Beta city initiatives

img_1626On one of my last days in Abu Dhabi, I went out to explore the work being done (literally, the new city being built in the middle of the desert) at Masdar.  This is the Masdar Initiative, a 6 million sq. meter, zero-carbon, zero-waste sustainable, car-free development being built across the road from the Abu Dhabi International Airport.  They are calling it the ‘hydro-carbon producing economy’ and unlike other projects of its scale in the greater Emerati region, it is well on it’s way to realization (construction began just this month).

The site is surreal….a cluster of cranes and the steel skeletons of the first structures being erected are front and center.  And these cranes are moving, I have video to prove it.  Further along the sandy road sit the testing grounds for sustainable energy technologies.  Among them lie a fenced-off photovoltaic farm with a sign indicating that they are part of an international competition.  Next are the site office quarters – white boxes, some stacked 2 or 3 units high, covered/shaded by a traditional Arabic/arid region tent-structure.

The offices are teaming with people and activity.  Men, women, Emeratis, Westerners, clients, consultants….are all rushing in and out and to different wings of the building.  This project probably sets some records for having the most consultants…but there’s no way to accurately gauge that number at this point.  Some larger stakeholders and collaborators on the project include: MIT, Foster + Partners (Master Planners), and Smith + Gill (Architects for the Masdar Headquarters).  I had the honor of meeting with Masdar’s Dr. Christopher Drew, Dept. Manager of Sustainability and Foster + Partners’, Jurgen Happ, Associate Architect, master planning.  They walked me through the latest developments from both unique perspectives.

It takes me a couple days to digest everything I learned at the site….and to make a connection to my own studies on this trip.  There’s no doubt that what is going on over at Masdar is surprising, ironic, and amazing all at the same time.  A tabula rasa city, built on an arid, undeveloped desert landscape, aspires to be a model of sustainability for the world.  A country that (at least in recent years) consumed more energy than the United States is aiming to also be the most sustainable place.  I proposed to kick-start a feedback loop for the design of new cities – Masdar is doing that quite literally with an electronic system (which they are inventing and altering daily) that tracks all energy use on the project.  They have active and ongoing records of the life cycle costs of all materials being proposed and used in construction, they are tracking all trips (made by air, car, etc.) by consultants and employees, and they are using state of the art energy modeling systems to make it all possible (voyager?).  And…they are modifying the design of all these systems as they go.  Really, they are innovating more than an entire new sustainability rating system (they are years ahead of LEED), they are becoming the only experts who will know how to implement its framework at the scale of the city.  (See WWF, Living Planet Report, One planet Living….some aspirations of the designers and energy modelers.)

As far as public space and new cities are concerned…Masdar is resorting to traditional models of the built environment.  The plan for a dense network of buildings (a combination of a form-based and performance-based code) stands in stark contrast to the existing superblocks and wide streets of Abu Dhabi.  But this seems like a pre-requisite when master planning in an arid environment…what about the people who will live here?  Will it feel like a real place to live or an IT campus?   Masdar resembles a very utopian city plan, complete with the Louis Khan-ish parking drums on the outskirts of a pedestrian oriented zone.  However, this plan is not a paper architecture.  Because of the current state of the UAE’s economy, politics, and geography, (quite unlike those in India and China), …this utopian city is being built.  Will the built environment and the sense of community be as new and fresh as the energy practices?  Or will it feel like any other new city?

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