Abu Dhabi: building a creative city

Abu Dhabi is reshaping itself into a cultural capital for the Middle East. The urban historian Thomas Bender asks what we can learn from another great city built with the energy of immigrants.

Powered by automated translation

Abu Dhabi is reshaping itself into a cultural capital for the Middle East. The urban historian Thomas Bender asks what we can learn from another great city built with the energy of immigrants.

What makes a creative city – a city marked by both artistic creativity and technological innovation?

This is a question of great significance for Abu Dhabi, which is investing serious energy to shape itself into the cultural capital of the Middle East. Vast plans for urban development are on the drawing boards, as are designs for a series of world-class cultural institutions. Saadiyat Island will be home to the Guggenheim Museum, the Louvre, the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, a Maritime Museum and a concert Hall, as well as campuses for elite institutions of higher education like the Sorbonne and New York University. These new arrivals will join existing events like the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, and Art Paris Abu Dhabi.

The vision is stunningly ambitious, and the resources are in place to make these projects a reality. Abu Dhabi's investment of cultural institutions of the highest class is impressive, but a creative city requires that these new institutions be embedded in and interacting with informal, and dense gatherings of talent and ambition.

When I came to Abu Dhabi with my colleagues from New York University last month, I could not help but see the city through a lens tinted by New York, and comparing the two cities prompted some reflections on New York's history and Abu Dhabi's future.

Is the formula that made New York an economic and cultural centre pertinent to Abu Dhabi? It is, of course, not a model that can be replicated. But the experience of other cities, New York among them, may allow us to consider the possibilities for Abu Dhabi's cultural development.

Long ago I came up with a phrase that captures the essence of the culture of New York: Dollars, Diversity, and Democracy. New York has always been about commerce as well as culture: it was established by the Dutch (who called it New Amsterdam) in 1624 as a trading post, and these commercial origins shaped its culture. Because it was established for trade, it was an open city from the beginning.

New Amsterdam welcomed anyone who wished to trade, whether Native Americans, pirates of the Caribbean, slave traders, or legitimate merchants. New York, from the outset, defined its meaning as commercial, and this ambition provided the bridge to connect the resources of America to the markets of the world.

At the end of the eighteenth century New York was briefly the capital of a small republic of thirteen states. When the capital of the new United States was moved from New York, the city did not despair: it would become an economic and cultural capital.

New York's leading political figure in that era was De Witt Clinton, who served as Mayor of New York, and then as Governor of New York State. He saw the economic future of the city in international markets for the harvest of the fertile land of the interior, namely the wheat crops of the American midwest. To that end, he undertook the construction of the Erie Canal, the greatest infrastructure investment in the city's history. It was, metaphorically speaking, the city's pipeline: it connected commodities to world markets. That was the beginning of the city's rise, but for Clinton it was the foundation of something grander. He prophesied that the city would become "the Granary of the world" and the "emporium of commerce," making it the "focus of great monied operations."

The city needed more than commerce alone: to draw citizens of talent and ambition, he believed, there must be "men of science and ingenious artists." Clinton devoted public resources to create the New York Institute of Learned and Scientific Establishments, which included the Lyceum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the American Museum. But still more was needed, and it emerged not from the top down, but out of the life of the city.

What accounts for New York's distinctive energy and creativity? One might think that the explanation is the size and strength of its institutions—whether economic, cultural or political. But the answer may in fact be quite the opposite. A certain disorder may be at the heart of its success. New York City constitutes one of the most complicated and contentious of human environments. In politics, in the economy, and in its intellectual life, the appearance of disorder and confusion has prompted attempts to rationalise and control experience. There have been repeated attempts to reform the city's culture. Again and again, the city proved to be the solvent of these dreams.

What is so striking about New York City is the battleground quality of its intellectual life. The uncentered, but not utterly formless, character of intellectual culture in New York is its special, though not always welcome, gift to the life of the mind. The combination of authoritative institutions and multiple alternatives makes for contention. But it also combines tradition and innovation, ensures continuity and standards while allowing space for the new, and sometimes surpassing qualities of creativity that transform the tradition.

The Canal worked as De Witt Clinton imagined it would: it brought Samuel F. B. Morse to New York.

A painter, inventor of the telegraph, and one of the original faculty members of NYU, Morse was born in Connecticut, educated at Yale, and trained as a painter in London. He assured his wife that he would make his career in New York. "New York," he wrote, "does not yet feel the influx of wealth from the Western canal, but in a year or two she will feel it, and it will be advantageous to me to be identified among her citizens as a painter." In New York, he continued, he would have the "opportunity for doing something for the arts in our country."

He did that, as the founding president of the National Academy of Design (today on Fifth Avenue, just north of the Guggenheim Museum). And he did more by introducing photography into the United States, and more yet as the inventor of the telegraph.

Morse was a member of a mutual education society, the New York Atheneum, which proved crucial to his invention of the telegraph.

It offered a miscellany of artistic, literary, and scientific lectures to a broad public. Morse and his friend, William Cullen Bryant—poet, civic leader, journalist—also drawn to the city by the canal—spoke about art and poetry in the first season. One of those who enjoyed Morse's lectures on painting was Professor James F. Dana of Columbia College. Later Morse attended Dana's lecture on electromagnetism, a topic of enormous interest in the 1830s.

It was as a listener at that lecture that Morse acquired the knowledge of electromagnetism that supplied the scientific base for his invention. But the invention of the telegraph also depended upon the craft skill possessed by two members of the New York Mechanics Institute, who became his lab assistants and later partners. The point here is the lack of separation between the worlds of art and mechanics, craft and science, academic knowledge and popular knowledge.

The invention of the telegraph brought together art and technology, visual culture and craft culture. Historians of technology contend that it was a visual insight that enabled Morse to turn his theory into physical form. Artisan culture – the shop culture of mechanics – also relied upon visual thinking, and this common ground facilitated Morse's successful collaboration with mechanics.

My point here is that invention requires a social world that crosses class and cultural lines, and brings individuals with very different forms of learning and craft into casual contact with one another.

In Abu Dhabi, a city of innumerable languages, home to migrants of all sorts – with various talents, some yet to be realised – there exists precisely this possibility. How might they together make both themselves and the city?

By the time Thomas Edison arrived in New York, in 1869, the city was well on its way to joining London as one of the world's great metropolises. By this point the city had grown to become the center of an extended and interconnected metropolitan region, and Edison's career shows that it is not merely the city, but the whole of the highly differentiated region around it, that sustains a culture of innovation.

New York was a city in transition when Edison arrived as a journeyman telegrapher. It was still a mercantile city. When the Western Union building was erected on Broadway in 1876, it was the first building taller than the steeple of historic Trinity Church, at Wall Street and Broadway. The Western Union building was an omen of New York's future as a headquarters city, but at its base (literally) it remained part of the older craft culture. In fact, Edison rented workspace in the basement, where he developed several patents for improving the telegraph.

By the end of the century the future had arrived. New York was the administrative centre for a rapidly expanding and globalising American economy. In 1897 the word "skyline" was coined to describe the virtual mountain of skyscrapers at the foot of Manhattan, filled with tenants who provided national and increasingly global legal and financial services. And Edison, using the resources of the whole metropolitan region, had devised three inventions that largely define modern popular culture: electric lighting, recorded sound, and the cinema.

At that time New York was also the nation's leading manufacturing centre, but it was more like Paris than Chicago: the units of production were small. In 1900, the average industrial establishment in New York had only 13 workers; as late as 1956, two-thirds of the metropolitan region's manufacturing firms had fewer than 20 employees.

It was also the centre of advertising and marketing. Not only were headquarters of international corporations in New York, but so were flagship stores for various consumer items. That is why Edison, who invented in New Jersey, established the marketing office for the electric light bulb in a Brownstone mansion on Fifth Avenue and 14th street. I make this point because the Emirates are beginning to play such a role, in what we might think of as an extended "metropolitan" area, extending from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent.

The process of inventing, making, and marketing in New York depended upon the diverse region. Edison established his first shop in Newark, an industrial city across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where he found a craft shop environment. Newark was recognised for the skill of its workers. Three-quarters of its highly skilled workers were in small shops, and many of them harboured reasonable expectations of having their own shop. These shops were especially noted for the trades most important to Edison's work: iron and brass castings, hand and machine tools, precision metalworking, and chemicals.

Edison was not alone in exploiting the diverse skills of this metropolitan region. Between 1866 and 1886, 80 per cent of inventors with five or more patents resided in or within commuting distance of Manhattan. It was an ideal metropolitan mix: the best financial and legal expertise and universities on Manhattan, with a craft culture across the river.

The spirit of invention depends upon very complex and highly specialized habitats of knowledge. Innovation often involves connecting them. It also demands, even in modern times, the same collaboration between classes, and the ability to join theory and craft we saw in the case of Morse.

Edison moved from Newark to Menlo Park in 1876, but he brought his most valued workers with him, and the famous "laboratory" he established there still resembled the shops of Newark. But after an astonishingly productive decade at Menlo Park, he moved again to West Orange, where he established a corporate campus. Instead of living near the shop, he took up residence in an elegant and very prestigious suburb. He described the West Orange lab as "the best equipped and largest laboratory extant." Yet his best inventions had been developed at Menlo Park. In West Orange, he earned most of his money suing various entrepreneurs for patent infringement. The environment that most nourished his creativity had been a metropolitan one; at West Orange he moved from a metropolitan mode of work to an enclosed, corporate campus.

For Edison, metropolitan New York worked as a locale for invention because of the diversity of habitats of knowledge and the possibilities of interaction among them.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is clear that these diverse habitats of knowledge do not need to be geographically connected.Modern travel and communications have compressed space and time, and today an extended metropolitan area does not necessarily require geographic continuity. Yet personal, casual, unplanned interaction among people of diverse backgrounds and skills remains the most fruitful form of intellectual exchange, and for a creative city, the spaces and places for such interaction are essential.

The way I have discussed New York, and the lessons it suggests, fits the argument about urban creativity developed by the late urban theorist Jane Jacobs. In her 1981 book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she puts forth a general theory of urban creativity. For Jacobs, the key is the proliferation of innumerable small units, all of which rely upon other small businesses for specialised knowledge. These are the "habitats of knowledge" I have been describing, in contrast to national and international corporate organisations that are self-contained and hierarchical.

Not all of Jacobs' examples still hold today, but it a broad way it seems undeniable that the corporate model of Detroit compares unfavourably with those of New York City – or Silicon Valley, which has produced a novel geography of invention and entrepreneurship. While large corporations and the national government have played a role in the rise of the Valley, the energy of small units remains vital.

But both New York and Silicon Valley differ markedly from the vision of knowledge-based economies so many cities today seek to create. A "knowledge economy" requires a learning and making society, made up of diverse, but connected, habitats of knowledge. The learning and the making are of equal importance: the complexity, disorder, and freedom of a metropolis provides more than a place for work – it stimulates the mind and shapes the work that is made, whether in business or the arts.

The emergence of the American Abstract Expressionists in New York is well known. It was a distinctive achievement of the city, as Clement Greenberg, the leading critic of the time and advocate for this American avant-garde, explained. It was an art formed, to quote him, by "the kind of life we live in our cities," specifically that district of New York "downtown, below 34th Street," where young artists living in "cold-water flats" were making the "future of American art." It was a world that connected work in the studio with a social life in the neighbourhood, mostly in bars and often marked by brawls among the artists.

While we tend to lump these artists together, they brought different cultural values and styles to the art world: there were immigrant Jews fleeing European fascism but bringing European modernism with them; French surrealists; the Dutch artists Mondrian and deKooning; Jackson Pollock, the westerner who could have been the Marlboro Man, and the highly intellectual Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. All of them learned from the great Columbia art historian, Meyer Schapiro, but not at Columbia. Schapiro, who lived downtown, lectured in the village at night extension classes of the New School.

The other great cultural achievement of New York in the 1940s was in dance—Martha Graham in modern dance and the revolutionary ballets choreographed by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet. They, too, were embedded in the life of the city and tried to capture its experience in their work. Balanchine was utterly fascinated with the way New Yorkers walked on the streets of the city. Best of all, Graham's student Merce Cunningham, amazingly still choreographing and dancing at the age of 88, produced dances that captured, as he put it, people in motion in the city. John Cage often provided the music for Cunningham, and it captured the sounds of the city. It is for this reason that Edwin Denby, who, like Greenberg in art, provided the language of criticism for dance in New York, titled his collection of writings Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets.

I should note at this point that critics are essential to both the making and consuming of art; they make demands upon the artists—at once holding them to standards and pushing them to reach farther. And they educate the consumers, making them into an audience.

At this point we turn, perhaps surprisingly, to the city's working class. They played a key role in the founding and the success of the New York City Ballet and the City Opera. The City Ballet was made possible in 1948 because of the collaboration of the city government; wealthy donors, mostly Jewish; and garment industry trade unions, again, at that time, mostly Jewish. The initial home of the ballet was a short walk from the Garment District, and the unions helped launch the City Ballet by purchasing subscriptions for union members, who over time became a sophisticated and demanding audience. By the 1970s, when the City Ballet became a favoured cultural institution among wealthy New Yorkers, the audience was still sprinkled with retired workers who knew the ballets and the dancers far better than the fashionable audience that now surrounded them. A knowledgeable and demanding audience – not merely a consuming audience – is crucial to the making of art.

In 1998 the City Ballet celebrated its 50th anniversary, and I researched the connections between the world of dance and the city's larger intellectual life for an exhibit commemorating the occasion. What I found was a remarkably elaborate network of artists and intellectuals crossing all fields, exploring and connecting. At the center was the poet Frank O'Hara, whose madcap social life and strategically located job at the Museum of Modern Art connected black and white, straight and gay, uptown and downtown, Jew and Gentile. All the arts were connected through him, and the mixing of people and art enriched the creative environment. In fact, MoMA was then a centre for artists of all kinds – experimental composers, filmmakers, painters, and sculptors. Through the 1960s, the lives of many New York artists revolved around the museum, but as MoMA itself became a monumental institution, it evolved into a place for casual consumers of art rather than for producers of art, and it no longer played a central role in the city's artistic creativity.

I think MoMA's transformation illustrates a general shift in the relations between the making of culture and the consuming of culture in New York and elsewhere. Most cities that aim to become centres of art focus their attention on the consumption of art. The most prominent example, and the one many cities today hope to emulate, is Bilbao, where a Guggenheim Museum was established to great fanfare in 1997. But establishing major institutions does not, on its own, provide the circumstances for the creation of culture. It may be the beginning of the process, but it does not represent the end.

The same point might be made about New York's Lincoln Center. It is the musical version of the corporate campus, with little fruitful interaction among the various venues and organisations it houses – the operas, the philharmonic, the theater, dance, or the more recent additions, cinema and jazz. Like Bilbao, Lincoln Center has become a model, nationally and globally, for investment in urban culture. But it is devoted exclusively to the consumption of culture.

At the same moment that Lincoln Center sought to agglomerate culture, a group of New York artists – using space in a West Village church – established a place for work and performance that inspired a revolution in aesthetics. Minimalism was born at Judson Memorial Church, and there, musicians, dancers, painters, and sculptors reinvented performance art. In fact, the whole century of avant-garde art came together there on one evening when Marcel Duchamp – still alive, living and working in the village – showed up at the same time as Andy Warhol. Nothing like this has happened at the new MOMA, or at Lincoln Center.

It is possible, of course, for an ambitious city to create the conditions for both making and consuming culture. Cities can use public policy, as New York has done, sometimes inadvertently; they can provide rent subsidies for artists' housing and studio space, to take one example. But unless the making bears some active relation to the consuming and vice versa, one has a showcase for culture, not a creative centre.

Culturally ambitious cities today, including New York, seem to have forgotten this. Without connections to production, cultural institutions curate a hollow culture rather than participating in an urban or creative culture. Culture capitals need to sustain vital creative communities as well as museums, orchestras, and universities. A university without creative research and artistic production is not a university. It is merely a retailer of knowledge.

The same is true for economic innovation: there must be ways for entrepreneurial ambition to realise itself, which means support for start-ups as well as corporations. Corporate power and authoritative institutions are essential to the making of modern city culture. But they cannot do it alone.

Recall that the Western Union Building, the first symbol of modern corporate power in New York, had a basement that sustained Thomas Edison. As he aspired to larger accomplishments, he depended upon a very complex region that mixed cultures and skills, from corporate financiers to craftsmen who worked with their hands. To the degree New York is in our time becoming less complex, more homogeneous – represented increasingly by corporate culture striving for self-contained efficiency – it will also become less creative.

It is in the immigrant neighbourhoods of New York's outer boroughs – Brooklyn, the Bronx, and especially Queens – that diversity and the entrepreneurial spirit are sustained, and there the makers of culture have flourished as well.

The outer boroughs complement the corporate towers of Manhattan, and walking in Abu Dhabi I saw echoes of Queens in the streets and squares behind the tower-lined boulevards. This rich mix is worth preserving in both cities; such cultural diversity in all aspects of daily life is a prompt to creativity. And if the promise of opportunity is real, whether entrepreneurial or cultural, many innovators, whether in economy, technology, or the arts will emerge.

What the world of cultural production needs, whether we speak of dancers or painters, playwrights or violinists, set designers or critics, is cheap rent, studio space, places for both casual and formal discussions of their art, galleries and accessible performance spaces, not all of which are orientated to the consumers of culture. Celebrity does not make great artists; a place to practice one's art in a critical environment does.

Finally, a culture of creativity requires a general educational system that – from primary school to university – will prepare future audiences for the whole range of the arts. Some of this education may be provided at, or near, the institutions where culture is consumed. But often the best environments for learning are near but distinct from these institutions, in places that more fully contain the complex experience of big city life.

If the secret of New York's creativity has indeed been its fruitful mix of dollars, democracy, and diversity, I would add that the easy part is the dollars. It is the democracy and diversity that are hard. By democracy I mean the participation of many classes and cultures in the life of a city; and by diversity, not merely the presence of varied races and ethnicities, but a diversity of habitats of knowledge.

Abu Dhabi possesses the potential to fulfill all these conditions. It has shown genuine commitment to culture and to the creation of a great cultural centre. But the city's success as a creative metropolis will require careful stewardship beyond the investments made so far to bring great cultural and educational institutions to the city. It must also ensure that the daily life in the city nourishes the conditions and opportunities that sustain talent and offer a creative environment of a lively, diverse urbanism.

Thomas Bender is University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. This article is adapted from a talk given at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi.