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MIT Better World

Roughly 20% of the oil traded worldwide passes through the ribbon of water, 34 miles across at its narrowest, that divides Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Musandam (an enclave of Oman). The potential blockage of tanker traffic becomes a risk whenever political tensions run high with the West or within the region, including in relation to the contested ownership of three islands: Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb.

Two MIT researchers set out to ask, what might this regional rivalry and its landscape, shaped so decisively by oil, look like when the world no longer relies on fossil fuels? “Our project is a response to a crisis of environment and a crisis of imagination,” says Rania Ghosn, assistant professor at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P). Along with El Hadi Jazairy, she is a founding partner of Design Earth, a creative design practice that works to envision future built environments—with a particular focus on the Middle East. “Most of what we saw were either stale technocratic solutions or apocalyptic technophobic nightmares.”

Sponsored by the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment and SA+P, and first presented at the Kuwaiti Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, Design Earth’s proposal, After Oil, is a series of nine speculative illustrations exploring the post-oil potential of the region. This image is one of three that wrestle to repurpose the transit choke point between Iran and the UAE into a venue for real estate competition. Its imaginary chess board spans the gulf, incorporating the disputed islands, and serving as a platform for a “greatest hits” of Western utopian urban projects. “The chess board conveys that this is a game, a game about power and domination,” says Ghosn. “In the context of the board, the contested islands and utopian visions become geopolitical features set in an abstract grid.”

While these visions of ideal cities have their provenance in the West, they find fertile soil in this Middle Eastern context. “Utopian projects tend to be realized more often in the Gulf than anywhere else,” says Jazairy, currently a research scientist at SA+P’s Center for Advanced Urbanism. “This is due both to the nature of the site, and the nature of the entrepreneurs there. They are trying to chart a new world, and using architecture to define both collective space and national identity.”