Friday, April 03, 2009

The soul of a city?

In my recent Middle Eastern post, I said that I didn't feel that I had got to the "heart" of Abu Dhabi. I'm fortunate enough to get to do a fair amount of traveling, and one of the main pleasures of visiting a new place is "getting it", of finding the soul of the city. Some places, however, have eluded me in the one or more times that I have visited them. Many of them, like Los Angeles, obviously had an edge but I didn't have enough time to find it; for others there doesn't seem to be anything there. The Middle East has been a hotbed of these types of cities: Dubai and Abu Dhabi, no matter how flashy, just don't have "it"; Khobar and Dammam in Saudi Arabia have a hollow feel to them. But why?

The starting point to answering that is to work out what I mean by "it" or the soul of a city. For some cities, like London, New York, and Paris, you don't really need to explain anything: just being in these places you feel like you are in the centre of the world, that you are surrounded by people, history, culture, and promise. Many cities assert themselves by virtue of historic landmarks or districts, such as Istanbul, Cairo, Berlin, Brussels, Cologne, and Edinburgh. Others assault your senses with crowds of people, sights, sounds, and smells: amongst these are Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, San Francisco, and Bangkok. Finally, some bowl you over by virtue of geographic or architectural setting, such as Torshavn, Stavanger, Bergen, and Portland. All of the places that I have liked over the years have fallen into at least one of these categories. Aberdeen, for example, gets its soul from the architecture, the buildings, and the history that they bring with them. In most areas of the city centre the streets are made up of buildings at least 100 years old, with some 500 or more years old. This adds a "weight" to the place, for me. The interesting thing about this subject is that there will be loads of different opinions on what give the city its soul: for Aberdeen you could put up a good argument for it being the students, the night-life, the geographical setting, the oil industry, or others that I can't even think of. No matter what you think, many cities have many aspects which many people think make them great.

But what of those that don't? I'm sure that plenty of places have got their "X factor" but that the people who miss it didn't make the effort or have the capacity to see it. Riga, Singapore, Los Angeles and Caracas are places that I know have some sort of edge to them, but I just couldn't find it. This leaves those cities that I just can't see having a "heart", like the Middle Eastern ones mentioned above, as well as other places such as Houston. The logical conclusion seems to be that they just don't have it.

What they don't have is those things that the others do: people, history, culture. The reason that the Middle East in particular has never grabbed me must be that the cities are just so young. Not much more than a century ago, these places were basically villages or small towns. What was there longer ago has basically been completely removed to make way for the modern settlements. So no architectural history, but the people can make up for that, surely? In places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, 75% or more of the population are pretty recent immigrants, brought in to construct the rapidly-expanding cities or to service their needs. There is no real cultural history, no shared identity. So that's it, it boils down to history in one way or another, and none of these cities have it. I'd add Houston into that bracket, too: basically a sprawling urban mess in the middle of a desert. The people are great there, but is that because of Texas or Houston?

Some of the cities that I have classified as "soulless" are trying to create that history by building extravagant skyscrapers, sporting arenas, cultural centres, and hotels. The interesting question here is whether the history will "stick". Dubai feels like someone has taken 50 different packets of skyscraper seeds, mixed them in a bucket, then randomly scattered them over a city-sized area. There is no cohesion or uniform local style, nothing distinctive to give the city an identity. Lots of big buildings does not a great city make (see, in my opinion, Singapore). The bigger question is whether history is being created anywhere. Time will be the only judge of that, but I'm sure that things such as the Petronas Towers, Ground Zero, The Gherkin, and the Bullet Train will all be great cultural artefacts of our time. Those "empty" cities are screwing it up by building a splendid house on plasticine foundations.

You can sometimes just tell when a city is going to be good or bad. I'd rather go to, and would have a more interesting time in, Baghdad than go back to Dubai.


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