A young monarch, impressed by the handful of expatriates who call his backward kingdom home and desperately coveting their wealth, decrees a new global capital from scratch, nakedly aping the rich ones he had visited in the West. Drafting an army of slave labor, he orders canals, palaces and a harbor built in a miserable climate—one that requires importing the city’s entire population. The story of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum in a nutshell? Try Russia’s Peter the Great and St. Petersburg, founded nearly three centuries earlier in 1703.
Journalist Daniel Brook draws a straight line between the two, through another pair of instant metropolises, Shanghai and Mumbai, in his new book A History of Future Cities. The four are as much “ideas” as places, he argues—Eastern cities in agrarian backwaters that copied the West architecturally in hopes of borrowing their modernity. To whatever extent they’ve succeeded, they point the way forward for the next urban billion. “A city like Berlin, with its neoclassical parliament and museum buildings, is no different than St. Petersburg,” Brook writes. “Berlin feels less Disneyfied than St. Petersburg only because the ruse has worked.”
“I’m more sympathetic to Jane Jacobs and democratic urbanism than the wholesale destruction of the past,” he says. “But a city also needs the unhinged ambition of a Robert Moses. The book is the story of all these people who were laughed at, and places that weren’t taken seriously. What’s interesting about Dubai is that we are living through another of these eras—'Haha, look at these silly Arabs and their giant buildings,' which is exactly the reaction the Russians got, and how the London and Paris papers described Shanghai.”
Brooks’ account focuses as much on each city’s “legal architecture” as its skyscrapers, whether it’s Peter’s shaving of his noblemen’s beards and mustaches, the colonialist institutions of the British Raj, state capitalist China, or the free zones of Dubai. Whereas master builders such as Moses or Le Corbusier were the only ones who dared build cities from scratch, today the task falls to McKinsey or PricewaterhouseCoopers consultants.
“Is McKinsey doing a better job of designing these places than Oscar Niemeyer [the primary architect of Brasiliá] or Le Corbusier?” Brook asks rhetorically. “I think they’re doing an equally bad job. Any place that aspires to be instantly modern implements the fashions of the day—the intellectual, political, and economic fashions—to the most extreme extent possible. This explains the Dubai real estate crash: A bunch of bankers in the West invented credit derivatives, and nobody ate more of them than Dubai. It speaks volumes about the intellectual fashions of today. Consultants are the ones building cities; in the 1950s, visionary architects did.”
Dubai and Shanghai’s futuristic half, Pudong, are typically dismissed as sterile, contextless places that can never be “real.” But as the stories of each makes clear, authenticity is largely a function of time. “People think Dubai is a new thing, but it’s actually just the most recent iteration of an old thing,” Brook says. “In Mumbai, you have 1860s-era buildings on one side of a park, and 1930s-era building on the other, and in their days both were very much a self-conscious representation of what this futuristic Indian city was going to look like, and what it should.”
Of the four, he is most optimistic about Shanghai. “Dubai has this work-in-progress feel and Mumbai feels held together by tape,” Brook says. “The irony of Shanghai is that was built as this shining image of the perfect global city—it has all the guts in place, it’s just missing the software.”
“In the book, I talk quite a bit about how the Cultural Revolution essentially neutron-bombed the culture of that country and how much has been lost in the sense of who-we-are and where-we’re-going,” he adds. “For all of Shanghai’s size, it’s still just 2% of China. If you look at the history of St. Petersburg—another modern city in a rural country which is always trying to seize the reins—it never quite does it, or when it does, it gets all screwed up. But as an experience of writing this book, I now have this great faith that the world’s great cities build great people, and I think that with all of these Shanghainese, they have the hardware and are now more or less building the software by accident.”