It sits comfortably alongside the likes of Bilbao, known for its distinctive Guggenheim Museum; Seoul, whose Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Plaza has created a cultural hub with more than 170,000 jobs; Shanghai, home to more than 4,000 design institutions; and Kobe, a crossroads for the exchange of goods and ideas. Yet so fresh is Dubai’s unveiling as the Middle East’s first official creative city, thanks to the architecture and infrastructure that have shaped its exponential growth, that even its landing page on the Unesco website is still under construction.
Dubai has been named one of 24 Unesco creative cities in the design category. Other categories include gastronomy, literature, crafts and music. The Unesco Creative Cities Network (UCCN) was set up in 2004 to single out and celebrate cities which factor a creative element into sustainable urban development. A total of 180 cities make up the network, placing creativity and innovation at their heart and setting a benchmark for other cities to aspire to. What is remarkable about Dubai's accolade is that it was not its artistic initiatives, such as D3 or Alserkal Avenue, that were heralded as landmark endeavours but its basic infrastructure – its tunnels, bridges, waterways and rail network, the building blocks which in other cities are regarded as purely functional but in the blank canvas that was Dubai, inspired trailblazing architects to design dramatic, eyecatching creations that put form and beauty on the same level as function. Hence Dubai Metro, rather than simply transporting passengers, came with a story, echoed in the oyster shell-like stations, an homage to the UAE's pearl diving heritage. Similarly, Dubai Canal has not just provided a waterway but is a tourist attraction in its own right, with breathtaking light displays while Shindagha Bridge's 42-metre-high arches represent infinity. Each design has been seen as a chance to imprint Dubai with a distinctive look, which would make it recognisable around the world. For Dubai's chief architects didn't simply look for creative solutions to infrastructure problems to make living here seamless; they saw those problems as opportunities to carve out a city that would be a global wonder.