Reaching new heights of inspiration

Abu Dhabi’s planned zero-carbon “ecotopia” is a world away from the skyscrapers that dominate the Gulf region, writes John Vidal. And its architects, led by Norman Foster, say the ready-made city can be adapted to anywhere in the world.

Nayla (not her real name) lives on the edge of a small township way beyond the skyscrapers and palaces of Abu Dhabi’s city centre. She and her husband are both professionals who, in most societies, could expect to afford decent housing, but they live with their two children in a small two-bedroom apartment “in the desert”. The air conditioning breaks down frequently, the rubbish piles up, the summer heat is unbearable at over 50º Celsius [122º Fahrenheit], and the rent, she says, is astronomical. The Gulf emirate – part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may be the richest state in the world, sitting on 100 billion barrels of oil and enjoying an investment fund of US$1 trillion, but the benefits have not reached Nayla.

The family wants to move, and where better than to Masdar, the new US$15 billion zero-carbon, zero-waste city designed by Norman Foster and his team of architects for Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince. Work on the city — less than a mile from where Nayla and her family live – is to start in February. Masdar – “source” in Arabic — is planned to house 40,000 people and promises a clean, attractive and ecologically responsible way of life.

The compact, low-rise city promises to use less than half the energy of others the same size; it will be run almost entirely by solar electricity generated on site, have a light-rail system and driverless “pods” on magnetic tracks to move people around. Every surface will collect energy, homes will respond to the seasons with opening or closing roofs, and it will desalinate and recycle its own water.

It will also deliberately link itself to the past, with narrow streets, small squares where water plays, natural air conditioning from wind towers, and infinite shadings and light. It is, in short, an “ecotopia”, a very real oasis in the unsustainable world of energy-consuming skyscrapers now thrusting up throughout the emirates.

But Masdar does not impress Nayla. “This is unreal,” she says. “It is not for us. Why can’t they build mass housing for the poor? It is attractive only for the élite, the business people. Who else will live there? Who are they building Masdar for?”

The Gulf states, bloated with oil money, have built some of the least sustainable buildings in the world in the last decade. The poorest buildings are lived in by the armies of Indian, Bangladeshi, Ethiopian and Somali “guest” workers who construct the extravagant, futuristic cities of the region at breakneck speed, but live seven or eight to a room themselves. Other buildings go to the legions of expatriates and tourists who rent, buy or otherwise occupy large detached houses or the high-rise blocks being constructed by the score every year. The seriously rich live in extravagance beyond anything imaginable to all but a handful of people.

Masdar is no social project, but its mainly British architects genuinely hope it will break the mould and present an exhilarating view of the future, from China to Britain. In its scale, its infrastructure and its use of technology, it seeks to create a new global community for the low-carbon age, a city that can be adapted — with a few small adjustments — to just about any environment in any country. In the words of one of the team of Foster architects who have been working on the design, it is the world’s first completely planned city — a model of urbanisation for a rapidly growing and converging carbon-costly world.

But because this is Foster, now in his 70s and beginning to sum up his life’s work, it is a symbolic city, too. “If Masdar does not uplift the spirits, then it’s not fulfilling its function,” says the renowned architect, who was born and brought up in a rundown district of Manchester, England. “Solar can be beautiful. Green is cool. It has to be a better world. You have to have a belief in the future.”

Foster’s team says Masdar is one of the most ambitious building projects of the last 20 years, rethinking from scratch the idea of a city, and putting it at the heart of the environment debate. The concept of how it is laid out, and its prime objective of being self-sufficient and sustainable, should be transferable anywhere in the world.

In architectural terms, its keys are respect for the past, small scale and ecological awareness — three qualities that the Gulf emirates have abandoned in their rush to modernise. “It learns from traditional settlements [in hot countries] that have invariably been compact and dense, creating shade,” Foster says. “It learns from core wisdoms, like the way it is angled to the sun to balance the heat.”

“It is a city that has no separate zones,” he adds. “Green swaths run through it, as does the railway. The car is kept to the outside of the city. You can walk for about three or four minutes to the nurseries, the shops. You can dial up a ‘pod’, which comes to meet you and runs on magnetic tracks. There is no noise or pollution, no hazard of the car. Sixty per cent of the people who live there will live within one minute of a square.”

Foster believes that one of the great faults of architects, and perhaps countries, has been to separate buildings from the infrastructure on which they and society depend. This, he suggests, has led not only to a vast waste of energy, which in turn is leading to climate change, but also runs fundamentally against the grain of nature.

“Design underpins everything in nature, and you cannot divorce the issue of the environment from architecture and urban planning,” Foster insists. “Architecture comes down to building, and planning to infrastructure. It’s the combination of the two, which are normally considered separately, [that is vital]. You have to design the two together, and you can only do that at a community level.”

He answers the critics who say the city will be too expensive to live in, or too mono-cultural. “The aim is to make it economically viable,” he says. “If I was a developer, I would say that this has to be good business. It may have a longer payback period, but 10 years in the life of a city is nothing.”

Foster is one of the world’s most respected and influential architects, so his ideas about the sustainable city and urban planning carry enormous significance and are bound to be copied. In the Gulf states, though — where people go on holiday for months at a time and leave on their air conditioning to keep the home cool for their return, where green building is not on the map and climate change might as well be something from outer space — Masdar is revolutionary and potentially exciting. If it sets the bar for other developments, or inspires people to think differently, it will be a success.

Masdar is already proving popular at the highest level. Several countries have contacted Foster with a view to commissioning similar developments, and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince recently visited the giant model of Masdar at the world’s first Future Energy summit, held in the emirate. He returned two days later and, in true Gulf style, is now said to considering buying several such cities. Even at US$15 billion a time, the idea could catch on. There’s a little hope for Nayla.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

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