In the book, I often celebrate the way places and people organically grow and connect. Of course, in Dubai it’s been built from virtually nothing in just a few -decades.
There aren’t the people gathering and hanging out on the street in Dubai – sometimes the signifier of a vibrant, healthy city – because it’s often too hot. But the speed of growth is extraordinary, and I’m intrigued by how long it will take for the social aspects of the city to catch up with the architecture and infrastructure.
That’s not a criticism: throughout history there have been cities built incredibly quickly. You wouldn’t imagine St Petersburg as having much in common with Dubai, but that, too, was constructed rapidly as a kind of showcase – and now it’s seen as very elegant and beautiful. It takes a long time for social aspects of a city to become ingrained in a place: I think people forget that.
In a way, the same goes for Masdar City. The point at which the community takes hold of the place will be just as interesting as this noble idea of a completely zero-carbon city. This will be home to 50,000 people, remember. I have to say I’m not confident about anything planned by one single person [in this case, Norman Foster], simply because it’s not what a city is to me. I believe growth should be more organic than that.
But it’ll certainly be interesting to see how it develops in the face of the global downturn.
Going to Mumbai and seeing the “slum” area, Dharavi, there is no question that it’s a difficult place which does make you reassess whether cities are indeed good for you. The lives and experiences of the people there are often desperate and unacceptable.
My argument is that the solution doesn’t come from someone outside those places deciding to bulldoze them. You knock down a slum in Mumbai and you lose the industry, creativity and ingenuity that is so apparent when you walk around the place. What it confirmed for me is that the neoliberal, taxpaying city isn’t the only model on offer. We have lots of different types of cities working on different levels, and there is a strength, resilience and personality to street life.
In the book, I talk about the plans for Saadiyat Island, and how that relates to the “Guggenheim effect” in Bilbao, Spain, where culture could be seen breathing new life into the city. The interesting difference is Louvre Abu Dhabi isn’t part of a plan to regenerate a failing area of the city, it’s about promoting a cultural economy.
I hope, rather than just parachuting in work from Europe, what they put in this amazing building means something to the people who live there. That’s what cultural destinations should be about.