has the power to oppose the vicious tyranny of time and space.”
“Marco, architecture might stay, you are right, but unfortunately it won’t record our conversations, nor the smell of the morning dew, nor the purple colour of the shadows in autumn. That’s why we are forced to whisper fragments of realities into the wind, hoping they will be heard”.
Marco, with a wider and confident smile, invited the old emperor to sit close to him.
“Marco,” continued the emperor “In my life I’ve learned that the real wisdom comes with the understanding and acceptance that everything evolves and changes. Today it is my turn to tell you about a city and I invite you to listen to me. I will tell you about Aidah, the city that returns, the city that grew from the sand and flourished outside the reign of time. I’m sure you haven’t been there yet”.
Marco, intrigued, said “Aidah? No, please, tell me more.”
Kublai Khan began. “Imagine a vast plateau gently edged by rough mountains. Imagine a desert, so dry and hot, the midday sun can break its mightiest stones with a crack so loud, even the sky trembles. At the time I was just a solitary wanderer, walking east, determined to discover where the sun rises. The desert, magnetic and irresistible was dragging me inside her core, swallowing my hopes and my fears until I was completely lost. I was hiding under the dunes during the day, and travelling at night, guided by the brightest stars ever seen by man. Every day the sun was rising far, too far, beyond the horizon. I was almost losing hope when one day, I saw it.”
“Saw what?”, interrupted Marco impatiently.
“Marco, I have never interrupted you, please pay some respect to this old emperor, and listen. Your patience will be rewarded” said Kublai Khan.
“It was night, and the pale reflection of the moon defined the roundness of an object – a sphere. It gently floated and moved on the warm breeze released by the desert sand. I have no idea what it was or why it was there, but I knew I must get closer and catch it. A bit further, behind the curved profile of a hill, I discovered a field of spheres. One, two, three… I wanted to get them all and in half an hour I had more than twenty! But the sun was already appearing at the horizon, ready to desiccate any living thing, reckless enough to linger in the open. The realisation came to me with a jolt, that I hadn’t prepared my shelter for the day. There was no time to think, in thirty minutes I could die. I took a rope, connected the spheres together and hoping they would be strong enough to lift me from the ground. And it worked! The spheres were able to shelter me from the heat, cradled by the wind.
“Every night more spheres appeared in the desert and I kept connecting them. Tethering them to rocks and to each other. I created structures you could not imagine. I built towers. I built bridges. I built palaces. I built a metropolis in the empty sky!”
Kublai Khan, nodding: “My satisfaction and pride in birthing Aidah was fuelling my dreams and aspirations. With every new structure, I thought I could not out do myself and yet today a higher and more beautiful tower would be erected. And tomorrow I will build the widest arena the world can conceive! Aidah was challenging and breaking the rules of nature. Defeating any law of physics. You know, scientists just say words in the end, tell stories, just as we do.
I spent one month scouting the desert every night, looking for more stones big enough to ballast and anchor my ever growing city. But I eventually realised there were no stones left, only the black spheres seemed to be of an infinite source. Aidah was beautiful, yet fragile. A strong wind could push her away and vanish all the efforts made to build her. Once again, I had to decide what to do. I could either keep her as she was, or set off and start a long journey, heading for new adventures.
“One day, I’ll come back” I thought. I removed three big stones and let Aidah afloat, free to be transported by the wind. I no longer had interest in heading towards the sun, I just wanted the world the see how beautiful Aidah was.
Marco, I visited so many places and received so much appreciation and support. The city welcomed people from all over the world and my solitude finally ended. The whole world helped me to erect more amazing futuristic buildings. Aidah buzzed with trade, art and celebrations, secured by anchors carried from all corners of the Earth. It was a truly unique city.”
Engrossed in Kublai’s words, Marco asked “…but did the spheres end eventually? And did Aidah ever return to the desert? Why did you leave Aidah to return here?”
”So many questions, Marco.” Said Kublai, lifting his hands as if to gently hold them back. “These are different stories, too long to explain. Now, let me return to my room, I’m tired. You are too curious my dear friend, once I believed this was a positive thing, but now that I am old, I think that the beauty of the world hides in those mysteries we cannot untangle…”
The Emperor left the courtyard and a little gust of wind followed him, stirring some of the leaves on the ground. Marco stood up and moved closer to the old wall, pensive. He looked at the old stones as if they were an ancient manuscript to decipher. The last of the Emperor’s words were still resonating in his mind when he noticed a small inscription, gently highlighted by the afternoon sun. “L…. Lo… London… Br…Brick… London Brick? Who knows what this could mean”…
What was/were the biggest challenges encountered when imagining and writing Calvino’s last chapter?
University years taught us to process information in an organic way, collecting and gathering a great deal of references. Those years created some myths, some “holy figures” – architect’s paraphernalia. Calvino is one of those. We never intended to write “the last” chapter of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Let’s say that like teenagers in their room looking at posters of a favourite rock band, we imagined to work with Calvino and “play” with his work. We therefore envisioned to add an extra (needless) chapter to his book. This time the emperor narrates to Marco Polo about the city of Aidah (a metaphor of Dubai). Calvino’s book was just a pretext, the plug-in of our narrative. Architectural storytelling is like epic poetry, it celebrates and homages, but at the same time questions and represents. The main difficulty is probably that we didn’t want to sound too cheesy or too arrogant. But in the end, we just liked the idea and it became the cornerstone of the whole narrative process.
Do you think you will use this inverted process where architecture is the tool to represent the narrative again?
Yes, we believe this is an interesting approach. Words are free from any demand of reality and let you experiment the creative process in a different way. Our body of work often tried to investigate what lies behind (or beyond) architectural representation. Instagram and the internet has made information very plural and diverse, but in the end it contributed to standardise graphic styles, creating quick trends that burn fast on the web altar. We are all complicit and pleased with this, but also have to be conscious to not feel too comfortable with it. Otherwise architectural drawings become just empty cliches, vain and serial expressions of a temporary far-fetched aesthetic trend. We believe drawings are not “cosmesis”, they are in fact inherent to the process of making architecture. “Aidah” wanted to question these aspects by producing an architecture that was a three-dimensional illustration of a story itself. We used architecture as illustration. We placed architecture and graphic representation on the same plane, as subordinated expressions of a higher content – the story/the concept/the ideas. We think it is part of our role as architects not to take things for granted, but to constantly explore and investigate (in a way “compose”) our reaction to the current days architectural industry.
Could you expand on how you then developed the installation from the narrative? What was the creative/ work process?
If there is one thing we have learned in making architecture it is that: there never is a clear, reliable, tested way. Everything is organic, relative, undefined and therefore exciting. We sketched the narrative first, then imagined how this could be built and experienced by the public – not forgetting this had to work for Dubai Design Week. Originally, we wanted to assemble Aidah in the desert, then logistic problems made this impossible and so we brought the desert back to Dubai by creating a huge sandpit at the heart of D3. The sandpit became a sitting area > the sitting area became an activator of the street > the balloons casted shadows > the sitting area was transformed in a public space. Ideas just clicked and inanhellated a process of self completion, until everything made sense (at least for us).
How important was the model as a means to envision the project before hand?
Dubai is a city that came from the desert, and so our installation had to too. Dubai is a city that promotes a dream of itself and this unreal essence tremendously clashes with the reality of it. We really loved building something in between an oniric imagination and a real functioning installation. Making a model was the first step in testing the level of practical reality the story of Aidah had to deal with. Making models let you “feel” the scale of the project, and give you a heads-up to the problems that will need to be solved! Always.make.a.model.
What are your thoughts on how the illustrators then responded to the narrative? Did these images reveal any unexpected surprises?
When we invited some illustrators to collaborate on this project we expressly mentioned that the only information they were receiving from us was the story of Aidah. We didn’t want them to illustrate our installation, we never wanted to influence them with what we were doing. They were free to use any technique they liked, they just had to read the story and represent it. We gave them a very short time frame (sorry for that), and the results were very interesting and diverse. Some were close to what we actually built, some completely different, and others more conceptual. This diversity was needed also to prove that our three-dimensional illustration, our architecture, was just another expression of the process. Graphic was not subordinated to Architecture. Real forms, were equally true/valid than oniric representations.
In recording the life of the installation- were there any surprising interactions it lead to? What was its biggest success?
Aidah’s balloons were kept anchored on the ground and each day we lifted the balloons at different heights, playing with different configurations. We loved how people interacted with our project. Kids loved it – and when kids like what you do, it means you are doing it right! We also received messages of appreciations from people working in the offices nearby and many people were instagramming selfies and interacting with the installation. We believe that maintaining a level of simplicity and playfulness helped with the success of this project.
How important is the photograph and video as means to record the intervention- do you see these developing into something else?
We love to record what we do. We often take lots of videos and photos and it is not just for marketing/promotion, but also to investigate the look and the essence of what we build. One night we released all balloons and let them suspended at full length. There was a magical atmosphere, there was no wind, and the balloons almost transformed from a playful installation into an almost severe tall monument. The real life experience of it was truly special, and photos/videos tried to captured it. Unfortunately, there are no photos that can let you experience that moment and that feeling, but maybe using words instead….
Boano Prišmontas is a young London-based architectural firm, founded by Tomaso Boano and Jonas Prišmontas. We like to play, craft, design, make, doubt, investigate, and challenge ourselves and the world around us. We take care of all aspects of the projects and we are able to deliver exciting design ideas starting from any constraint and budget. We recently took part in London Festival of Architecture 2016 with an installation called “Minima Moralia”; Milan Design Week 2017 with “Quiubox” and Dubai Design Week with “Aidah”. All projects have been designed and assembled by us. We don’t build architectures for architects.
Ricardas Blazukas is an independent artist and a practicing architect who was born and raised in post-soviet Lithuania, educated in the UK and currently residing in Kuwait. Ricardas is a published artist amongst international and local design magazines, whose eclectic work portfolio ranges from large scale murals & abstract paintings to sculpture and design installations. Geometry and colour at the key elements that define Ricardas’ creative work.
Boano Prišmontas www.boanoprismontas.com @boanoprismontas
Ricardas Blazukas www.ricardasblazukas.me @ricardasofficial