Why the UAE's cities will remain timeless
Since time immemorial, many cities have embraced culture in a bid to create a compelling narrative and attract the creative class.
Today, the UAE has been investing heavily in the cultural sector, with a much-appreciated blossoming of gorgeous venues, events and educational programmes in recent years. Abu Dhabi’s cultural offering has flourished with venues and activities about the city, such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, Manarat Al Saadiyat and Qasr Al Hosn. Dubai Opera has been boasting a calendar of memorable performances and Art Dubai is now a leading international art fair, celebrating its 14th edition in 2021. The Sharjah Art Foundation was founded as a contemporary art and cultural hub to organise exhibitions featuring works by Arab and international artists, in addition to film screenings, performances, artist talks and art education programmes.
There are several precedents for this throughout history.
The image of Venice, for example, remains fabled, almost dreamlike, with its aquatic labyrinth of islands serving as a magical museum for culture aficionados, painters, writers, art collectors and theatre devotees. Dubbed ”La Serenissima” – the “Most Serene” – since the early seventh century Venice has been attracting visitors, who remarked on its much-admired reputation for its tolerance, freedom of expression, hospitality and patronage of the arts. It was in Venice that the first opera house to the paying public was opened, in addition to the first European theatre and the first coffee house. Publishing houses were established as early as the 14th century and lured a flurry of contemporary writers to the city in hopes of getting published. It is remarkable to note the spellbinding effect Venice has had on many creatives, near and afar.
In 1844, English writer Charles Dickens decided to take a year-long sojourn from his writing career and moved his entire family to Italy. On one occasion, Dickens decided to visit Venice and was instantly enchanted by its surreal beauty. Two years later, he published his travelogue, Pictures from Italy, in which he vividly describes Venice as “a place of such surpassing beauty, and such grandeur, that all the rest was poor and faded, in comparison with its absorbing loveliness”.
Dickens’s trip was inspired by William Shakespeare’s masterpieces, which are partly set in Venice, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and Lord Byron’s collection of fascinating letters, poems and plays penned during his three-year stay in the city. Interestingly, Shakespeare never set foot in Italy and neither did Jean-Antoine Watteau, the 18th-century French painter, who was celebrated for his whimsical works. However, Venice still inspired Watteau to paint the celebrated Fetes Venitiennes or ”Venetian Festivals”, currently showcased in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.
Paris is another living example of the eponymous culture jewel and is heralded as one of the world’s most visited cities. The French capital is a vision for the modern culture traveller seeking an elevated and refined travel experience immersed in a world that is both ethereal and epicurean. Its outstanding menu of cultural offerings is hard to resist, for it covers 4,000 historic monuments, 140 museums, 361 theatres, five opera houses, four Unesco sites, 47 foreign cultural institutes, 22,763 restaurants and 421 parks.
In retrospect, Paris had to undergo a major reconstruction project to achieve its current status. The city had been undeveloped since the Middle Ages and its lack of modern urban solutions led to rampant epidemics, over-crowdedness, crime and unsanitary living conditions. During the mid-19th century, however, Emperor Napoleon III hired a new prefect of Seine, Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, and instructed him to make Paris “more beautiful”. Between 1853 and 1870, the city underwent an ambitious yet imaginative urban renaissance.
One of the first projects was to create expansive avenues and boulevards that connect different neighbourhoods into one whole city. The masterplan also included the construction of charming squares tucked within neighbourhoods, grand theatres, scenic gardens, elegant architectural facades with beautiful balconies and the classic Parisian street lamps. Some of the most popular attractions today are as a result of Baron Haussmann’s artistic ingenuity, giving the city a new elegant and cultured identity. These marvellous feats include the Etoile area around the Arc de Triomphe, the restoration of the gardens of the Champs-Elysees, the Opera Garnier and the completion of the last wing of the Louvre – to name but a few. Moreover, Baron Haussmann and his team planted 600,000 trees and added a further 2,000 hectares of parks and green space to Paris. Indeed, thereafter, visitors attending the universal exhibitions, including Queen Victoria, were pleasantly amazed by the city’s transformation.
On a profound level, cultural activities can serve not only as delightful experiences; for they are also passageways for deep reflection, social cohesion and identity formation
Given the success of these historical examples, the UAE’s recent strategic cultural investments are less surprising. They are bolstered further by a growing body of research by urban economists that demonstrates the impact of city design on economic prosperity and citizens’ wellbeing. In 2018, for example, a group of scientists at the University of Cambridge and Nokia Bell Labs published a study on the correlation between cultural capital and economic development in London and New York. This was done by tracking 1.5 million photos of cultural venues, from museums and galleries to theatres and libraries. The study concluded that neighbourhoods with high cultural capital experienced the greatest economic growth. Furthermore, a 2018 report by the World Tourism Organisation finds that cultural tourists make up 35.8 per cent of total tourism.
But perhaps on a more profound level, cultural activities can serve not only as delightful experiences; for they are also passageways for deep reflection, social cohesion and identity formation. Increasingly, more doctors are social prescribing art therapy as a way to improve physical and emotional wellbeing, in addition to combating loneliness, anxiety and depression. These insights position culture as a unique feature of modern urban design, which strives to deliver not only economic prosperity but also to elevate the human experience.
Cities embracing unique cultural narratives will remain timeless, for its residing or inspired creative class will dutifully evolve its story and make it unforgettable.
Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant who writes on human development policy and literature
Published: November 24, 2020 09:00 AM