The New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has diverted the Masdar City argument from a project that might not lift off – the laughing stock of the Middle East – to something that could actually, but perhaps shouldn’t work. Though he compliments their costly vision, Foster & Partners’ design – part tradition with some high-tech padding to cushion a hot and carbon-parched future – will be one of a long string of cancerous enclaves that separate the rich from the poor.
His telling of the car-free city powered mostly by the sun resembles Margaret Atwood’s elite compounds from ‘Oryx and Crake,’ wherein dubious scientific experiments take place in sterile laboratories while the seedy pleebs on the outskirts succumb to strange, manufactured diseases.
Three and a half acres of Masdar City has been completed, and people are beginning to move in. These inhabitants are comprised of students and employees involved with either the research institute or the building’s construction. Mr. Ouroussoff complains that once the architect has finished his job and goes home, the government will control who will live in Masdar. Then the cancer will take on a life of its own. It will metastasize.
Despite his good intentions, incorporating traditional Arab designs from ancient settlements such as Aleppo in Syria and Shibam in Yemen – both of which made living in an oven comfortable – and attempting 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,” Norman Foster has instead produced a formula for a futuristic gated-community that is exclusive rather than harmonious, wrote Mr. Ouroussoff.
The solar field that will provide 90% of the city’s power and other utilities are situated outside of the city, and the carbon-free transportation system is placed underground such that residents can walk through breezy streets without choking on fumes.
Disneyland meets Space Odyssey
“The result, Mr. Foster acknowledged, feels a bit like Disneyland. “Disneyland is attractive because all the service is below ground,” he told the NY Times. ‘We do the same here — it is literally a walled city. Traditional cars are stopped at the edges.'” Mr. Ouroussoff adds:
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.
Mr. Foster didn’t miss a beat. His buildings are curved to ensure privacy, and single men will be segregated from single women and families in keeping with Islamic principles; the passive design makes Masdar feel 70 degrees cooler than it is; elevators are hidden to encourage people to use stairs; and there are squares at either end to encourage outdoor social activity. It is sleek and modern. But Mr. Ouroussof doubts that Masdar will muster “the richness and texture of a real city.”
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.
While he brings fresh dialogue to the “world’s first carbon-free city,” Mr. Ouroussof has a similarly faithless outlook on its execution. The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company told the New York Times that the city will evolve at its own pace. In the meantime, the rest of us wait with bated breath half expecting failure, and half hoping for something truly sustainable for a region awash in an oily history.
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