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Update on Masdar City

October 19, 2010


Back in early 2009, I wrote a post about the zero-carbon city that was being planned in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Plan). Despite the global recession (which hit Dubai particularly hard), Abu Dhabi pressed forward with the planned city. The recession has, however, had an impact. The project is being scaled back and will no longer begin life as a carbon-neutral city [“Abu Dhabi’s Green Energy Showpiece City Won’t Be Carbon Neutral at First,” by Ayesha Daya, Bloomberg, 10 October 2010]. Daya reports:

“Masdar, the Abu Dhabi government- backed renewable energy company, abandoned plans for Masdar City to be carbon-neutral from the start and delayed the city’s first phase by two years to 2015. The project will be completed between 2020 and 2025, the company said in an e-mailed statement today. ‘While still aiming to eventually be powered 100 percent by renewable energy, Masdar City will no longer rely solely on on-site clean energy sources,’ the company said. ‘The purchase of renewable energy from off-site locations may also be utilized as energy demands increase over the project’s lifetime.’ Founded in 2006, Masdar City is the showpiece of Abu Dhabi’s pursuit of alternative energy. The $22 billion venture, which includes a research university, was reviewed this year after the financial crisis caused spending reductions.”

One of the renewable energy technologies that will be used in Masdar City is a “micro-concentrated solar power systems, or MicroCSP” manufactured by the Hawaii-based solar energy company Sopogy Inc. [“Hawaii Solar Firm to Supply Equipment to Sustainable-City Project in Abu Dhabi,” The Solar Home & Business Journal, 17 October 2010]. According to the article, the MicroCSP, which “uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy on a receiver tube, heating a recirculating heat-transfer fluid within the system,” will be used to power an air conditioning system called an “absorption chiller.” The article reports that absorption chillers are “used in many parts of the world for cooling from waste heat sources.”


A more comprehensive update on Masdar City was recently published in a New York Times‘ article [“In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises,” by Nicolai Ouroussoff, 26 September 2010]. Ouroussoff reports:

“Back in 2007, when the government here announced its plan for ‘the world’s first zero-carbon city’ on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, many Westerners dismissed it as a gimmick — a faddish follow-up to neighboring Dubai’s half-mile-high tower in the desert and archipelago of man-made islands in the shape of palm trees. Designed by Foster & Partners, a firm known for feats of technological wizardry, the city, called Masdar, would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side, raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes. Beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels. The project conjured both a walled medieval fortress and an upgraded version of the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. Well, those early assessments turned out to be wrong. By this past week, as people began moving into the first section of the project to be completed — a 3 ½-acre zone surrounding a sustainability-oriented research institute — it was clear that Masdar is something more daring and more noxious.”

You might wonder why Ouroussoff would use such a charged term like “noxious”; especially since he lauds Norman Foster, Foster & Partners principal partner for blending “high-tech design and ancient construction practices into an intriguing model for a sustainable community” and for devising “an alluring social vision, in which local tradition and the drive toward modernization are no longer in conflict.” What’s noxious about that you might ask? Ouroussoff is apparently put off by the “gated-community mentality” reflected in Masdar City’s design — a trend, he believes, “that has been spreading like a cancer around the globe for decades.” He continues:

“Its utopian purity, and its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief — accepted by most people today, it seems — that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large.”

I believe that Ouroussoff is a bit too harsh in his criticism. As I wrote in my previous post about the city, “Perhaps the most exciting part of the plan is that the proposed city will serve as a large-scale testbed for innovative ideas.” Like any good experiment, it must take place under controlled conditions. If you cannot control most of the variables, you can’t really experiment to any great effect. Masdar is a grand experiment being conducted on a grand scale. As the architectural critic for the New York Times, I guess Ouroussoff doesn’t feel like he’s doing his job if he isn’t criticizing. He continues:

“Mr. Foster is the right man for this kind of job. A lifelong tech buff who collaborated with Buckminster Fuller, he talks about architecture in terms of high performance, as if his buildings were sports cars. And to some extent his single-minded focus on the craft of architecture — its technological and material aspects — has been a convenient way of avoiding trickier discussions about its social impact. … Not that Mr. Foster doesn’t have ideals. 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. 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.”

Ouroussoff next turns his attention to a subject that plagues most cities — transportation. At a time when China and India are rapidly increasing the number of vehicles on their roadways, Masdar’s streets will be free of vehicles powered by combustion-engines. He explains:

“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.'”

According to Bloomberg’s Ayesha Daya in the article cited at the beginning of this post, “Masdar is also scaling back the Personal Rapid Transport system consisting of electric driverless vehicles known as pods. … The company will test alternative vehicle technologies instead.”


As I noted in my earlier post, “Ironically, if successful, the city may become a tourist attraction and, if that is taken into consideration, travel to and from the city could dramatically increase its carbon footprint. For that reason, I suspect that visitors might be restricted.” Ouroussoff reports that there is “a garage just underneath the city’s edge” where traditional vehicles are parked and visitors enter the complex. He continues:

“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.’ 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. 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.) 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.)”

Up to this point, Ouroussoff hasn’t mentioned the research facility that has always been planned as the heart of Masdar City. As I wrote in my previous post, “The Masdar Initiative is following a strategy that has been used successfully by many universities. It is going to establish a research institute to develop environmental technologies and a complementary ‘investment arm’ to implement and exploit them. The unique twist added by the Masdar Initiative is the ‘eco-city’ that will be home to these organizations. Masdar’s managers want to create an academic institution that rivals the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and then surround it with ‘a global manufacturing hub for technologies such as solar power and desalination, and a city of 40,000 people with no greenhouse-gas emissions and no waste—all while turning a profit.’ Although the government of Abu Dhabi is putting up $15 billion in venture capital, it expects the investment arm and the city to be profitable.” Ouroussoff finally mentions the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) when he describes the buildings that will house it.

“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 pillowlike panels of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene, 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. 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. 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. 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. Each end has a small public plaza, which acts as its social heart.”

As a city dweller himself, Ouroussoff “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.” It will certainly never reflect the diversity of a New York City, the cultural depth of a Paris, or quaintness of an Oxford; but, I suspect that Masdar will take on its own unique character once people start inhabiting the city in larger numbers. Ouroussoff concludes:

“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. (Although construction on a second, larger phase has already begun, the government-run developer, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, refuses to give a completion date for the city, saying only that it will grow at its own pace.) 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. Mr. Foster’s inspired synthesis of ancient and new technologies could well have applications elsewhere; it should be looked at closely by other architects. But no 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. 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. 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. And yet Masdar seems like the fulfillment of that idea. Ever since the notion that thoughtful planning could improve the lot of humankind died out, sometime in the 1970s, both the megarich and the educated middle classes have increasingly found solace by walling themselves off inside a variety of mini-utopias. 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. 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.”

I concluded my previous post about Masdar with these thoughts: “It will probably take a decade or more for us to learn whether or not this grand experiment pays real dividends. But there is an urgency, even in these bad economic times, that compels research and development efforts. I suspect that the Masdar project will produce valuable research and that it will begin trickling out over the next few years. It would be great if some true breakthroughs were discovered and developed. If they aren’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.” I’m not as concerned about the gated community aspect of Masdar as Ouroussoff, although I agree with him that Masdar does not represent the future of urban communities. Few urban areas are ever planned to the degree to which Masdar has been planned and even fewer communities will be able to find the capital for such designer cities. Technological innovations, however, will hopefully flow from its controlled environment that will help real urban areas meet real emerging challenges in significant ways.

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