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Illustration by Melinda Szekeres

The Alterity of Constructed Cool

Walking into the newly-opened cavernous Marketplace, one can almost hear the Seinfeld bass riff twanging them into another scene. The sign greets from ...

Nov 15, 2014

Walking into the newly-opened cavernous Marketplace, one can almost hear the Seinfeld bass riff twanging them into another scene. The sign greets from afar, its lightbulbs and black metal glaringly out of place against the white-on-white-on-steel-on-glass-on-white aesthetic of the Campus Center. It beckons you into the campus’s super cool student café, restaurant and study space. A smaller sign by the gaping entrance — the same one that appears next to every doorway on campus — announces that you have arrived at “مطعم ماركت بليس/Marketplace Restaurant.” The first sign lulls you into thinking you’ve stepped into a space that is original, authentic and interesting, the second is a reminder that, despite everything, you’re still on this Gattaca-esque Saadiyat Island campus.
The Marketplace is a B-movie set, grafted into an already artificial campus. The hokey faux-exposed brick pillars, there to conceal ducts and pipes rather than provide actual support and the lonely, stick-like furniture create a space that is soulless and constructed. It feels like every mediocre coffee shop in the States while also managing to look like nothing at all. The place has the trappings of something desperately trying to construct itself as what it’s not, as cool and U.S. American. Even its inauthenticity is inconsistent — a liberal arts freshman has a better grasp of what they want to be than this room with arabesque tiles, sleek modern design, contemporary diner or deli counters and black-and-white checkerboard tiling, all piled on top of exposed brick and light fixtures that, if they weren’t all the same, might trick you into thinking you could actually enjoy yourself in this space.
When our campus tries to construct cool, the result is an interior design aesthetic that looks like the physical embodiment of a Pinterest board curated by some fourteen year old with dreams of moving from Kansas to New York City. Yet the implications are even worse. When we live and exist in places as inauthentic as film sets, we cannot find and make spaces of our own. We feel part of someone else’s backdrop; nothing is ours. We become alienated from our very surroundings, unable to create substantial connections to the physical spaces around us. While authenticity is difficult to pin down and may be completely subjective, it is evident that if spaces on campus are so discontinuous, unoriginal and alienating that they inspire multiple Kafka references per day, then something is horrifically wrong.
Besides being the Urban Outfitter’s of on-campus dining options, the Marketplace also openly revels in urban, U.S. American hipsterdom while abandoning any semblance of the place where we are located. If the university insisted on a space that was as unwelcoming as an almost-empty cathedral to a non-believer, while also throwing any ideal of interior design continuity out the window and into the Central Plaza, they at least could have looked to the city that surrounds us for inspiration. Instead, they decided to take the idea of NYU Abu Dhabi and turn it into a cartoonish NYC located in Abu Dhabi. This orientation towards the urban and U.S. American is found everywhere, from one of the Campus Center’s newest eateries to the numerous filtered pictures of specific Brooklyn neighborhoods on Tumblr. It delivers a prepackaged, non-threatening, urban cool to our cafeteria tray and also sends the implicit message that the local culture is not worth celebrating. In short, that it is not worthy of being cool, an issue that the other developments that will neighbor our campus also raise.
Constructed cool cannot fulfill the need for spaces that feel real, even if that is a fleeting standard; if anything, they only bring about discontent. It is patronizing. Names like So Deli and Goodness Me wouldn’t be found in the loneliest, saddest, most sunbaked strip mall. It is alienating. Above all, thinking that we can birth traditions at a university that lacks roots and without spaces that truly feel our own, is misguided.
Sam Ball was Opinion Editor. Email him at
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