Where in the world is the future cultural capital? Possibly in Asia and the Middle East, at least according to researchers investigating major global cultural building booms over the past 30 years.
With their ambitions and deep pockets, Shenzhen, Abu Dhabi and Doha top the list of cities building state-of-the-art new museums, opera houses and theaters, rivaling old world centers like New York, London and Paris.An ongoing study at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, by art newspaper, heralding a geographic shift in the global north “from full-fledged high-culture cities” to Asian metropolises led by China and the Gulf region. “Our analysis allows us to see the emergence of a new class of global cultural cities,” geographers David Gogishvili and Martin Müller said in a forthcoming academic paper wrote that they are the two academics who conducted the study.
Their research draws on data on 438 “major” cultural buildings that opened in 58 countries between 1990 and 2019 (to avoid the anomalies of the Covid-19 pandemic). If the buildings cost at least $100 million (in 2019 values), or cover an area of at least 20,000 square meters—roughly the size of the Guggenheim Bilbao, which is culturally dominated Iconic buildings, heavily imitated regeneration—or performing arts venues with a minimum seating capacity of 1,500.
Gogishvili and Müller see the proliferation of such megastructures as evidence of the “global rise of cultural capitalism” at the turn of the 21st century. Purposeful, spectacular art buildings, often designed by a handful of “star architects”, have become potent symbols of cities in the global race for “attention, reputation, tourists and investment,” they write.
Nearly $84.7 billion has been invested in the sampled projects, which cover a total area of nearly 17 square kilometers, the size of a small country. The five most expensive all exceeded $1 billion: In descending order, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Millennium Dome (now known as the O2) in London, the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center.
The number of these flagship art venues has exploded since 1990, during “a period of intense globalization,” Gogishvili said in an interview. The trend that started in the global north has spread eastward, driven by the end of the Cold War and China’s accelerated economic reforms. The study found that Europe had the largest share of major projects in the early 1990s – 10 out of a total of 24 projects globally in that five-year span, compared with seven each in Asia and North America. But since the mid-2000s, Asia has gained a decisive lead. Of the 150 major venues that opened between 2015 and 2019, there are 84 in Asia, 32 in Europe and 30 in North America.
rise of asia
China overwhelmingly drove the shift, completing 131 projects during the survey period, or 30% of the sample (the US came in second with 74 buildings, or 17% of the total).
Shanghai added 13 venues, ranking first among cities. Completed in 1998, the Shanghai Grand Theater is one of dozens of state-backed performing arts complexes that have sprung up in China’s fast-growing cities in recent decades. Thanks in part to the sheer size of these “grand theatres”, often combining opera houses, concert halls and theaters under one roof, Asia has the top 10 largest arts venues in the study. In contrast, the average floor area of new cultural buildings in North America has declined every year since 2010.
There are practical and political reasons behind the idea that bigger is better in Asia. In China and elsewhere, urban land is owned by the state, which facilitates development. The researchers point to authoritarian governments’ quest for “soft power and regime legitimation” as another motivation behind megastructures such as Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Palace – the product of a bilateral agreement between France and the UAE.
The rise of Asia may explain a surprising trend in the data: while investment in major cultural buildings has soared (the total project cost of $52.2 billion in the 2010s was almost five times the $10.6 billion spent in the 1990s), Average project costs are falling. Gogishvili cites state ownership of the land, cheap labor costs and China’s shift to more local architects as possible contributing factors.
China’s “unrivaled” building boom looks set to continue into the 2020s, with at least 10 museums and cultural buildings worth an estimated $3 billion planned for Shenzhen alone, researchers said. Meanwhile, the Gulf states are just getting started, eager to use culture to expand their international influence and diversify their oil-based economies.Although the study documents just 14 major arts venues opening in the region between 1990 and 2019, a plethora of new projects are
Completions are expected in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia by the end of the decade.
But it may be premature to declare this explosion of global capital investment a shift in the cultural axis. Adrian Ellis, director of cultural strategy firm AEA Consulting, which provided data to the Lausanne team, said Asian and Middle Eastern cities aiming to build megacities today were still “catching up”. “It will be decades before we reach the sheer number and depth of public museums and performing arts venues in cities like London, Rome or Paris,” Ellis said.
What’s more, Ellis said, the trend toward building grand palaces of culture as tourist magnets and status symbols seems “strangely disconnected” from the current culture sector drive for greater accessibility and community engagement. Of course, it’s also “insensitive to the world’s biggest problem”—climate change—begging a poignant question for planners, policymakers, and cultural leaders around the world: “Will we see, will we At what speed will you see the architectural agenda change?”