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Mon 14 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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From icons to villas

Contractors have always had a love-hate relationship with developers.

From icons to villas
The World, according to Nakheel.
From icons to villas

One of my first encounters with the desert magic of the Middle
East (by magic I mean Dubai,
as the rest is pretty much only desert), was one of those gosh-gee-whiz-how-on-earth-did-they-do-that
documentaries on television about building The World. This project is of such a
size that one can only be dazzled. Any niggling doubt about the viability or,
dare one say it, the practicality is quickly flattened by the sheer immensity
and gravitas of The World.

If The World seemed big, what about the size of the cojones of
its developer? I mean, what arrogant presumption to think it could replicate heaven
on earth?

At the time it was not a foregone conclusion that the project
would even succeed. It was clear the company was attempting to throw as much money
as possible at a feasible engineering solution, perhaps in the hope of buying off
the laws of nature.

It is easy to scoff in hindsight, though. I remember being excited
about the sheer audacity of the project, and how all the engineers and contractors
interviewed spoke so soberly and convincingly about achieving the impossible.

Surely this was a supreme manifestation of the entrepreneurial
spirit that drove man (and woman) from their caves and into the shopping mall. Surely
this was a beacon for the shining light of knowledge, and what can be achieved when
we dare to dream big, and when we boldly go where no one has been before.

Though one has to be very careful in this regard, as that particular
developer has almost come and gone, and nearly taken the whole sandpit with it.
In that peculiar six-degrees-of-separation kind of way, a couple of years ago nearly
everyone knew someone who worked at Nakheel. The length of their lunch breaks and
the size of their pay packets were legendary. Nowadays everyone tends to know someone
who is owed money by Nakheel.

Recently the media had a field day with the story that it was
the end of The World as Nakheel had envisioned it. Stalled progress, and a cessation
of dredging activity, had raised concerns that the artificial islands were eroding.

I was quite saddened by this news, as it seemed to confirm that
Nakheel had finally encountered an opponent as implacable as its own ambition: the
economic cycle, and Mother Nature herself. What a deadly combination.

A major Dubai
contractor told me that, since the recession, it had moved from icons to villas.
This news saddened me, invoking a measure of nostalgia, albeit misplaced, for the
grand old days when Nakheel thought to build The World. The truth is, we need visionaries
with big cojones, especially in construction.

This is what keeps the architects arguing and the cement mixers
spinning. Contractors have always had a love-hate relationship with developers.
Maybe this is because they are such easy targets.

The good news is that Nakheel has restarted some stalled projects
and is recapitalising others. These are small steps for the former giant, but they
are crucially important ones. Especially if, once again, it might seek to take on
The World.

Gerhard Hope is the editor of Construction Week.

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