A Note on SLOAPs and Indoor Plants
One of the major areas of focus this summer for the Untitled Dubai Topos Project has been the question of plant life in the desert. As perhaps one of the most significant features of our various constructed environments here in Dubai, botanical landscapes naturally played a considerable part in my research over the past two months. Although my formal aesthetic conclusions to the project deal more closely with interior plantscapes, I will relate here, some information on both indoor and outdoor attempts at greening the desert.
While public landscaping in Dubai is often the subject of much heated debate, in particular the environmental cost of maintaining lush green turf all year round, the aim of my research was to seek out the individual botanical parts that make up the carefully composed exterior landscapes, rather than expose their ecological footprint.
I have often wondered what the in-between spaces of urban planning are called and whether there is any regionally specific architectural critique addressed exclusively around them. I refer here, specifically to the little bricked islands or slips of green inserted between highways and flyovers, on roundabouts and intersections, typically featuring lush Petunias and Marigolds in the cooler months and more hardy annuals and hedgerows in the summer, centered always with rows upon rows of ubiquitous Date palms. The most suitable label I can seem to find is by British architect and town-planner Lionel Brett, who designated them as SLOIPs (and/ or SLOAPs), also known as ‘Spaces Left Over in Planning’ (and/ or Spaces Left Over After Planning). Spaces left over in planning to absorb new growth as a city expands or spaces left over after planning because they are essentially without any utility in the overall design of the urban landscape. Like the ambient music of shopping malls I discussed previously, these SLOAPs too begin to act as instruments of social, in this case specifically spatial control. However, like the music, I hope one is entitled here to an appreciation of the aesthetics of control.
What fascinates me about SLOAPs in Dubai is the reverence most people reserve for them, and the different plants that make up them up. In brief, these usually include grass turf, seasonal ground covers including Petunias, Dahlias, Marigolds, Zinnias, Geraniums, invasives such as Purple hearts and annuals such as Vincas, the last two specifically for the harsh summer months. Palm trees include several varieties other than the Date palms, such as the Washingtonia palm which seems to be quite popular especially outside hotels (Ritz Carlton, Financial Center) and shopping malls. A significant portion of these outdoor plants and trees come from either the Dubai Municipal Nurseries in Warsan, or the Desert Group Oasis Nurseries (Wahat Al Sahraa Nurseries), in Khawaneej. I highly recommend a trip to the Desert Group Oasis, for its sheer size and the overall diversity of indoor and outdoor plants on sale.
Another outdoor landscaping idiosyncrasy I have often noticed is the extensive use of mulches in conjunction with gravel or larger stone features along with Aloe Vera plants and other succulents, usually by hotels and residential complexes. A little bit of research revealed that this type of landscaping is called xeriscaping and is used when one wishes to reduce the need for supplemental water. Xeriscaping features include mulches to prevent the earth from drying out, stones and gravel to absorb moisture and a range of X, XX and XXX rated plants (native plants) that are specially suited to the desert environment. The X ratings signify how long a particular plant or grass can last without water; X-rated plants need about an inch of water per week, XX-rated plants need approximately ½ an inch of water per week and XXX-rated plants prefer very dry conditions and require ½ an inch of water every two weeks. Large-scale xeriscaping is not as characteristic in Dubai’s public spaces as it should be, mostly because it seems that the desert-like landscaping aesthetic it espouses is not precisely to everyone’s taste. The most popular xeriscaping plants that I could find in public use here include Aloe, Japanese Blood Grass, Fernbush, Adam’s Needle Yucca, Blue Avena Grass, Creeping Penstemon, Mexican Hat and Little Bluestem.
Each and every mall I visited over the past two months as part of research for Untitled Dubai Topos Project featured some form of greenery inside the mall building itself. These included lush mini gardens, stand alone topiaries, potted plants and palms, palm trees, lilies in water features etc. in all manner of states, living, preserved and artificial. I will discuss the use of each of these varieties briefly now.
Other than the inherent symbology of plants, which I will come back to later, part of our contemporary obsession with using living plants indoors comes from the simple fact that certain types of plants purify indoor air. In 1989, NASA published its Clean Air Study, which highlighted that certain indoor plants could be used to improve overall air quality. The plants NASA listed removed toxins from surrounding air, specifically formaldehyde, benzene, ammonia, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene. I sighted many of these air purifiers in their real, living forms at several of the shopping malls here locally. BurJuman Shopping Mall has several living Sansevieria, as does the Dubai International Financial Center. The Sansevieria, aka the Snake Plant, absorbs all of the toxins listed above apart from ammonia. Al Ghurair Centre contains several potted Areca palms and Bamboo palms, both frequently used as purifiers; while many other malls such as Dubai Festival City contain a significant amalgam of purifying plants such Boston ferns, Peace lilies, Chinese evergreens, Devil’s ivy and Spider plants.
Naturally, whether these plants are being used towards a purifying end is apart from the point, fundamentally they bestow an aura of freshness to an interior, which is ultimately why they figure so prominently in our indoor public spaces. On closer inspection, I noted that many of these living indoor plants were being used next to artificial and preserved plants. This of course does not come as a surprise to most of us but the idea that one passing by could never truly guess if a plant in a shopping mall was real, fake or both further emphasizes the fact that many architectural features exist within a public domain merely as affective phantoms. As Stephen Spotte points out in his Zoos in Postmodernism: Signs and Simulation, ‘[w]hether the plants are alive or made of plastic- that is, their ontological status- is irrelevant. A shopping mall, like a zoo exhibit, is an individual comprising parts that can be living, dead, or some of each, analogous to a one-armed man with a prosthesis.1
The ‘some of each’ Spotte refers to could just as easily signify the indoor palm trees of Dubai Mall, Times Square Center and Dubai Festival City, which are all preserved trees, (living date palms simply would not last indoors in planters). Tree preservation involves a highly specialized process of biotechnology in which the aging process of a living tree is halted by submersing it into a series of chemicals. The tree is embalmed so to speak, its trunk hollowed out and each frond preserved carefully and stored individually. Installation requires a weighted armature, around which a trunk is held upright after which the shell like exterior of the date palm (usually preserved coconut shells) is installed piece by piece. There is a separate receiver head on which individual fronds are installed. This means that trees are custom-made, according to a client’s exact specifications on width, height etc. Al Quoz-based Planters, is a specialist firm that provides bespoke preserved palm trees to several shopping malls in Dubai, with prices starting at approximately 20,000 Dirhams a piece. Unfortunately however, all of the preservation process takes place outside of the UAE, and so I could not see the embalming stage of the palm tree, which, I think would have provided excellent material for aesthetic resolutions to my project.
Next to these living and preserved plants, our malls here also display a significant number of artificial plants. Mall of the Emirates uses artificial topiaries alongside arrangements of Zanzibar gems (real) and White orchids (artificial) in the same pot, which I find incredibly interesting. BurJuman contains real Sansevieria plants right next to artificial White orchids in single flower arrangements. This quick flipping between the genuine and the artificial reasserts the incidental and indeed spectral nature of plants in shopping malls. I also find the frequent use of orchids fascinating as they singularly embody such a vital history of botanical imperialism, that their symbolic placement alone makes the shopping mall analogous to the botanical garden in many layered ways.
In his Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition, researcher and academic Richard Keller Simon likens the contemporary shopping mall to the great gardens of the past. In his chapter ‘The Shopping Mall and the Formal Garden’ Simon confirms the notion that theoretically speaking, the shopping mall embodies the garden both architecturally and socially. Although, much of the chapter focuses on the hyper-consumerist nature of modern public spaces, he makes a pertinent point when he states that:
Like the formal garden, the shopping mall is a construct of promenades, walls, vistas, mounts, labyrinths, fountains, statutes, archways, trees, grottoes, theaters, flowering plants and shrubs, trellises, and assorted reproductions from architectural history, all artfully arranged. Some of these features, such as the mount have undergone technological or economic modification. The mount- the manmade earthwork designed to present the vista of the garden to the visitor and typically reached by a path or staircase- was a standard part of garden design from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. This has been replaced by the escalator, which rises at key points in the enclosed central parts of the mall where it presents a similar vista of the space to the visitor […].
The shopping mall is, of course, quite an imperfect paradise, but the fault does not lie so much with the garden as with the shopping street it has come to assimilate. It is true that there are very few trees in these postmodern gardens, and those that do appear are typically confined in antipastoral concrete planters, but such subordination of nature has occurred before in garden history. Plants were incidental to the Renaissance garden, where visitors instead were expected to direct their attention to the grottoes, fountains, and various mechanical automata. 2
Plants indoors in shopping malls too occupy a subsidiary position, in relation to the consumables one usually visits the mall for. With the announcement of Dubai’s new Mall of the World Project earlier this summer, such rhetoric around spatial practices involving shopping malls, gardens and cities becomes all the more problematized, revealing more aspects to deconstruct in future research projects.
I feel that this combination of interior plantscaping with carefully crafted sound brings the Untitled Dubai Topos Project closer to reinterpreting the affective fabric of our constructed environments in hopefully intriguing ways.
1Spotte, Stephen. Zoos in Postmodernism: Signs and Simulation. New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006. Page 65.
2 Simon, Richard Keller. Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition. California: University of California Press, 1999. Page 92.