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.

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