Arcologies of Arabia

I stand by my statement that architectural blueprints in the United Arab Emirates are best regarded not as structures that will actually be built but as a regional subgenre of science fiction. That said, they've completed a portion of one of those projects -- Masdar, "the world's first zero-carbon city" -- in the desert outside Abu Dhabi. It's a joint effort from GE and the UAE, and the man behind the design is a fellow named Norman Foster. The New York Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff reports:

The car-free colony that oil money built.A lifelong tech buff who collaborated with Buckminster Fuller, [Foster] talks about architecture in terms of high performance, as if his buildings were sports cars....

At Masdar, one aim was to create an alternative to the ugliness and inefficiency of the sort of development -- suburban villas slathered in superficial Islamic-style décor, gargantuan air-conditioned malls -- that has been eating away the fabric of Middle Eastern cities for decades.

He began with a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of Aleppo in Syria and the mud-brick apartment towers of Shibam in Yemen, which date from the 16th century. "The point," he said in an interview in New York, "was to go back and understand the fundamentals," how these communities had been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.

Among the findings his office made was that settlements were often built on high ground, not only for defensive reasons but also to take advantage of the stronger winds. Some also used tall, hollow "wind towers" to funnel air down to street level. And the narrowness of the streets -- which were almost always at an angle to the sun's east-west trajectory, to maximize shade -- accelerated airflow through the city.

So Bucky and Walt were over at Al Gore's place, and they got to talking with these Arabs, and...With the help of environmental consultants, Mr. Foster's team estimated that by combining such approaches, they could make Masdar feel as much as 70 degrees cooler. In so doing, they could more than halve the amount of electricity needed to run the city. Of the power that is used, 90 percent is expected to be solar, and the rest generated by incinerating waste (which produces far less carbon than piling it up in dumps). The city itself will be treated as a kind of continuing experiment, with researchers and engineers regularly analyzing its performance, fine-tuning as they go along.

But Mr. Foster's most radical move was the way he dealt with one of the most vexing urban design challenges of the past century: what to do with the car. Not only did he close Masdar entirely to combustion-engine vehicles, he buried their replacement -- his network of electric cars -- underneath the city. Then, to further reinforce the purity of his vision, he located almost all of the heavy-duty service functions -- a 54-acre photovoltaic field and incineration and water treatment plants -- outside the city.

The result, Mr. Foster acknowledged, feels a bit like Disneyland. "Disneyland is attractive because all the service is below ground," he said. "We do the same here -- it is literally a walled city. Traditional cars are stopped at the edges."

While I can't help admiring the creativity required to mash up Disney, Fuller, eco-idealism, and traditional Arab architecture, there's a reasonable chance that Masdar will merely become the next UAE construction project not to be completed -- and if it is completed, I doubt that everything will work out as planned. Much less ambitious utopias have found themselves taking paths their founders never imagined. The lessons drawn from vernacular building methods do sound sensible, but the plans here go far beyond that. And as Ouroussoff points out, you have to wonder

how a project like Masdar can ever attain the richness and texture of a real city. Eventually, a light-rail system will connect it to Abu Dhabi, and street life will undoubtedly get livelier as the daytime population grows to a projected 90,000....But the decision of who gets to live and work in Masdar, as in any large-scale development, will be outside the architect's control. That will be decided by the landlord, in this case, the government.

And even if it were to become a perfect little urban melting pot, Masdar would have only limited relevance to the world most people live in....[N]o one would argue that a city of a few million or more can be organized with such precision, and his fantasy world is only possible as a meticulously planned community, built from the ground up and of modest size.

Update: A timeline of the project, written with a skeptical edge.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • robc||

    But...is there a diving board on the roof?

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Think of it as evolution in action...

  • Old Mexican||

    Masdar, "the world's first zero-carbon city"[...]

    ... because nobody will be living inside it.

  • ||

    What the fuck does "zero carbon" even mean? Carbon is in everything, including, as OM pointed out above, the very people who will live there.

  • Brett L||

    Apparently inhaling is cool, but exhaling is forbidden.

  • ||

    Don't Hortas deserve a homeland too? Fucking anti-silicaite.

  • ||

    Zero Carbon means no people, too.

  • ||

    It's shorthand for "negligible carbon emissions."

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: PapayaSF,

    It's shorthand for "negligible carbon emissions."

    Like . . . how "negligible"?

  • ||

    CO2 from exhalation doesn't have much of an effect on climate. Compared to the burning of oil and gas and coal, it's negligible.

  • Old Mexican||

    With the help of environmental consultants, Mr. Foster's team estimated that by combining such approaches, they could make Masdar feel as much as 70 degrees cooler.

    Do these "consultants" guarrantee that? Because once the damned thing is built and the assurances turn to naught, what then are you going to do?

    This city-building is the maximum narcissist projection, the ultimate centralist mental-handjob; while people tend to decentralize and build their lowly HOMES to have the climate THEY want, this guy wants to make a whole city with an environment HE likes. Hopefully, somebody with power will not decide to turn the city into a prison.

  • ||

    I think you're being too cynical about this. Architecture is pretty well-established engineering, and nobody in Dubai wants their home to be hot. Centralization makes sense for some things, and designing a city in Dubai so that it's much cooler and uses less energy makes sense to me.

  • ||

    Masdar is in Abu Dhabi.

  • ||

    I'm not reading too carefully this morning. Still, my point remains.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: PapayaSF,

    Architecture is pretty well-established engineering

    So I've heard...

    http://www.kunstler.com/eyesore.html

    [...]and nobody in Abu Dhabi] wants their home to be hot.

    Oh, you polled them all? Quite an achievement . . .

    By the way, it is one thing to keep a HOUSE cool, WAY OTHER keeping a WHOLE CITY cool.

    Centralization makes sense for some things [...]

    Only God can agree with that . . .

    [...]and designing a city in [Abu Dhabi] so that it's much cooler and uses less energy makes sense to me.

    It is purported to be a ZERO-CARBON city, PapayaSF, not a "lower-energy consuming" city.

    Besides this, "cities" do NOT consume energy, or anything else - ONLY FRIGGING PEOPLE CONSUME.

  • ||

    Having been to Abu Dhabi plenty, NO ONE wants their homes to be hot. It's true. In fact, especially among locals, they want their homes to be absolutely frigid if at all possible. The Bedouin ancestors of these people spent hundreds of years trying to find ways to remain cool (and keep from freezing in the nights of the less hot months). It's a really big cultural imperative.

    Also, I'm pretty sure that Masdar was always billed as "carbon neutral". I'm guessing that some sloppy reporting/editing led to the "zero carbon" thing (which is patently ridiculous).

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Timon19,

    Having been to Abu Dhabi plenty, NO ONE wants [his home] to be hot. It's true.

    So your trips were to poll them?

    In fact, especially among locals, they want their homes to be absolutely frigid if at all possible.

    Absolutely frigid!

    The Bedouin ancestors of these people spent hundreds of years trying to find ways to remain cool[...]It's a really big cultural imperative.

    Is it also a cultural imperative to achieve this with zero-carbon emissions?

    Also, I'm pretty sure that Masdar was always billed as "carbon neutral".

    Which is just as meaningless as achieving "zero-carbon emissions." The term ends up meaning whatever the enthusiat desides it means.

  • ||

    Jesus, what's your problem? Did some Abu Dhabian shit in your cornflakes this morning?

    I honestly don't give a flying fuck about the veracity of the zero carbon/carbon neutral claim, but I do think there is a distinction. I'm interested in Masdar strictly as a past frequent visitor. It seems an interesting concept that is trying to be realized by an autocratic regime.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I'm pretty sure that Masdar was always billed as "carbon neutral". I'm guessing that some sloppy reporting/editing led to the "zero carbon" thing

    Inane as the "zero carbon" thing is, the phrase "world's first zero-carbon city" has been floating around since the project was announced two years ago, so I wouldn't blame the Times for it.

  • ||

    Jeebus. As if the mere existence of the place weren't self-promotional enough, they have to make shit up.

    BTW, I'm pretty sure the project is a good bit older than two years, but I can't be certain.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Sorry, brain fart on this end. It was launched four years ago, not two.

  • ||

    At what phase do they implant the red light in every young person's palm?

  • robc||

    the rest generated by incinerating waste (which produces far less carbon than piling it up in dumps)

    Someone want to help me here? The waste has the same amount of carbon whether burned or breaking down in a dump. So, WTF?

  • #||

    I was currious about that myself. Is the chemical reaction occuring with decomposition different then oxidizing via burning? So maybe some of the carbon ends up in a product other then CO2?

  • ||

    I thought everyone knew that the oil buried deep underground was just as polluting as the oil we burn.

  • Irresponsible Hater||

    Makes no sense.

    Carbon "sequestering" is all about putting it in the ground so it doesn't escape into the atmosphere.

  • NeonCat||

    They are probably referring to methane being released as the garbage is broken down. Going ahead and burning it is presumably better than letting it rot and dissipate into the atmosphere.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Flying cars! Where are the damned flying cars?

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Flying cars have been canceled.

    Too much carbon.

  • ||

    Umm, would anyone care to let us know what this thing is going to cost, and the comparable cost of the equivalent "regular" development?

  • ||

    Two thousand carbon units.

  • Old Mexican||

    He began with a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of Aleppo in Syria and the mud-brick apartment towers of Shibam in Yemen, which date from the 16th century. "The point," he said in an interview in New York, "was to go back and understand the fundamentals," how these communities had been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.

    Ah, so he's a nostalgic.

  • Irresponsible Hater||

    "[C]ollaborated with Buckminster Fuller..."

    Equals

    "this project, if it is ever completed, will be ridiculously over budget, completely impractical, leak like a sieve, and be virtually uninhabitable by the time it is finished"

    It will look good on paper though, and egghead engineers will think it's tops!

  • ||

    Folks, Norman Foster is one of the most famous and accomplished architects working today. Look him up.

  • ||

    I appreciate Cavanaugh's skepticism regarding the likelihood of completion of this project, but it bears mentioning that: 1. Abu Dhabi was not hit nearly as hard by the downturn as was Dubai (largely because of oil and gas), 2. Abu Dhabi scarcely slowed down its construction while much if Dubai's halted, 3. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are very independent from one another when it comes to grand government centralized projects - the UAE federal government really doesn't factor in to the equation at all aside from the small fact that the seat of government actually lies in the capital, not Dubai.

    As such, from what I can tell, construction on Masdar never stopped, and some of the other grand Abu Dhabi projects are on or ahead of schedule. Helps when you can mobilize a massive armada of cheap foreign contract labor on a whim.

    Masdar itself is in a strange location out by AUH, kind of in a no-man's land at the moment (but not for much longer). It's adjacent to the airport, a planned community called Khalifa City A (how creative!) that is mostly unoccupied and still under construction. However, it's a stone's throw from the Yas Island complex of Really Expensive Shit that they just built for their shot at a permanent date on the Formula 1 calendar, which is doubling as a really exclusive set of eventual "suburbs" that are seeking to relieve the ridiculous congestion on Abu Dhabi island itself.

    They pulled that off pretty well, since they got asked to do the season closer for F1 again.

    Doubt these guys at your peril. Wait until the money starts to run out before you start up with that :)

  • ||

    Cavanaugh, Walker...what's the difference.

    Sorry Jesse.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Thanks for the extra info, Timon. Perhaps we'll get a chance to see the project fail in subtler ways than simply not being finished.

  • ||

    I'm sure it will have plenty of problems. GE's involved, after all.

    As much as last decade was Dubai's, this one, I think, will be Abu Dhabi's. Abu Dhabi has the advantage of their massive dead dinosaur reserves to sustain them through bad commercial times. As much as anything, though, Abu Dhabi desperately NEEDS to develop further, since the island is, by some estimates, at 133% capacity and growing (I think it's more - it's really insanely crowded). They need these sorts of developments on the mainland - the audacious nature of the projects, less so. They can't afford to stop. It's really a pretty large city built on limited land.

  • ||

    I had heard that Masdar recently lost some of its visionary leaders and the new leadership was backpedaling on the ban of cars in the city, deliberately setting expectations low for the electric car system they had originally promoted as the city's main transit mode.

  • ||

    I always had heard that it was going to be some sort of personal-scale electric pod-cars.

  • Mango Punch||

    I for one think it looks awesome.

  • ||

    "The point," he said in an interview in New York, "was to go back and understand the fundamentals," how these communities had been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.

    They were livable mainly because the people who lived there, grew up there, and were used to it. Yeah, the north-south streets are all good, and the wind-towers doubtless helped a (very) little, but there's no substitute for living with it every day of your life.

    As for the notion that they built on high ground because it was breezier, I call horseshit. They built there for defense. People built on high ground in northern climates, too, even though it was less livable, because nothing sucks more than being conquered and sacked.

  • ||

    From most accounts, the wind towers were very, very effective. But you are right - there's no substitute for living with it most of your life.

    I agree that the high ground -> more breeze is a crap revisionist explanation. It's all about defense. Now anyone familiar with the UAE and where Masdar is knows that there's no such thing as high ground anywhere near there, so they certainly aren't using that principle. On the other hand, it's quite close to the shores of the Gulf, which is very often a windy place. In the heat of the summer the wind blows offshore most of the time, though, which is to say straight in from the Empty Quarter. That is the suck. 50+ C with hot wind is no fun.

  • jtuf||

    I stand by my statement that architectural blueprints in the United Arab Emirates are best regarded not as structures that will actually be built but as a regional subgenre of science fiction.

    So very true, although they do have value even as science fiction. Fiction inspires us to dream of many things, and one of those things might become a reality someday.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement