Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Don’t take the life and lights out of Abu Dhabi

It is hard to believe a neon sign could have me so transfixed, but it does, the one hanging above the Light Corner store at Muroor and Al Falah streets.

On one side, two players kick a ball between them on an endless arc. On the corner, a monkey plays a set of drums. Beside him, a bird flaps his wings. I cannot make out the last vignette, but it appears to have something to do with a horse’s head.

I could stare at this scene for many minutes. It is a bizarre and hilarious landmark, lit to the hilt. When I pass by it at night, it always makes me smile.

But under a new Government initiative to beautify the city, I imagine this sign’s days – not to mention countless others – are numbered.

Abu Dhabi is attempting to improve on much that has happened here in the last 30 years through its City Management Office (CIM), pegging London and Singapore as worthy benchmarks. While the office is expected to come out with a complete list next year, it has already released a streamlined version featuring 109 offences.

Some of the CIM’s initiatives make absolute sense: livestock should not be raised and killed within city limits. Medical waste should be disposed of safely. Littering, spitting and urinating in public – not called for. But in a region which has been criticised for its outsize carbon footprint, what sense does it make to levy fines for hanging laundry out to dry just because of how it looks?

And if municipal planners have their way, local shopkeepers will have to tear down their colourful neon signs and replace them with something more pleasing to the eye.

Estimates suggest three years from now, 70 per cent of the city’s signs will be gone.

No more monkey? No more horse’s head? Not to mention the extravaganzas announcing Mister Baker Celebration Cakes, or the Lebanese Flower, or countless others that jazz up the city at night?

It calls to mind the expatriate drivers of the capital’s newer silver taxis: unlike some of their counterparts in the gold and white versions, they sport beards which are neatly trimmed, wear neat uniforms replacing their traditional dress and sit in car interiors void of flamboyant personal touches and decorations.

The result is pleasant. And dull.

One can only imagine how Abu Dhabi will look when the CIM’s work is done. I can’t help but worry that it might not appear entirely real, especially if aesthetics normally left up to individual proprietors are so micromanaged.

My fear is that the great minds mapping out the city’s future will spend so much time planning the way the capital is going to be, they will wallpaper over what it has become. The aim is to beautify; the effect could be to make it soulless.

Sure, London and Singapore are world standards. So are Paris, New York and Montreal. But all these cities – and other great hubs in the world – have one major thing in common with Abu Dhabi as it is right now, and that is peculiarities that make them their own.

Tourists flock to Times Square in New York City because it is a festival of garish neon. In Delhi, cars veer to avoid hitting cows as they placidly make their way across traffic-choked roundabouts in the downtown core. And in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, the Homeless Poet lives on a street corner in a high-tourist area, scruffy and unwashed, quietly offering his thoughtful writing on pieces of cardboard for handouts from passersby.

These are the things, though hardly beautiful, that make one both smile and remember a place. They are the ways a person learns about a culture, they are what one writes home about.

There is no harm in wanting to burnish an image; world commerce would probably grind to a halt if people stopped caring about how they appear to others. And Abu Dhabi most definitely needs a master plan to cope with growth.

But all one has to do is think of an over-airbrushed celebrity photograph, or the unlined face of a woman who has had a little too much plastic surgery, to get that a few blights and irregularities are necessary, even in a world where we have the means to eliminate them almost entirely.

A trip to any modern shopping mall in the world proves that, while the shops may be uniform, the aesthetics beyond reproach, they will never tell us very much about the people inside. It was Desmond Morris, the British artist and author, who said: “The city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.”

Just like a neon sign, a city should be lit from within. It should have character. These are things Abu Dhabi has achieved, even in its very short history. And that is something no government department can plan for.

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