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.

PublisherUniversity of Westminster
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