SMAQ: Sabine Müller/Andreas Quednau

are a Berlin-based collaborative studio for architecture, urbanism, and research that focuses on urban design and architecture as a (re)active practice of “making something which cannot perform without the assistance of its environment.” SMAQ has received, among other awards, the prestigious AR Award and the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction. Sabine Müller is assistant professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. Andreas Quednau is professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design, Germany.
Dear Sabine and Andreas,

In your project
The Charter of Dubai, which was presented as part of Refuge at the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2009, you criticized up-market gated communities as a wasteful deception of independence. Using the completed Palm Jumeirah as the ultimate reference of the failed housing-market, you proposed a re-imagination of not what this icon could have been, but instead, just by reorienting resources latent in luxurious designs, you project what can be done now given the status quo. We invite you to articulate and develop this reconfiguration as a series of operations and attacks on the existing site.


This is a manifesto of urban readjustment, drafted at a moment when the global real-estate market has ground to a halt. We find ourselves left with the remains of an investment practice that thrives only on premium spaces: malls, business parks, gated communities, retreats, and resorts. Inevitably, the luxury refuges of today will be reclaimed for adapted use, integrated into the larger context of tomorrow’s open city, and adjusted to the dynamics of the environment.

Why call these premium spaces refuges? It is evident that these spaces form enclaves that withdraw from the wider city, or from society altogether. The world over, these refuges have been legitimizing tendencies toward the development of a fragmented and socially stratified urbanity, which was pertinently described as splintering urbanism by Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin.[1] The self-contained resort is a subterfuge—a deception of independence—from which infrastructure and influence is extended across borders and boundaries undetected. In turn, resources are squandered at the expense and exclusion of others.

The task at hand: How to turn the refuge from a traditional burgh, a fortified town, into a borough, a quarter that is a functional and comprehensive part of the urban landscape?

The Palm Jumeirah, also called the Palm Dubai, is not only the most spec-tacular of upscale refuges; it is also the paradigm: the ultimate diagram in terms of figure, internal organization, and external relations. This is why it serves as both a case study of critique and a test for transformation. Several measures of transformation are explored on the Palm while synchronically leveraged as general principles applicable to any upscale refuge.

By addressing the structural logics of the refuge, the points of critique become stepping-stones of intervention and moreover provide opportunity for minimal incursions with major effects.

The methodology is based on the notion that luxury refuges built during the last real-estate boom present a massive societal investment in terms of capital, expertise, and labor. They have been built to speculate on a heated real-estate market. On the Palm, so-called virtual villas had been bought and resold ten times before the first stone was laid. Prices tripled, and when they fell suddenly, people with no real interest in using the homes called themselves owners. In the aftermath, the infrastructure (literally the earthwork, roads, cables, tubes, and building stock) is all that remains of these dysfunctional specters.

The infrastructural skeleton, stripped bare from the fattened values of an economy of attention and speculation, becomes the substance to be reworked.

Re:form: From spectacular aerial icon to urban ground-scape figure

Contemporary masterplanned communities operate through an economy of look-at-me iconography. On the urban scale, this leads to a bird’s-eye image reduced to the simplicity of a comic strip: POW! However, this supersign is far from naive: the icon doubles Dubai’s coastline and creates 78 kilometers of profitable waterfront property.[2] Furthermore, it acts as an organizational device: at street level, the plan of the palm tree creates a structure of control and an absence of choice.

To reform the refuge by engaging with the politics of iconography is to reconsider the long-range message and its close-up organizational qualities and consequences. How logo can one go? Superimposing the Palm’s dead-end structure with a cross mark is one way of reformation from the air. At the level of the image, quickly captured and shared via Google Earth, the result updates a provocative statement: the Palm Jumeirah has checked out. Looking closer to the ground, the bold gesture can produce difference and urban complexity by connecting the formerly disjoined fronds. Here, canals act as cross streets while diagonal avenues fast-track travel times from the outer urban fringe to the suburban core.

Re:cover: From tabula rasa to integrated dynamic environment

Upscale retreats stand in the face of environmental forces in order to promote false conditions of constancy. The master cover-up is resource-intensive, illustrated by the momentous effort to mold Palm Jumeirah’s breakwater, which includes seven million tons of rock, individually craned into place at the designated gps coordinates. With grand designs on simulating a calm lagoon, the breakwater caused the stagnation of seawater and was subsequently modified with gaps to allow for the tidal oxygenation of the water.

Carrying this remedial measure further as a proactive strategy, a directional architecture emerges. By breaking the Palm at its narrowest points, thickening the foundations at its windward side, and giving over to the processes of erosion, the borough is both protected from and permeated by the water. The by-product of adapting to the natural currents is a setting enriched with different degrees of urbanity: canals that dissolve into a play of eddies, drifts, and wildlife.

Re:source I: From exhaustive fuels to solar geometry

The energy supply of this seemingly independent island relies on imports to fuel its cool artificial climate. This dislocation of decision-making and energy transportation dissociates urban form and architecture from its climatic context. Thus, any configuration attempting to turn four seasons into a steady springtime is made possible by environmental costs that are magically externalized. Air-conditioning bills on the Palm, however, expose the artifice, reaching up to €900 per month—a sum that underlines the disparaging limitations of the refuge.[3]

Urban layout can be a means to generate, save, and store energy on site. Reexamination of the existing urban structure exposes accidental but inherent geometries that reveal a bioclimatic opportunity. The curvilinear design of the Palm offers a readymade potential for electricity generation through solar concentration. The concave arrangement of “heliostat” power plants is adapted and installed onto the breakwater and fronds (including street surfaces and villa roofs) to create an array of flat mirrors that focus direct sunlight toward collectors situated at the pinnacle of the residential towers. Resource usage and urban layout now interlock. The proud solar towers become the new Burjs of Dubai, logically placed in terms of solar geometry and equally impressive in terms of high-rise living.

Re:source II: From representational to productive landscape

Today’s exclusive retreats are dominated by representative sceneries dotted with highly consuming (palm) trees, but perhaps the prettiest place indeed is that of a fruitful garden, such as those found in the picturesque productive landscapes of Tuscany. In the case of Palm Jumeirah, the internal landscaping consists of large water surfaces designed to generate a picture-perfect location: one to purely view.

These optical surfaces afford opportunities for the redesign of metabolic flows. The niches are appropriated for agri- and aquaculture and modeled on the self-sustaining experiments of kibbutzim, in order to transform the representational landscape into a productive landscape, and provide enough nutrients and water for all borough inhabitants. Within the boundaries of the resort, fish, dates, citrus fruits, olives, and water can be harvested. Other agricultural goods such as eggs, dairy, cereals, and meats can be traded or purchased with the revenues from tourism procured from the only remaining hotel, the Atlantis. Internalizing the production of all necessary calories and water effaces transportation of a long-distance food system, narrowing the ecological footprint of the resort.[4]

With a quarter acre of productive landscape per person, the retrofitted Palm matches an updated version of Broadacre City,[5] which allotted one acre per family to promote a low-density urbanism. As a whole, the productive urban form is able to accommodate the flows of a semi-autotrophic metabolism.

Re:block: From controlled checkpoints to a permeable grid

A typical enclave is based on a model of limited connectivity. First, accessibility is dominated by a single means—the individual car—as distances are too long and temperatures too hot to be covered on foot. Second, the circulation scheme is marked by limited entrances: a one-way toll road, or a stem that supports cul-de-sac branches. The treelike distribution system, literally inscribed onto the Palm’s very figure, ultimately results in a highly controlled and limiting model of circulation.[6]

If the branches are regarded as a weave’s warp then only the weft is missing in order to connect the fabric. With relatively minimal effort, a multidirectional city block can be grafted onto the Palm. Pedestrian networks (based on a maximum length of 200 m) thread through the lots to allow for waterfront accessibility. Boat-taxi routes are directed with the help of a few crossing canals, small bridges reach across points where the bays are narrow, and beach sands serve for camel or horse transportation.

The introduction of transverse links results in a multitude of continuous crossings, undetermined motion, and a choice of mode and way. After all, a city is not a tree, even less so a palm tree.[7]

Re:lock: From gates to go

A territorial retreat from society is organized by means of guarded barriers that lock strangers out of grounds. On the Palm, the subtle act of fortressing includes entry by a tolled highway (immediately excluding those not in possession of a car), an expensive monorail with only two operating stops, dead-end streets that discourage passersby, and significant entry fees and prices at various hospitality centers.

The infrared barricades develop into cornerstones for shading public buildings, their former security vacuums becoming converted civic parks and nature strips. Elevated highways are retained as shading devices, while access is organized via a web of smaller sinuous roads that pass through scattered meadows flourishing as a modern no-man’s-land. Above, the monorail becomes mass transit as the number of stations is increased and the toll is reduced.

Re: plot: From grand estates to affordable dwelling aggregates

Luxury refuges exclude on the basis of size and price. Villas on the Palm Jumeirah, ranging from 465 to 650 square meters, start selling at $2 million or are available for $15,000 per month, while those who built them earn a monthly average wage of $150.

Splitting villas and dividing plots is a means to obtaining smaller units (from 150 to 200 square meters) accessible to a broader range of inhabitants. It is the oversupply of equipment and generous circulation space of the estates that makes this operation possible: five-bathroom villas turn into five separate dwelling units; the “Central Rotunda,” “Atrium Entry,” and “Grand Foyer” styles offer smooth lines of division. The desirable side-effect of this measure is permeability at a pedestrian scale.

Re:use: From useless yards to inhabitable courtyards

Independent from geographic location, the design principles underlying luxury refuges are based on climate-controlled interiors while the outdoors remains exposed—a space for costly representation and buffering. Turning villas inside out results in courtyard typologies that provide shaded outdoor spaces suited to the climate. The extensive hardscaping surrounding the villas preempts its transformation into flooring while its perimeter marks the outline of new exterior walls. In reverse, interior marble floors turn into cool patio surfaces.

The civic consequence of this operation is a narrowing of the central access road. In the case of the Palm, the suburban tarmac is converted into an urban thoroughfare.

Re: View: From billboard architecture to local types

It is the horizontal view of the user that shapes the adapted refuge. Today’s upscale refuges are based on a global catalog of marketable themes such as “Mediterranean,” “Italian,” “Santa Fe,” or “Arabic,” while offering the same Western typology, albeit in differing climatic or social contexts.

Combining the operations of splitting and reversal will deemphasize the themed decor in favor of a small-scale patio structure that develops different degrees of privacy. The Palm’s 1,200-square-meters lots become mini-neighborhoods with public pathways, shared spaces, and private courtyards.

Re:gain: From property speculation to social appropriation

To create the ultimate location properties (waterfront and/or golf course access), luxury refuges embed a disproportionate amount of social capital, expertise, and labor. With the $10 billion and 40 thousand workers per day of construction,[8] all of Latin America’s slums could have been equipped in one go.[9] A construction cost of $23 thousand per Palm-consumer translates to an upgrade of $665 per slum inhabitant.

Reconsidered in this way, Palm Jumeirah should provide the infrastructural framework to support 34 times as many people as it planned to. With the funds already spent, where would they dwell? Looking at the unused waterscape’s ample voids, the Palm hints at an urban symbiosis of provision and supply, on the one hand, and self-organized extension, on the other hand. The voids can be regained and recuperated when needed: each residence provides facilities to a friend or relative on the water. Each frond supplies the fresh water, electricity, waste and transport lines to support an ad-hoc district following its own locally defined and negotiated rules.

The outcome is an urban fabric rigorously structured, yet open to modification at the same time. While making effective usage of the collective infrastructural investment, the borough leaves freedom for individual developments.

Ex-Palm is an application of the Charter of Dubai, exhibited within Refuge at the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2009. Collaborators: Timothy Moore, Laura Saether, Tanner Clapham, Matthias Titze, Robert Gorny, and Nathan Friedman. Research in cooperation with Berlin University of Technology (Tutor: Andreas Quednau) and Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design (Tutor: Daniel Schönle).


1. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures,Technological Mobilities, and the Urban Condition (New York: Routledge, 2001).
2. “At the start of the millennium, Dubai had become the fastest growing tourist destination in the world. This placed huge demands on its beaches and the idea was proposed to build a circular island offshore. HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum then had the vision that an island in the shape of a palm leaf would maximize the beach area.” “The Palm Story,” Palm Jumeirah, Nakheel, website September 15, 2009 at
3. Robert Booth, “Pitfalls in Paradise: Why Palm Jumeirah Is Struggling to Live up to the Hype,” Guardian, April 26, 2008, website September 15, 2009.
4. Brian Halweil and Thomas Prugh, Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market (Danvers, MA: Worldwatch Institute, 2002).
5. Frank Lloyd Wright, The Disappearing City (New York: W.F. Payson, 1932).
6. Albert Pope terms this the path to urban closure, “‘which always terminates in an exclusive destination or end point’ (Pope, 1996, 189)—the mall,
the suburban cul-de-sac, the fortified house garage” (Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, 2001).
7. “The units of which an artificial city is made up are always organized to form a tree. So that we get a really clear understanding of what this means, and shall better see its implications, let us define a tree once again. Whenever we have a tree structure, it means that within this structure no piece of any unit is ever connected to other units, except through the medium of that unit as a whole. The enormity of this restriction is difficult to grasp. It is a little as though the members of a family were not free to make friends outside the family, except when the family as a whole made a friendship” (Christopher Alexander, 1965).
8. “Palm”-Eröffnung in Dubai: Mega-Show für Superreiche, Spiegel website, November 21, 2008.
9. “Total investment required to upgrade slums, by region, 2005–2020: Latin Americas and the Caribbean: $9,6 bill. Slum upgrading would cost $42 a year per beneficiary or $665 per beneficiary over a period from 2005–2020. Estimates of the investments required to upgrade slums include land purchase and transfer, housing, network infrastructure, bulk infrastructure, schools and health clinics, community facilities, planning and oversight, community capacity building.” Pietro Garau, Elliott Sclar, and Gabriella Y. Carolini, A Home in the City (London: United Nations Development Programme, 2005).


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