A shining city on a desert hill? Part 2, the messy reality

October 21, 2010 | Abu Dhabi, Architecture, Cities, Design, Innovations, Urbanization

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]
 By: David A. Smith 
Yesterday, while working through a supercilious New York Times profile by architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff of the rising new Abu Dhabi desert city of Masdar, which after several years of envisioning is now rising from the desert:


Y’all gonna have a football stadium in this?


Driving from downtown Abu Dhabi, 20 miles away, you follow a narrow road past an oil refinery and through desolate patches of desert before reaching the blank concrete wall of Masdar and find the city looming overhead. (Mr. Foster plans to camouflage the periphery behind fountains and flora.) From there a road tunnels through the base to a garage just underneath the city’s edge.


A city in the desert


Mr. Ouroussoff finds offensive what he perceives to be Masdar’s exclusionism:


What Masdar really represents, in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance.


Except that what Masdar excludes is the desert – which we want excluded. 


The suburbs of Masdar


In fact, Masdar will be an extremely dense city, which is key both to its energy viability (a larger cubic has a smaller surface area per person, hence is easier to keep climate-controlled) and its cost-effectiveness.


That’s obviously not how Mr. Foster sees it. He said the city was intended to house a cross-section of society, from students to service workers. “It is not about social exclusion,” he added.


There’s no reference to affordable housing, and I am curious as to how they have built it in.  One simply cannot automate and robotize one’s way out of the need for a lower-income population of service workers, of which the Gulf countries have a huge and continuously burgeoning need:


And yet Masdar seems like the fulfillment of that idea.


Seems to you, Mr. Ouroussoff.


It’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it


Ever since the notion that thoughtful planning could improve the lot of humankind died out, sometime in the 1970s, both the mega-rich and the educated middle classes have increasingly found solace by walling themselves off inside a variety of mini-utopias.


Sitting here in my Cambridge house, an eight-minute walk to the subway in the midst of an affluent but extremely diverse and messy city, I find this proposition more than questionable.


This has involved not only the proliferation of suburban gated communities, but also the transformation of city centers in places like Paris and New York into playgrounds for tourists and the rich.


Would it be too cheeky to note that Mr. Ouroussoff lives in New York, a mega-city necessary for the pursuit of not only his profession (architecture critic) but also his wife’s (fine art painter)?


No, really, these are very affordable paintings


Masdar is the culmination of this trend: a self-sufficient society, lifted on a pedestal and outside the reach of most of the world’s citizens.


Nonsense – Masdar creates a society out of a hostile environment, an activity that has been the hallmark of humanity ever since we started growing hops and making beer along the Nile’s banks.


Even with a river, you need dwellings to survive in the desert


Stepping out of this space into one of the “Personal Rapid Transit” stations brings to mind the sets designed by Harry Lange for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”


Time to make the donuts, Hal


You are in a large, dark hall facing a row of white, pod-shaped cars lined up in rectangular glass bays. (The cars’ design was based on Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for a compact urban vehicle, the D-45, which helps explain their softly contoured, timelessly futuristic silhouettes.)  Daylight spills down a rough concrete wall behind them, hinting at the life above.


“Lys … 45 minutes”


The first 13 cars of a proposed fleet of hundreds were being tested the day I visited, but as soon as the system is up, within a few weeks, a user will be able to step into a car and choose a destination on an LCD screen. The car will then silently pull into traffic, seeming to drive itself. (There are no cables or rails.)


All this is straight out of Arthur C. Clarke’s Diaspar:


“Diaspar is not merely a machine, you know — it is a living organism, and an immortal one.  We are so accustomed to our society that we can’t appreciate how strange it would have seemed to our first ancestors.  Here we have a tiny, enclosed world which never changes except in its minor details, and yet which is perfectly stable, age after age.  It has probably lasted longer than the rest of human history — yet in that history there were, so it is believed, countless thousands of separate cultures and civilizations which endured for a little while and then perished.” 


A man who liked machines more than people: Clarke


Unlike Arthur C. Clarke, Mr. Ouroussoff is a technocurmudgeon:


It’s only as people arrive at their destination that they will become aware of the degree to which everything has been engineered for high-function, low-consumption performance. The station’s elevators have been tucked discreetly out of sight to encourage use of a concrete staircase that corkscrews to the surface. And on reaching the streets — which were pretty breezy the day I visited — the only way to get around is on foot. (This is not only a matter of sustainability; Mr. Foster’s on-site partner, Austin Relton, told me that obesity has become a significant health issue in this part of the Arab world, largely because almost everyone drives to avoid the heat.)


What’s that bright red area in the Arab world?


They’ll need to invent the horizators – latterly known as movers – that we invented for Future Boston.


Whatever happened to that editor guy, anyway?


The buildings that have gone up so far come in two contrasting styles. Laboratories devoted to developing new forms of sustainable energy and affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are housed in big concrete structures that are clad in pillow-like panels of ethylene-tetra-fluoro-ethylene, a super-strong translucent plastic that has become fashionable in contemporary architecture circles for its sleek look and durability. Inside, big open floor slabs are designed for maximum flexibility.


Happy abayah’d people not holding hands


The residential buildings, which for now will mostly house professors, students and their families, use a more traditional architectural vocabulary. To conform to Middle Eastern standards of privacy, Mr. Foster came up with an undulating facade of concrete latticework based on the mashrabiya screens common in the region.


Seeing without being seen: an essence of Arab privacy


The latticework blocks direct sunlight and screens interiors from view, while the curves make for angled views to the outside, so that apartment dwellers never look directly into the windows of facing buildings.


Muted light


Such concerns are also reflected in the layout of the neighborhood. Like many Middle Eastern university campuses, it is segregated by sex, with women and families living at one end and single men at the other.


Recently I’ve had occasion to delve more deeply into Arab notions of housing and am struck, as Mr. Ouroussoff is struck, by how deeply privacy is embedded in the apartments’ layout. Arab homes keep the family space private from the visitors’ space, and the men’s space private from the women’s. 


Receiving room and dining room separate from family quarters


It’s a cultural reflection that is clashing diametrically with our Facebook-transparency-oversharing Western culture.


Each end has a small public plaza, which acts as its social heart.


Masdar’s envisioned plazas


Still, one wonders, despite the technical brilliance and the sensitivity to local norms, how a project like Masdar can ever attain the richness and texture of a real city.


That’s easy: time, age, and people. 


Inside the citadel of Aleppo


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 then by the market.  Time, economics, and people will work their way.


Christian and Muslim motifs, gateway, Aleppo citadel


When it’s built, I really want to visit Masdar, a vision of the future:


Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert.  Once it had known change and alteration, but not Time passed it by.  Night and day fled across the desert’s face, but in the streets it was always afternoon, and darkness never came.  The long winter nights might dust the desert with desert, as the last moisture let in the thin air of Earth congealed — but the city knew neither heat nor cold.  It had no contact with the outer worked; it was a universe itself.


I do wonder, though – where will the affordable housing go?  Where will ‘those people’ live?