It is a contradiction rendered all the more extraordinary by its consistency: that the world’s most powerful cities are also among the least interesting to spend time in. Brussels, home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and Nato, among other institutions, is almost proverbial for its stolid dullness. Geneva, seat of UN agencies (including the UNHCR and the WHO), the World Trade Organisation, the World Economic Forum, the Red Cross and many other NGOs, is otherwise notable only for being even more boring than Brussels – to the point that its residents head out of town at 17.00 on a Friday, not to be seen again until Monday morning, and don’t even attempt to engage in commerce on a Sunday.
Even Washington, capital of a globe-bestriding superpower, rarely inspires affection or, beyond its undeniably fantastic museums, much interest. Mark Twain, in an 1868 dispatch from Washington, observed that “the population… seems to be made up of people who want offices”. Just over a century later, Twain’s successor as satirist-in-chief, PJ O’Rourke, said of Washington’s nightlife in his book, Parliament of Whores, “At 22.30 on weekday nights, Washington bars and restaurants are as empty as synagogues in Iraq.”
It seems somewhat counter-intuitive. Diplomatic and political capitals all possess, by definition, one of the prerequisites for an exciting city: a multi-national, multi-cultural population of disproportionately ambitious, educated people. The problem with these power cities is that they don’t have much else, and this is especially noticeable in the prim ossuaries built or chosen to house – or, perhaps, to insulate and quarantine – the political classes: Australia’s sleepy capital Canberra, Canada’s nondescript Ottawa, Brazil’s museum piece Brasilia.
Imran Khan, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, spends roughly 80 per cent of his time based in another such city: Pakistan’s 1960s-built capital Islamabad. “If dull was a cricket league,” says Khan, “Islamabad would be at the top of it. It’s full of diplomats and politicians, who are not known for their creative skills. It has no real culture – no street markets, no cinema. Its youth are stifled and have no outlet for any kind of creativity.” For many Europeans, Britons especially, Brussels serves as a shorthand for bureaucratic drear. André de Vries, a legal translator, once spent an entire book – his excellent guide to Brussels for Signal’s “Cities Of The Imagination” series – begging to differ.
“Brussels has a lot of culture,” he insists, “especially theatre, and the restaurants are very good. It’s also very multi-cultural.” (This has been reflected at the highest levels of local government – in 2006, Faouzia Hariche, an Algeria-born Muslim, served as acting mayor). That said, de Vries agrees that what drawbacks Brussels suffers derive from its stature. “The planning laws are very lax and barely enforced,” he says, “so it has always been easy to demolish old buildings. Whole 19th century neighbourhoods have been destroyed to make way for EU buildings.”
The reality is that all single-industry towns are tiresome if you don’t happen to have a professional or personal interest in that industry. For most industries, that doesn’t matter much. For power, it matters a great deal – in these drab, sterile, over-secured environments, decisions are made which affect the vibrant, chaotic, volatile real world the rest of us live in.
“Islamabad is a bubble,” says Khan, “cut off from the rest of the country with security cordons. You could change that by introducing it to Pakistan, but then all the foreign diplomats based here would leave in fright.”
In Addis Ababa (see page 27), on the other hand, they might be able to cope with a little more boring order (this is a city that operates without street names). And, for the moment, it’s unlikely that chaos will be replaced by dullness.
The power capitals
Perhaps undeserving of its grim reputation. Quirky and cultured: the city of Brel, Magritte and Hergé, among other famous Belgians.
Oscar Niemeyer designed a World Heritage Site and plausible modernist Utopia. Looks good in pictures.
Not an ideal place to be an adult, but a great place to raise children: safe, quiet, great schools and cradled by beautiful countryside. However, we’d rather have our embassy in Sydney.
Anyone interested in the history of the last couple of centuries has to be a bit interested in Washington. And the museums are astonishing.
Like the country it serves, transcendentally unobjectionable.
Of which it might be charitably said that it represents an oasis of tedium amid the chaos and squalor of Pakistan.
Several EU institutions are based here, which is the single most enthralling thing to be said about the place.
Home to many international legal institutions, and the occasional tourist wondering why they’re not in Amsterdam.
The unlovable Kosovo capital still boasts a disproportionate concentration of NGOs left over from the 1999 war and subsequent UN mandate.
Mean people suggest it’s the punchline to the question, “What’s the Swiss word for ‘large gathering of boring people’?”