Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Norman Foster tour of Abu Dhabi: part 2

If you’re looking for a different experience in Abu Dhabi this summer, then you might enjoy a visit to Masdar City. Foster & Partners began construction on it in 2007 with the intention that it become the first city in the world with a zero-carbon footprint (though perhaps carbon-neutral is a more accurate term), and one that might serve as a sort of giant lab for the research and development of sustainable technologies for urban applications (“Masdar” is Arabic for “source”). And what better (and more ironic) place than Abu Dhabi to host such an endeavor!

In all seriousness, Abu Dhabi should be commended for supporting this project, because Sheikh Khalifa and the rest of the al Nahyans know as well as anyone that one day the oil will run dry (I’ve heard estimates of about a century though I have no idea how accurate that may be.). Of course, only time will tell how committed Abu Dhabi is to applying lessons learned from Masdar City to its own infrastructure.

Getting to the site isn’t terribly involved. You simply drive as if you’re heading to Abu Dhabi’s airport, and a couple of kilometers before you reach it, you’ll see signs for Masdar City. It’s not difficult, but you might want to consult Google maps before going.

When my sister and I went back in March, the guard at the front entrance told us that we needed an appointment in order to tour the facility, much to our chagrin. But then he proceeded to say that, if we so desired, we could just head to the onsite café to catch a quick glimpse. We thanked him and drove a short distance in the direction he pointed (which led into a parking garage), left the car behind, and walked in the only logical direction we could discern, eventually passing through some automatic sliding doors into what looked to be the year 2050.

In front of us were arranged a row of smallish white pods, each in its own docking station. Fighting flashbacks of Mork “hatching” from his egg-shaped spaceship, we walked a bit closer to one of the docks. As we approached, the automatic doors to the nearest pod quietly slid open. Not sure whether we were trespassing, we were momentarily frozen. A guard was casually looking in our direction and so not wanting to appear as if we didn’t belong, we stepped into the pod and sat down, the doors automatically closing behind us.

An LCD touch screen display beckoned us to press a green “play” arrow, which we discovered sends the pod off towards a pre-programmed destination. Just to be clear, this mode of transportation is unlike the automated trams you might take between terminals in an airport. Instead, these pods have wheels and drive independently of each other or of any sort track, giving you the eerie feeling that your vehicle has been hijacked by an unseen force (which it has, I suppose). Foster intended that Masdar City be car-free and pedestrian-friendly, and so consequently included these driverless electric cars to ferry people to various destinations on a circuit that runs throughout the complex. And of course, this also helps decrease the city’s carbon footprint.

During the relaxing, though somewhat unnerving, two-minute “drive” towards our unknown destination, we ascertained that the large area in which the pods moved was built beneath the city itself. This also fed into another design component that illustrates the way in which Foster combines modern technologies with traditional construction techniques: replicating a centuries-old practice, Masdar City is built atop a nearly 23-foot high base in order to capitalize on the greater wind velocity existing above ground level. As a result, the city is naturally cooled and thus requires less electricity to maintain comfortable temperatures.

Once we “docked,” and our pod’s doors opened, we exited, climbed a swirling staircase, walked through the nearest set of doors, and finally found ourselves in the city proper. As we looked around at the shade creating narrow pathways bordered by four-story buildings, I couldn’t help but think of the Souk at The Central Market, which incorporates a similar design. Additionally, the buildings, many of which are residential in nature, are covered in undulating panels inscribed with the familiar lattice work and mushrabiya patterns. I was later to learn that the panels are made of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene, an extremely strong translucent plastic.

After walking down one of the narrow pathways, we came to what appeared to be a town square, filled with palm trees, fountains, and another nod by Foster to a traditional and sustainable method of cooling: a barjeel, or wind tower, which captures the strong winds above the city and uses their natural force to drive them downward into the city streets.

While Foster tends to rely on traditional methods to keep the city’s temperatures down, he looks to non-traditional ones when it comes to power generation. The city relies predominantly on solar energy, which is evidenced by the photovoltaic panels covering the rooftops of just about every building. And apparently, there is also a 54-acre field of giant solar panels outside of the city itself.

Once we completed our short walking tour of the city (it is a rather small area at this stage), we walked back to our pod in a slight state of wonder at what we had just seen. In the car on the way home (this time actually doing the driving), I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d been on a short holiday. With its creative synthesis of the age-old indigenous and contemporary non-indigenous, Masdar City’s vision of culturally and materially sustainable living is so unlike anything we experience in Abu Dhabi (perhaps with the exception of the Central Market’s Souk). Hopefully, this experiment will serve as an inspiration for Emiratis as they continue to forge their identity in this rapidly changing country.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The circle of expat life

The "revolving door" is a common metaphor used to describe the UAE, with its constant influx and outflow of expatriate workers. One might argue it is a large reason why the country has a difficult time building and maintaining a solid infrastructure. No matter the organization or industry, exiting expats so often take with them their institutional memory along with their expertise, especially if there hasn't been an overlap between the old and new hire, which is more of the norm (at least in my experience here).

Thus, energetic new arrivals end up re-doing or un-doing the work that their predecessor managed to accomplish, not out of malice or incompetence, but due to a lack of history and context. I think most residents of the UAE would agree the phenomenon results in a lot of "wheel re-creating" or "wheel spinning" or whichever wheel-based cliche you prefer.

Sam and I are now entering the final stages of the expat life-cycle. Because of our career plans, we never saw ourselves staying more than a few years, but we did come to Abu Dhabi with the intention of learning as much as possible about the region and doing whatever we could to leave a positive imprint. Still, now that I have witnessed the damaging effects that an unstable resident-base can have on progress, I do have to wonder whether we are becoming part of the problem.

Happily, I get the rare opportunity to have three weeks of overlap with my replacement, so I can do my part to avoid the institutional amnesia. The new "me" arrived on Friday with her husband, and so the past several days have been somewhat of an out-of-body experience for me as I watch her go through the same levels of shock and awe that I did nearly two years ago. It's fascinating to relive it, but this time with such a different perspective and minus all the anxiety. I couldn't even blog during my first two weeks (Sam wrote all the early posts) because my brain simply couldn't process my experiences into words on a page, but there was so much to document!

For the new expat, everything that used to seem simple is suddenly an ordeal - opening a checking account, getting connected to the internet, giving directions to a taxi driver (who in most cases also just arrived in the country), or just sifting through the advice that everyone you meet bestows upon you (solicited or not). You are prodded to make important life-altering decisions while feeling disoriented and jet lagged. And all of this is peripheral to learning the actual responsibilities of the job you've been hired to do. It's an enormous load to handle all at once, and it seems you'll never get it all straightened out.

It's rewarding to look back and see how far we've come from that first week or two. We're more cynical now, perhaps, but certainly wiser. And knowing that we were able to figure things out and even come to feel comfortable in our new surroundings makes entering the next phase of our life, with all of its uncertainties, seem much less daunting.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Norman Foster tour of Abu Dhabi: part 1

Living in Abu Dhabi has brought the unexpected benefit of witnessing the city’s nascent rise as a cultural center of the region, with perhaps the strongest innovations being in the area of architecture. “Surely sir, you jest!” might be the incredulous reply of those of us who are accustomed to seeing ubiquitous, god-awful amalgams of cement and glass around Abu Dhabi, testaments to the worst dehumanizing tendencies of modern Western architecture.

On our way to work or play, we drive past block after block of lifeless rows of buildings which look as if they were produced from the same mold, manufactured like so many widgets on an assembly line. Much of this type of construction was likely encouraged by an initial impulse of the UAE government back in the 1970s and 80s to hastily create an image of “sophistication” and “modernity” so as to be taken seriously on the global stage on which they were just beginning to find their footing. As a consequence, many structures were built without much thought for longevity, as they now stand in various states of decay.

Things began to change in the 90s with a realization that if the rapid pace of development continued, the Emirati cultural heritage would be in danger of being utterly lost. Consequently, an interest emerged in “vernacular architecture” which was basically an attempt to preserve indigenous architectural styles through the construction (or reconstruction) of historic buildings using past materials and methods, while also incorporating modern technologies like track lighting and air conditioning. Some examples of this can be found in Sharjah’s Old Quarter and in Dubai’s Bastakiya district.

While these attempts at preserving the past are both commendable and necessary, it seems to me that Emiratis in general are far more interested in looking toward the future. This is plainly evident in a number of architectural projects under development by Foster + Partners, led by one of the architectural trend setters of the world, Sir Norman Foster himself.

When my little sister, Ann, visited us in March, we set out to see two of Foster’s most recent projects, The Souk at Central Market, near the intersection of Airport Road and the Corniche, and Masdar City, out by the airport. I am by no means a trained architectural critic and so my thoughts on these structures are obviously only those of an interested layman. I suppose my main objective in even writing on these topics is to raise awareness about their existence and thus hopefully encourage others to visit them and form their own opinions.

Okay, on to the Central Market! Basically, this is a modern interpretation of the traditional souk, and it is a welcomed change from the seemingly endless proliferation of malls in Abu Dhabi. Ann and I went there one weekday afternoon shortly before its official opening, so most of the structure had been completed.

My first thought was, “Wow, this is super cool...but what an awful location!” As you can see from the photos, it is surrounded by some of those monstrosities alluded to earlier in the post, a number of which are extremely dilapidated at that! More importantly, no one side of it is exposed to any major public thoroughfare. As a result, its visibility is greatly reduced. I’m sure an argument can be made (and perhaps is made) that this is both an example of the way in which souks seamlessly fit into the communities of which they were a part as well as an attempt at urban renewal. If so, then the best of luck!

The exterior and interior façades are composed of a lattice work design mixed with the occasional mashrabiya that are certainly traditional in concept. This, coupled with the use of synthetic wood-like materials, give the building a warmth that is quite inviting. Once inside, one immediately notices the narrow passageway surrounded by high walls, a technique historically employed to provide shade in outdoor settings, yet we find it being deployed in an indoor one here. It seems then the objective here was to create the ethos of a traditional outdoor souk. For the most part, I think Foster succeeds.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the building is the exquisite natural light which permeates every corner of the souk, also a direct consequence of the structure and design. I don’t think my photos do it justice so you’ll just have to go and see for yourself!

If we had driven there, I might instead be singing the praises of its parking. Yes, that’s right; finally a building in Abu Dhabi has been constructed with parking as more than an afterthought! While the souk itself has three levels of shops and restaurants, I was told that there would be five (count them five) levels of underground parking! The website claims that this is enough to accommodate 1300 cars. Bravo, Sir Foster, bravo.

In addition to ample underground parking, a multi-tiered roof creates a social space where one can grab a bite to eat, enjoy some sheesha, or just be outdoors when the weather complies. The experience there is mixed, however. While it’s well designed and pleasantly landscaped with greenery, the only view is of surrounding buildings, a few of which have paint-chipped facades and balconies crowded with clothes hung out to dry. Of course, the landscaping also serves a functional purpose in providing a sort of natural air-conditioning that minimizes the roof’s (and thus the building’s) temperature. This eye towards “green building” and sustainability is characteristic of Foster's.

To date though, Foster’s most concentrated attempt to merge architecture with sustainability perhaps has been Masdar City. After spending some time exploring the Souk at Central Market, Ann and I decided to make the drive out there to see for ourselves why Masdar City has received so much publicity.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Cafe Arabia: bridging East and West

Last night we attended a musical event at a new coffee shop in Abu Dhabi called Cafe Arabia. Actually, it has been open at least six months already but has only now appeared on our radar, likely due to it being ensconced in a villa along 15th Street. It's likely one of those places that will thrive on word of mouth alone, and fortunately we have nothing but praise for the establishment.

The two-story cafe feels much like an Arabian home, warmly decorated, and full of light and life. Colorful artwork and stylish handmade wares are displayed for sale throughout, and the walls are studded with portraits of important regional personalities, providing instant conversation starters. Ample seating in spacious quarters, including plush sofas and family-style dining tables, is configured to accommodate a quiet chat between old friends just as well a lively discussion among new ones. The scene is cozy yet stimulating, especially when accompanied by a slice of spiced cake (ask for "my mom's cake") and mug of sweet Chai Bil Hail.

Cafe Arabia is the brainchild of proprietor Aida Mansour, who has intentionally created an environment conducive to intercultural exploration by way of the arts and, of course, through food and drink. Menu items are inspired by Middle Eastern and European family recipes, and the cafe plays host to numerous community events, such as poetry readings, lectures, and music recitals, encouraging patrons to linger in conversation over mezze and mint lemonade. 

Which brings me back to last night, when British guitarist, Jason Carter, and Emirati oud performer, Faisal Al Saari, allowed their musical traditions to intertwine, playing pieces representing both East and West in perfect harmony, and riffing off each other to demonstrate their individual talents, all before a captivated audience of about 50 gathered around on chairs and floor cushions (aka "poofs") in the cafe's upper room. The evening was also meant to publicize a project headed by Carter, called Jisr al Wadi (literally "bridge over the river," or more loosely "bridging the gap"), which is an attempt to build community between disparate cultures through music, a language which requires no translation. 

Cafe Arabia is currently an anomaly in Abu Dhabi, but will hopefully inspire similar ventures. From the number enthusiastically in attendance last night, most of whom only first heard about the event that morning when it was announced at Saint Andrews, it is obvious that the culture-cafe concept fills a void.

Located at Villa #224/1 between 2nd and 24th - Map thanks to American Women's Network