Originally published in Art Asia Pacific
By 2050, hundreds of new economic cities will stand across Asia, sprung from empty lands in half a century of building. so many of these tech-driven, future-facing metropolises are being master-planned (some estimate 285 in China alone) that there is a sand shortage in the greener parts of the world; ambitious urban-inspired governments have even banned exports of this precious skyscraper-producing resource.
Some of these cities already have residents; as industry arrives, so do people. All have ambitious master plans and elegantly crafted brand identities, positionings developed to “cut through the noise,” ensuring they become links in the chains of new trade routes, jostling for space amid legions of other imagined, sketched and rendered urban megalopolis.
In Saudi Arabia, we have sand and master plans in abundance. By the middle of this century, the desert that makes up more than half of the kingdom will be urbanized by our own flourishing cluster of economic cities. In 2050, the new city of Neom will emerge. The facts and figures of the project provide little in terms of envisioning life in the future: USD 500 billion in investment from the Saudi investment fund as well as other private, foreign investors; 26,500 square kilometers; eight key investment areas: energy and water, mobility, biotech, food, technological and digital sciences, advanced manufacturing, media, and entertainment; all services and processes in the city will be 100 percent automated; and, if the estimates of the newspapers proves true, half of the inhabitants will be robots.
The foundation of such new cities is totally unprecedented; never in human history have civilizations been planned, branded and consulted upon in this way. What these statistics cannot predict or define is the life of the place—its numbers and ambitions conjure the same smooth kind of living seen in renderings, where daily inconveniences are minimized, given uniform facades and the semblances of privacy and order, as whole cities are streamlined for perpetual innovation.
Searching these meticulously rendered futurescapes to find artistic communities, an optimist might say their absence rests on inevitability—that anywhere people come together, culture happens. A pessimist might say that artists are just not as important as innovation and technology, that their existence will be elsewhere, untroubling to the immaculate glass and shining awe of this new world.
These are extreme perspectives. It’s easy to feel unaccounted for. But in reality, who would accept a cultural future that is master-planned and rendered? Even if our environments in the future are not planned, the future demands engagement from our community, as it is artists who can shape these future cities into livable places. To better understand the artist’s place in these newly dreamed locations—to dream of how Saudi cultural communities can engage with these futures—it is important to consider the past and the present.
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I was born in Tabuk, the capital city of the province where Neom will appear, in the most dramatic year in a decade of seismic change. Petrodollars were flooding the kingdom, reconfiguring everything known until that point. As cities were born and towns sprawled haphazardly into metropolises, the social landscape was also redrawn. Questions and conflict arose over how life should be lived, what could be kept and what made anew. Those questions and the actions some took to assert their views on the matter influenced yet more substantial shifts. For four decades, life in Saudi was cloaked by the repercussions of that decade. Still, art was made—we are not the first creative community to work through adversity.
Then, in the past 12 months, the tide of change came again. As global headlines have traced the rise of this “new” Saudi, the announcement of Neom was one clue; women being allowed to drive has become another signifier of social transformation. So far-reaching are the changes that some are heralding the rise of the fourth Saudi state (the third began with the foundation of the country in 1932). Such a dramatic break with the past suggests that innovation can take place at all levels of society, not only in the rules of the road or the megacities that rise from the sands.
My own new role, as head of Misk Art Institute, has its own kind of symbolism—the artist invited into the dreaming, an acknowledgment of a creative outlook for a changing country, the edge becomes the center. That the grassroots artistic energy of the last four decades sets the kingdom apart from some of its neighbors provides an opportunity for the artist and for the country. Beyond the cultural-diplomacy efforts, the ceremony and excitement of art exhibitions and museums, Saudi Arabia can be truly innovative with a creative outlook informing urban environments, an unpredictable counterpoint to the meticulous master plan.
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History teaches us the essential relationships between environments and artists: that there are certain circumstances that nurture culture and that, in turn, creativity shapes societies for the better. I do not mean the product of artistic endeavor—monuments in town squares, or artworks lining the walls of a museum—but as a state of mind. If we study what makes cities livable for everyone, we observe places that inherently resemble the artist and their capricious way of being. Cultural history is characterized by collaborative living and working—collectives and shared studios, the innovation that emerges through connection, the coffee shop as a place of congregation and exchange. In contrast, cities can be isolating; suburbs sprawl and lives pass in private rooms and apartments. In Saudi especially, cities were built for cars, not people—innovation and happiness both demand spaces of inclusion, not privacy and isolation. To see and connect to the life of the city, we want to be able to read the places we live. The movements and workings of technology can be aesthetically engaging—like the artist’s hand seen in the paintings of the abstract expressionists, cities should reveal their making. Beautiful and livable cities embrace order with some chaos—giving a sense of variety that feels composed but nevertheless inspired.
In the past, Saudi cities have largely been propelled by oil and built for the car; the risk of the future is that they are built by master plan, incubating the economy and shaped for technology. There is a precedent for better communities and better design. In Riyadh, Hai al-Safarat was master-planned, yet, though the product of the oil boom, it looks different from anywhere else in the kingdom. With community gardens, kilometers of winding pedestrian routes and human-scale architecture, it is a neighborhood that is aware of people and built for living. As a result, when it was first established, it was a haven for artists, architects and photographers from all over the world.
We now have an opportunity again: a set of social and cultural circumstances have emerged that could shape a truly innovative future. To imagine cities that are livable demands that artists (and our creative cousins—architects and designers) participate in the dreaming. It would be easy to occupy our places elsewhere, off-plan and thriving in the organic and established. By 2050, we will flourish in Abha, Jeddah, Riyadh and other artistic capitals across the Gulf, but we have a responsibility to shape new cities too. The artistic communities might not be rendered into the master plans, but we must ensure those places are influenced by the currents of creative thinking. For the sake of futures that are livable, artists must teach city planners to dream of places that incubate not only economies but also life itself.