x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dubai profiled by author as one of four global cities on the cutting edge

According to Daniel Brook, Dubai is, with St Petersburg, Mumbai and Shanghai, one of the cities of the future. But what kind of future will that be?

A History of Future Cities
Daniel Brook
WW Norton & Co

When Sheikh Rashid's sons took over the transformation of Dubai, the third born, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, dreamt of making the emirate a global city. Indeed, that is what Dubai has become and its population is now made up of citizens from more than 100 nations around the world.

The Sheikh further dreamt and launched Dubai onto a pinnacle of modernity and global commerce. That pinnacle included the Emirates Towers, taller than any building in Europe; the Burj Khalifa, the world's highest; a brand new airport, Dubai International; and an airline, Emirates, which today connects Dubai to the world.

But there were changes along the way that the leaders probably did not dream about, including hijacked planes and hostage negotiations with groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

Such historical titbits stream from Daniel Brook's eminently readable A History of Future Cities, in which the author profiles Dubai alongside St Petersburg, Russia; Bombay (now Mumbai) and Shanghai (Lagos in Nigeria and Dhaka in Bangladesh, Brook notes, are also poised to become "future cities").

What does the label mean? To Brook, a US journalist, his "four unlikely sister cities" are unified by the sense of "disorientation" they impart to the world, since all are located in the East (although St Petersburg's location beside the Gulf of Finland hardly qualifies it as an authentic eastern city) but were purposefully built to look as if they were in the West. "Love them or hate them, these dis- oriented metropolises matter," Brook writes. "They are places to be reckoned with because they are ideas as much as cities, metaphors in stone and steel for the explicit goal of Westernisation."

Travellers to these places, he explains, are less likely to ask Where are we? than Who are we? "These global gateway cities raise the question of how to be a modern Arab, Russian, Chinese, and Indian and whether modernisation and globalisation can ever be more than just euphemisms for Westernisation."

Dubai aside, cities modelled on the West have a long history: Shanghai and Mumbai date back two centuries as world players - and St Petersburg was founded in a Baltic coastal swamp in 1703. Yet today's big difference is rapid intercontinental travel, along with the sense of wonder that such sudden cultural change can bring: a visitor to Dubai, Brook says, has to stop and marvel at "the human traffic jam that breaks out when a group of Afghan village men, all in their characteristic headdresses, crane their necks to see their tribesmen draw money from an ATM.

"The journey from developing-world hinterland to globalising city has become the defining journey of the 21st century," he says.

Certainly that journey has had bumps in the road. After Peter the Great returned from an incognito shipbuilding internship in Amsterdam - then the world's richest city, based on trade - he marshalled his tremendous resources to begin a brand new city (with the Dutch name Sankt Pieter Bunkh) modelled on the West. The Tsar liked to brag how his megaproject took the lives of 100,000 serfs, many of whom worked in a freezing, harsh environment without even wheelbarrows or sophisticated tools. And Russia's serfs weren't forced Westernisation's only victims: Peter personally shaved off the beards of his nobles and cut the sleeves off their caftans. French became the lingua franca; philosophers were imported from Paris to advise Catherine the Great. And onion domes and other Russian architectural traditions were eschewed in favour of canals and public buildings adorned with European columns and cupolas. Peter even hired an Italian architect to make the metropolis mimic Rome, complete with a neoclassical central church.

Along with Western ways and the founding of a great university in 1724, however, came Western ideas. It was just a matter of time before pressure bubbled up to challenge the tsarist state's autocracy and the serfdom that fuelled it. "It is no coincidence that St Petersburg birthed the Bolsheviks, Shanghai the Chinese Communist Party, and Mumbai the Indian National Congress," Brook writes of those future cities' locals. "These people have a remarkable tendency to go off script."

That's what happened in Shanghai. After the 1842 Treaty of Nanking opened the island city for trade to Asia, the British moved in, building a fabulous skyline along Shanghai's Bund, or embankment, of the Huangpu River. There, they and other Europeans developed foreigners' districts, or concessions, for residences and business. By 1870, 16 nationalities called the city home and welcomed a flood of Chinese refugees from the mainland, from whom they could extract outrageous rents in new slums lacking air and space and basic services, even as the Europeans lived high on the hog. Racial hierarchies sprang up, symbolised most glaringly, Brook writes, by the segregated Shanghai (horse) Race Club, which grew so successful it became the third wealthiest foreign corporation in China.

Bombay's future city status began, says Brook, when India already had been under the thumb of the British East India Company for 100 years. The year, 1857, was that of the Sepoy mutiny when rebelling soldiers were publicly tied to cannons and blown into oblivion - a horrifying warning to Indians. The event also marked Bombay's end as a Company town; henceforth, the Crown - Queen Victoria - would rule, during the nine-decade-long Raj.

During those years, Westernisation swept Bombay. "While the rest of India moved at the pace of a bullock cart, Bombay rushed into the future, opening Asia's first railroad," Brook notes. In this city, a farmer's son could aspire to be a merchant or clerk; education could get a villager somewhere in life. And there was somewhere to go: the city's ambitious governor, Sir Bartle Frere, commissioned a dozen massive public buildings built in British Gothic style, or, in the case of the new university library, the Doge's Palace in Venice.

Through all this, the most Westernised Indians were ironically also the most loyal to the Raj, but that loyalty was tested. In 1897 the Queen's diamond jubilee coincided with a terrible outbreak of bubonic plague limited to the poor, which, together with their unspeakable living conditions, highlighted the contradictions of the Raj and set the stage for Gandhi and independence.

Not only did the Raj unite Indians for the first time, but the era's modernisation plans "were unwittingly sowing the seeds of the Raj's destruction".

Along with history Brook includes a heavy dose of architectural detail from his four cities, which may be slow going for some readers. More interesting to non-architectural types are those aforementioned historical nuggets. How many of us know the urban legend in Shanghai that the high-collared, slit-up-to-here Chinese dress called the qipao originated when a Shanghai actress complained to a bandleader that her long dress wouldn't let her do the Charleston?

Fun stuff, to be sure. Yet the serious piece here is the conflict Brook's future cities have with globalism and modernity.

Of the four, Dubai comes in for the harshest words, as a city whose globalisation strategy, with "Disneyfied" elements such as its Ibn Battuta Mall, and English as its official language, has de-Arabianised the city, according to Brook.

Yet even as this emirate city's globalisation continues and its skyscrapers rise, Brook backpedals a bit.

"To fully grasp Dubai, one must catch the glimpses of utopia within the dystopia," he advises. "Writing off Dubai is writing off the world as it might be … writing off modernity itself."

Ibn Battuta Mall may be Disneyish, but its "panorama of humanity testifies to the wonder of 21st-century border crossing in ways that could never be planned".

Additionally, Brook says, while future cities may copy the West, some Eastern copies have become more important than the originals: St Petersburg's proposed Gazprom Tower, for instance, has looked not to Amsterdam or anywhere in Europe, but to Dubai, where the tower's architect began his career. And Dubai itself may have built a facsimile - actually twin carbon copies - of the iconic US Chrysler Building. But forget that they're a knock-off, because the "real" Chrysler Building in New York is 90 per cent owned by an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund.

"Looking forward," Brook writes, "if there is any hope for the world, we must see beyond the notions of East and West that have long divided us." Those divisions are arbitrary and were "created for a world dominated by Europe".

And that world, Brook points out, no longer exists.

 

Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.