Omanisation: A Las Vegas 2.0?

Walking along a dusty street in central Oman, I popped into a corner shop to buy some phone credit. The room was completely deserted. I eventually found the shop assistant: an expat worker from Bangladesh, on his knees, raking light bulb boxes from the shelves into a makeshift cradle he had made with his arm and t-shirt. At the sound of a persistent car horn from the forecourt outside, he hurriedly gathered all of the remaining light bulbs and carefully waddled outside. I followed him.

The assistant had made his way to a blacked out saloon that sat several metres from the raised porch of the shop. The driver had cracked the window open a few inches and proceeded to take the bulbs one by one into the air-conditioned interior. In the recesses of the car his family continued with their prior occupations, and paid the transaction little interest.

He rolled each of the boxes between his fingers, contemplating their use, then exchanged it for another. This happened several times until the right bulb was found. The window was then wound up and the saloon drove away in a cloud of dust. The shop assistant, who had lost interest a long time before, headed back into the store to re-stack the stock.

To many people who have never visited Oman, or indeed experienced the hyper speed of modernisation in the Gulf, this is unique. As such, it is very easy to be critical of these practices and make sweeping generalisations.

Yet the real point of this story shows us something far more interesting. It is indicative of a series of systems that are not only growing and evolving in Oman and across the Gulf, but also across huge new areas of complex urban development in other parts of the world. It is possible to use Oman as a model by which to study the effects of these increasingly complicated effects on existing urban environments.

The total landscape of Oman has become a strange patchwork. The redistribution and recategorisation of land has led to bizarre configurations and junctions between large-scale infrastructure, neighbourhood masterplans, and traditional vernacular, with sporadic breezeblock walls enclosing empty space, to whole three story buildings, sitting lonely. Each part, sat in isolation, waits to be joined as development spreads and connects.

These skeletal developments, adorning the desert in heterogeneous states of abandon, are the first ‘pioneers’ of a fictional framework. Highways, towns, and streets map out the land use for the future tidal wave totality of modernisation. This whole model is made possible through cheap labour imported from overseas.

Venturi / Scott Brown / Izenour’s strip model (described in Learning from Las Vegas) has reached its next evolutionary step in Oman, as in much of the Gulf and wider afield: a Las Vegas 2.0. Here, however, it is not a model for the exaggeration of pleasure but one of business and comfort and, in the Gulf, of religion. The car is no longer a module of transportation but one of internal microclimatic stasis, externally repositioning you within the landscape. The buying of goods, from restaurant meals to groceries to light bulbs, takes place from the driving seat of a 4x4 with shop assistants in a constant dance between store and parking lot.

The fundamental role of the car is also developing. Urban and rural infrastructure is continually recalibrated to its benefit, both laying out the red carpet in invitation as well as fragmenting in its wake. Multi-lane highways, satellite towns and strip architecture rebrand and reorient to match rising need. This need varies from place to place, ranging from immediate demand due to over population to the desire to manufacture culture. Urban ‘situations’ across the world are cherry-picked and placed within the framework.

Many cities are continuing to develop in ways that make them increasingly similar. While the Las Vegas 2.0 model is being altered to the specific needs of the place, most urban conurbations are contending with severe whiplash having opted for a car centric model. For example, the daily commute through St. Petersburg is termed ‘swimming with the sharks’ due to how hazardous the traffic can be. This is why many opt for 4x4’s in an attempt to further remove and incubate themselves from the assumed failures of city planning.

Although criticised, the principles of Modernist car cities such as Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt or Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse have continued to develop. This criticism seems to have fallen on deaf ears, when the major developed and developing world turns to this Las Vegas 2.0 strip architecture and satellite arrangements to solve its most difficult and pressing problems.

The root causes of these situations are some of the greatest challenges of our time – from food infrastructure, international border policy, density, and commerce, to the flows of capital and people – and everyone who is invested in change within the configurations of human habitation, must contend with them. Unless solutions which are easier to implement and more comfortable to use are developed, the trend will not only continue but proliferate with only the waning of market and capital flows to stifle its growth.

A fictional framework preparing for its integration into the landscape. Drawings by Jonathan Wren.