Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Abu Disney

In this article, the New York Times' architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff discusses astonishing plans to trick out Abu Dhabi with several new museums, galleries and pavilions by the world's greatest architects. It's like a design fetishist's wet dream. You can just hear the satisfied sighs as Frank Gehry puts up another Guggenheim.

It sounds like a wonderful scheme. Who wouldn't want Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid to build outposts for the Guggenheim, the Louvre and Yale Uni? It will be gathering the brightest and best of the world in one place, which will quickly be flooded by affluent culturistas. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this - I for one would like to be able to pop out of the British Museum and into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then into the Hermitage.

However, there are three rather important objections to this idea. The first is that museums and galleries are always reluctant to lend their A-list items. It's hard to imagine that the Louvre will Fed-Ex the Mona Lisa to the Middle East or that Yale will bundle up some of its finest African masks. The most valuable and delicate items will stay right where they are, especially since they are some of the biggest draws to the existing museum. The only way the Louvre's prized Winged Victory of Samothrace is getting to Abu Dhabi is if it flies there itself.

Then there is the argument that what we'd be getting is not so much a global cultural centre as an artistic theme park, leading to a mush instead of a museum. The individual significances of both the museums and their collections are lost if they're all lumped together; you end up with a pick 'n' mix of treasures where all the items become devalued because there are so many of them. You might equally apply this to other mega-museums, and while there is something to be said for ease of access, the homogenisation of art tourism (which, make no mistake, this is) is hardly desirable.

Perhaps the biggest objection to this scheme is not the quality of the work or the hypermarket-like choice but the way the plan has been conceived. While Mr. Ouroussoff thinks that it would "plant the seeds for a fertile new cultural model in the Middle East", it seems to me rather that it would replay the traditional model of Western colonialism.

In the main, the architects are western superstars. They build all over the world, but they are based in the west; even the Iraqi Zaha Hadid has her office in London. The designs are Arab-influenced yet there seem not to be any Arab architects for the large museums - after all, would a talented but unknown architect from the Middle East draw as many tourists as Gehry?

The contents are coming from western museums too, with seemingly no involvement from the rest of the world. The galleries will undoubtedly include many items from the east and Africa and Australia but they have all been collected (stolen?) by the west. It is as if Abu Dhabi is saying that the only people worth dealing with are those in the west.

A "new cultural model" wouldn't involve importing the best of the west to build houses for the best of the west's treasures, which - ironically - have largely been harvested from everywhere but the west. We are seeing a familiar colonialism whereby the west patronises the east with its wealth and its culture. This is no successor to Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad, as Mr. Ouroussoff desires - they were cities where western culture came and cross-pollinated with other cultures. This is any western capital relocated to a desert, entirely aloof from its surroundings.

The aim of the scheme is to attract rich western tourists to the Emirates with consumer-friendly collections and big name-builders. Visitors will be able to look the centre in the eye and see themselves reflected. If Abu Dhabi wants to play this as a major cultural centre, that's fine, but it comes across far more as the EuroDisney of art.

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