The role of cultural flagships in the perception and experience of urban areas for tourism and culture. Case study: The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden

Guachalla Gutierrez, A.F. 2011. The role of cultural flagships in the perception and experience of urban areas for tourism and culture. Case study: The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. PhD thesis University of Westminster School of Architecture and the Built Environment

TitleThe role of cultural flagships in the perception and experience of urban areas for tourism and culture. Case study: The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsGuachalla Gutierrez, A.F.

This research aims to explore how a cultural flagship influences the cultural

tourist’s perception and experience of a well established urban area for tourism

and culture, taking the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as a case study.

Covent Garden, as an important part of London’s tourist portfolio is a case study

of interest because of its wide array of land use that makes it a popular area for

tourism and cultural consumption, with distinctive architecture, heritage and a

wide range of attractions and leisure opportunities. The Royal Opera House,

established at the core of the area, stands as a world renowned provider of high

culture and has a rich history and heritage of its own, yet it evolved over time

parallel to the area, to the extent that Covent Garden’s name is often used to refer

to either the precinct or the flagship. It was recently subjected to a redevelopment

scheme aimed towards providing the building with a fresh architectural front and

added facilities. This raises many questions regarding the role that an old cultural

flagship made new plays in the well established tourism precinct’s sense of place

and draw towards the cultural tourist. To address these matters, a social

constructivist approach has being adopted, through which the tourist’s

mechanisms of interpreting their surroundings were explored and the nature of

their cultural experiences in Covent Garden understood. 306 semi-structured

interviews were conducted throughout six different locations in the area and inside

the flagship building aiming to explore the tourist’s motivation to visit London

and Covent Garden, the nature of their experiences and their perception of both

the area and the flagship, and how the latter exerts an influence of their perception

and experience of place.

The evidence analysis has revealed that the Royal Opera House does not have a

strong influence on the tourist’s perception and experience of Covent Garden,

which is seen as a place for shopping and relaxation rather than high culture

despite the efforts made to provide it with a more attractive architectural front and

its policies for social inclusion. However, other visitors perceive it as a pinnacle of

high culture depending on their level of appreciation for opera and ballet. Furthermore, the notion of cultural distance (McKercher, 2002) exerts an

influence in these perceptions as the area’s visitors tend to relate their

surroundings to what they are familiar and unfamiliar with. The visitors’ age also

plays an important role in their perception and experience of place as the data

collected revealed that the older age groups tend to have a more inquisitive

attitude in regards to their tourist experiences, which can also be understood as

deeper. On the other hand, younger tourists are more likely to focus their visit on

leisure and entertainment. Regardless of this, the presence and behaviour of other

visitors in the area also prove to exert an impact on the tourist’s perception and

experience of place. They tend to engage in communal activities such as watching

street entertainment and provide each other with behavioural cues that manifest

themselves in a slower pace of movement and a relaxed attitude when

experiencing the precinct. This is also related to the area’s built environment and

urban characteristics as the streets are pedestrianised, allowing for visitors to roam

and explore their surroundings. However, Covent Garden can be seen as a

multifaceted precinct as the area’s different locations vary in terms of their size

and scale as well as the leisure and cultural opportunities available. The area’s

Piazza is an open space characterised by the presence of the market, street

entertainment and outdoor eating and drinking facilities that grant it with a

continental and cosmopolitan ambience. Other locations such as Seven Dials

provide the visitors with other types of experiences given the smaller scale of its

streets. The Royal Opera House is perceived as a valuable cultural asset for the

country and its name is associated with elitism, exclusivity and monumental

architecture. However, the building’s physical presence in the area does not

provide the same visual stimuli that other stand alone flagship developments such

as the Sydney Opera House provide for example. Therefore, its importance and

role in the tourist’s perception and experience of place depends on the individual’s

awareness of the building and personal interest in its cultural products.

Publication dates

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