Romanticizing the Past

Romanticizing the Past: The Impact of Utopia and Traditions on the Design of Energing Cities in the Gulf Region

This article investigates the impact of the perception of the past as utopia on the design of emerging cities in the Gulf region.

Arabs view their conditions 1000 years ago as more prominent, successful and flourishing than their current condition today. While Europe was living its “dark ages”, Arabs were dominating the world physically, intellectually, and scientifically. References to the past are always made to those glorious days of the past. Religious beliefs also affect their view of tradition as perfect, complete and righteous.

Today, utilizing their oil wealth, many Gulf countries attempt to “re-build” this glorious past on several levels; starting from use of traditional furniture and fabrics inside their living rooms, to design the of houses and neighborhoods based on traditional design and planning principles, ending with the creation of complete cities and towns based on traditional images and metaphors. These attempts reflect the “duality” that characterizes their image of the “utopia” today. On one hand they are eager to live the present and enjoy the luxuries of utopia of today’s technologies while, on the other hand, they are tied by the webs of the utopia of “ideal” past.

The Silk City; or “Madinat Al-Hareer”, is a reflection of this duality. As proclaimed by the vision statement, the city is “founded on the rich heritage of Arabic gardens, towns, palaces, and markets. It balances Centres of Faith with Centres of Commerce as a rich garden city on the Arabian Gulf.” The city is made of four new city centres; Finance City, Leisure City, Culture City, and Ecological City. “It is a new cosmopolitan city for a new century”, stated the vision statement. At the center of the city stands Burj Mubarak Al Kabir, “the Tower of a Thousand and One Nights” as a symbol that stands as an icon for the world to know. The tower is designed to exceed all known tall buildings in the world, especially the Burj Dubai that is expected to rise up to more than 800 meters in the sky. “Standing 1001 meters tall, it will house 7 vertical villages combining offices, hotels, leisure, and residential into a vertical city centre that reaches for the heavens. The design is inspired by the defiant flora of the desert as much as the rich folklore of Arabic heritage described in ‘Kitab Alf Layla wa-Layla’.” The Silk City illustrates current attempts in Gulf countries to build a future utopia based on the past utopia.

The attempts to “idealize” the past are in fact “romanticizing” mechanisms, thinking of it as perfect condition that can be rebuilt using wealth and technologies of today. The problem is that this way of thinking allows one to praise the past and look forward to the future without considering present conditions.


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