Ever since the Industrial Revolution shifted the focus of life from the country to the city, culture has been inextricably linked to the idea of the metropolis: an organism that both captures and creates the spirit of the times. The metropolis is a center of financial power and intellectual innovation, constantly on the vanguard of art and technology. Each metropolis, through its representations in culture and its architectural presence, imposes its own image onto the popular conception of the function of a city. Paris was the quintessential metropolis of the late nineteenth century, home and inspiration to countless artists, writers, architects and performers, and birthplace of many stylistic movements. New York inherited its crown, and wore it proudly for much of the twentieth century, although Las Vegas arguably represented America’s cultural and economic hegemony more accurately. As these cities become familiar and irrelevant, losing their power to thrill, Dubai is poised to exemplify the glory that was the Information Age, as the financial crisis makes Dubai's ambition an anachronism.
In the first half of the twentieth century, New York’s significance for the conception of the city was articulated in its combination of fantasy architecture on an incredible scale—at least, by contemporary standards—with the gritty daily life of its inhabitants. Spires of glittering metal loomed over dingy strip clubs, and the magical escapism of Coney Island was just a subway ride away from dilapidated tenement houses. It carelessly juxtaposed the colossal skyscrapers and canyon-like avenues of a futuristic daydream with all the necessary accoutrements of a functioning city, like an extensive metro system, spacious parks and residential neighborhoods. It still defines the way we think about a metropolis: a massive, frantic city, equally exhilarating and dangerous, crowded with people of all ages and backgrounds united only in their gruff allegiance to their hometown. For all its glamour and menace, New York remains a community, belonging entirely to its inhabitants. Many people spend their whole lives there, and it accommodates the working class (at least in the outer boroughs) as well as the wealthy and powerful elite.
Although it is still a wild and vibrant city, New York is no longer on the cutting edge. Its livability prevents it from being a pure hedonistic spectacle, lessening its impact on our cultural imagination. Moreover, despite the high tech makeover of Times Square, and the twisted glass icebergs popping up allover Manhattan, it is too old-fashioned to compete with cities like Dubai and Shanghai for the role of definitive twenty-first century metropolis. New York’s once astounding innovations have become run-down or outdated over time. What were revolutionary monuments to modernist innovation have been so integral to the pop culture of the twentieth century that we cannot help associating them with the eras that immortalized them. Coney Island, once a surreal dreamland of electric lights and tilt-a-whirls, is now in a state of disrepair more likely to evoke the jokey nineteen-seventies nostalgia of Annie Hall. And the Chrysler building, so dazzlingly modern when it was built, today looks as quaint as a prop in a black and white movie with a fuzzy big-band soundtrack. Its connection with the past romanticizes it, much like historic European capitals.
New York remains the most iconic and beloved American city, but somewhere along the line Las Vegas borrowed its excitement and fantasy, discarded the functionality, and created a new breed of city. Only accessible by car and geared solely towards tourists Vegas re-imagined the city as a money making machine, coldly efficient in its ends and wildly imaginative in its means. Freed from the constraint of building a livable city, architecture adopted increasingly irrational techniques, drafting visually exciting forms with light in space instead of concerning itself with comfort or convenience. The Strip’s empty monumentality is intriguing and strange enough to lure tourists, but otherwise it serves no civic purpose. Rather than competing with the great cities of the old world, Las Vegas simply envelops them in its own cityscape, miniaturizing them and stuffing them full of roulette tables. American tourists who will never leave the lower forty-eight can marvel at the canals of Venice, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid—even the skyline of New York, cementing its status as an old-guard metropolis.
Eventually, Vegas became a destination in its own right, its funhouse reflections of the world acquiring independent status, but never became a city like New York. No one wants to live in Las Vegas because it has no community or cultural activity—other than Tom Jones—and it doesn’t need these assets to function. It’s a place for tourists to come and gawk, a demonstration of weirdness and excess, supported only by its vision and greed. Las Vegas will continue to build strange attractions as long as gamblers come to stare at them, but its time has passed. It ceased being shocking when fantasy environments like Disney World and gigantic shopping malls became commonplace. And like New York, it remains connected to the past. Its neon tackiness is still associated with the failed futurism of the fifties.
Dubai appropriates the grand scale of New York and the brazen showiness of Las Vegas, and removes the slightest pretense of being a city for people to live in. It works like a glorified airport lounge, designed solely to entertain wealthy men in between their business trips. Its greatest attractions are hotels, and it outdoes Vegas’ car-centric strip by catering to airplanes—preferably private jets. The city is best seen from the air, and some of its attractions, like the Palm Islands, only make sense viewed from above. Dubai takes fantasy architecture to the extreme, making New York’s tall buildings look dull and Vegas’ decorated sheds look cheap. Projects like the Burj Dubai, Hydropolis and the World manipulate the environment into shapes only dreamed of before. They are superlatives come to life—the world’s tallest building! the world’s first underwater hotel!—glorious daydreams executed in gleaming digital clarity. Dubai will be a definitive metropolis because it both borrows and exceeds the imagery of the rest of the world. If New York and Taipei are renowned for their skyscrapers, Dubai will raise them the tallest structure in the world. And if Vegas and Disney World can take the world’s most famous buildings and re-brand them, Dubai will take the image of the world itself and make it into a private attraction. Rather than shrinking the wonders of the outside world into accessible dioramas, like the Venetian’s canals or Epcot Center, Dubai recreates them on a grand scale. Plans are already underway to build replicas of the Seven Wonders of the World (a mix of ancient and new, the project will include the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Leaning Tower of Pisa); and unlike the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, the replicas will be life-size.
Las Vegas provides a budget American alternative to traveling the world: if you can’t afford to go to Paris, at least you can gamble next to a model of the Eiffel Tower. Dubai, on the other hand, disdains this pseudo-egalitarian imitation and strives to make its attractions more appealing than their originals. Sure, you could go to China to se the Great Wall, but in Dubai you’ll see the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Pyramid of Giza too—and you can go skiing at the mall afterwards. The World Islands embody this mentality at its wackiest, drawing the familiar shapes of the continents on the surface of the sea, while also typifying Dubai’s exclusivity. Only accessible by private plane or boat, the islands are marketed as private villas for corporations, celebrities, or the extremely wealthy. Dubai is not a city in any traditional sense of the word. It does not provide infrastructure, a community, or a basis for residential living. It is a series of increasingly exaggerated fantasies provided by an exclusive cadre of starchitects, a playground for the elite.
Dubai is notable for the brevity of its zenith. The recession hit later than it did here, but rumors of bankruptcy began swirling in February. Empty cars litter parking lots and expensive condos stand empty, while the World Islands sink back into the sewgae-flooded sea. Dubai’s approach to the metropolis is not sustainable, environmentally or imaginatively, and it is paying the price. Without a culture to nourish them, Dubai’s monuments have become pathetic shells of a fleeting moment of decadence. By basing a city on shock and opulence, Dubai ensured its own downfall. Nonetheless, there is aperverse fascination in the half-finished Burj Al-Arab. It magnifies the hubris and absurdity of oil-fueled civilzation, while remaining an undeniably majestic gesture. Like all of Dubai's fantasy landscapes, it will make an amazing ruin after the fall of civilization.