Following a recent New York Times article that at once lauds and mocks the infamous Masdar Project, and a new Masdar Institute student’s claim that she feels like she is “living on a spaceship,” Middle East Architect (MEA) was granted an exclusive interview with Gerard Evenden, a senior partner of the architectural firm Foster and Partners.
Designed to shed light on what is actually happening in Masdar, the interview instead smacks of a carefully polished press release orated by a presidential candidate. Rather than provide any concrete details about the project’s progress or setbacks, Mr. Evenden promotes a vague philosophy that relies on flexibility and experiential growth.
Mr. Evenden explained to MEA that the masterplan was always intended to be flexible in order to be able to “anticipate and incorporate new technologies” as and when they became available. We are reminded that this is an experimental project never done before, so it was important to leave wiggle room.
As progress is made, lessons are learned. The original plan is supposed to allow room for growth as each successive phase is completed.
Asked to name the greatest challenge, Mr. Evenden suggested that designing a city that is both sustainable and livable, a place that lifts the spirit, is very difficult, adding that enormous priority was given to regional history, tradition, and identity. He reiterates the extent to which architecture and urban planning of traditional Arab cities influenced their design.
Another important challenge is water conservation, he explained, since Abu Dhabi’s groundwater is extremely saline and desalination facilities are expensive.
MEA, to little effect, then attempts to steer the interview in a more specific direction. They asked:
“What have you learned about the development of green cities from working with Masdar? Is there anything you would do differently?”
“It is important to note that Masdar represents the beginning of an ongoing process. As the city is realised over the coming months and years, there will be hundreds of design iterations and only when all the data is gathered and evaluated holistically, will we have a clear vision for a globally relevant sustainable future,” Mr. Evenden replied.
Then MEA addressed the criticism that the project’s deadline has been pushed back and will never reach its intended, blooming scale. Mr. Evenden insists that the original plan is still “intact.”
However, gone are the loud proclamations for zero-carbon, zero-waste. That rhetoric has evolved into something much more reasonable:
“Our objective continues to be the creation of a unique, sustainable city that is commercially viable and can serve as a ‘greenprint’ for future developments in the UAE and on a global scale,” he said.
During the rest of the interview, Mr. Evenden essentially regurgitates the same flexibility mantra, except to note that the progress made until now has already influenced the greater Abu Dhabi to consider progressive green energy programs and institute the “Estidama” green rating tool.
Asked what the rest of the world can learn from the Masdar experimented, Mr. Evenden replied:
Masdar can not be replicated exactly as its design is a unique response to its location. It is a testing ground for ideas and as such, it is highly experimental. Masdar demonstrates the potential for significant energy reduction and there are certainly lessons that can be applied globally. We very much hope that by example it will encourage other bold initiatives around the world.
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