Thu, Dec 23, 2010 - Page 14 News List

All things considered

Norman Foster’s scrupulously planned developments in Abu Dhabi aim to marry modern innovations with centuries-old Islamic building practices

By Rowan Moore  /  THE GUARDIAN, Abu Dhabi

Visitors look at a scale model of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, located within Masdar City, at the World Future Energy Summit at the Abu Dhabi Convention Center in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Jan. 19 last year.

Photo: Bloomberg

An echelon of white cars stands in a gray concrete undercroft. They are electric and, more remarkably, driverless. I press a button, enter one and am swished to my destination, at speeds of up to 50kph, guided by magnetic sensors embedded in the road. An omniscient computer makes sure that I go where I want and that I don’t collide with other cars. A honeyed voice tells me, in American and Arabic, where I’m going. “Salaam alaikum,” she adds.

It is like a hyper-disciplined dodgem or a cab in which the cabbie has been replaced by a chip. So far, it only runs between two stops, but it could become the main transport system for Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, whose population will eventually be 50,000, with thousands more working there every day. Masdar’s carbon emissions will, it is promised, be zero. Along with Dongtan, China, it is one of the most celebrated eco-town projects in the world.

Abu Dhabi is more responsible than Dubai. It has more oil, more money and less need to gamble. It is investing a sliver of its wealth in Masdar, doubtless to look good, but also to insure against the still-distant day when the oil runs out by making itself a center of sustainable energy. The first part of the city, the Institute for Science and Technology, is now complete.

The architects for Masdar are Norman Foster and his practice, Foster and Partners. Foster, now aged 75, has many millions in the bank, many hundreds on his staff, piles of honors and seems to want to do good in the world. “Slum housing,” he says, when I ask him what he most wants to address next, and the Norman Foster Foundation is funding low-cost schools in Sierra Leone. Masdar, as a conspicuous contribution to rescuing the planet, is near to his heart. He is also excited by Abu Dhabi’s planned museum in honor of the late Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates. Masdar is a work of serious intent, thoroughly applied. The museum looks a bit daft. How can this be?

Masdar does not just pursue its ends with fancy equipment. It starts, says Foster, with “the principle of learning from past traditions, the accumulated wisdom of centuries,” a grand statement that means applying the techniques of traditional Arab cities in hot places such as Yemen. So the city is being built with steep streets creating deep shadow and oriented to catch the prevailing wind. The roofscape is made irregular, to create turbulence and direct breezes down into the streets.

The planning is compact, so places are closer to each other, to encourage walking. Buildings are given a heavy mass, so they cool and warm more slowly, evening out the temperature changes from day to night. Patterned screens, based on the traditional Islamic mashrabiya, filter light and breeze. Everything, from the sourcing of timber to the water consumption of the plants, is scrupulously considered.

By saving energy and using natural cooling techniques, Masdar reduces the energy that has to be produced by the solar panels on the roofs and in the surrounding landscape. It also genuinely succeeds in creating some of the virtues of old cities: It is a positive delight to walk its shaded streets, which cannot be said of many public places in Abu Dhabi. Sustainability, in other words, shapes architecture and town planning for the better and is not just a series of technical fixes.

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