What do an office tower, fish and pigeon all have in common? During a residency this spring at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, METASITU—Liva Dudareva & Eduardo Cassina—found how these motifs can act like placeholders for understanding patterns of degrowth and vacancy in Dubai.

For their project, the duo used materials and symbols they found in an abandoned office tower to create a compelling installation that begs us to re-examine the rhetoric of growth and urbanisation, particularly what it means in one of the world’s fastest growing cities.

The project stems from the Degrowth Institute they founded four years ago, initially to look at shrinkage in Mauripol, a city in Ukraine, once home to the largest steel factory in the Soviet Union, but which in recent years experienced a steady decline in growth and population.

At Alserkal Avenue, METASITU have developed a project that functions more like a series of encounters, based upon images and research into vacancy in Dubai; their project is intended to open up a discussion about vacancy and urban space in the city. During the initial stage of their research, they found that Dubai has a 41% vacancy rate within grade B and C office space, which experts believe will only increase over time.

Al Serkal Residency
Al Serkal Residency

Walking through the installation, images of fish and pigeons appear throughout, elements the artists found scrawled onto the walls of an abandoned building in Cluster N, Jumeirah Lake Towers. This imagery functions like a reference point for examining the past, present and future of urbanisation in Dubai, but against the specter of vacancy and sprawl. Suddenly, one feels transported into the shadowy world of development where the leftovers of urbanisation appear to be architectural and social decay.

“The concept of growth is intrinsically related to the capitalistic rhetoric of cities, master planning and development,” Cassina explained to me on a recent studio visit, “but how do we account for shrinkage and the densification of cities in places like Dubai?”


Rather than positing answers, METASITU’s latest installation and research into Dubai posits the city as a platform where issues like urbanisation, sprawl and density could be discussed in a workshop-like setting. Over the course of their two-month residency at Alserkal Avenue, they conducted numerous on-site visits into various vacant office spaces and interviews with city planners, architects and locals. In a building they visited in Jumeriah, they uncovered wall paintings and drawings in vacant rooms, which were mostly located on the upper floors, left unfinished by developers, images that in turn became metaphorical for degrowth and abandonment.


In the vacant office building, they also organised a dinner that featured a discussion on the concepts of surplus, uninhabitation, and optimism.

“We wanted to shift the paradigm and open up a discussion on these issues,” Dudareva said. “By working in a way that involves research, rather than top-down solutions, our idea stems from social groups working together in a collaborative setting. By looking at Dubai’s heritage together with locals, we wanted to examine how its memories and places of importance come to be, but also what the future might look like for vacant places left over in Dubai due to sprawl.”

Together with the other spring residents at Alserkal, METASITU presented their research in the form of an installation and exhibition last March, which included a mock-up of the predominantly vacant office building they visited.

“Growth,” Dudareva explained to me, “is a matter of perception.” Here being the perception of empty rooms adorned with beautiful drawings of fish and pigeons. “Fish and pigeons were the motifs we found most repeated on the walls,” Cassina said. “It’s not fitting for the ‘branding’ of the tower, nor any tower for that matter, but rather we wanted to examine how they symbolise and represent what is actually within—vacancy.”