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.