Journey to the city of the future

There’s a creaky old joke about a driver who stops a farmer to ask directions to Balbriggan. The farmer thinks about it and says: “If I was going to Balbriggan, I wouldn’t start from here.” I couldn’t help thinking about that punchline when I first visited the site of Masdar, the new zero-carbon eco-city in Abu Dhabi. The sun shines fiercely, the desert continuously fights to take every site back into its sandy clutches, there is no access to the site other than by car (or aircraft – it is right next to the international airport).

I wasn’t alone with my doubts. Masdar faced a whispering wall of sniping. Its loudly trumpeted personal transit system of 1,300 vehicles has only reached 10 so far, the podium on which the city was to sit (and which was to house the transport system) was severely reduced in size and progress has been slowed hugely by the credit crunch, by the collapse in confidence and by an over-supply of commercial property.

But, on my return to the site, now built up as a strange new metropolis in the middle of the harsh, sandy hinterland of the industrial edge of the city, I couldn’t help but revise my opinion. The architects, Foster & Partners, have, against the odds, created a small piece of real city. The streets are tight and shady, students sit languidly outside a café despite the fierce midday sun, the architecture is delicate and diverse, adopting local archetypes, pierced screens and timber gates, while water trickles away in the background. It is, unlike most of the rest of the city’s outdoor space, pleasant.

The completed section of Masdar sits on a podium, a bit like a child’s toy wooden fort, surrounded by sandy scrub. That lower layer was to have housed all the city’s services as well as its ‘Personal Rapid Transport’ vehicles, little electric cars which whizz silently about underground to the destination you have tapped in to a touchscreen. It all feels very space age. Cars – the gas-guzzlers you have no option but to take on the 17km journey from the city centre – are left outside the city. Once deposited by your oddly symmetrical vehicle you are confronted with a spiral staircase – possibly the first set of stairs you will have seen in the whole of this country where escalators and elevators are ubiquitous. It is part of an attempt to re-introduce the tropes of traditional city movement to a culture that is barely urban in the terms we in the old world expect. It is an exquisitely sculptural stair, a piece of pure early modernist iconography, and it sits in a grand, shady subterranean hall lit by bright shafts of sunlight from porthole-shaped openings above. Half-Kubrick, half-Washington DC Metro, it’s a vision of a semi-sci-fi future that never quite arrived.

The stairs deposit you at an interior node which reveals glimpses of the heart of the city, the Masdar Institute, a joint venture with the US university to establish a centre for radical research into alternative energy and a post-oil future. Beyond are the undulating, terracotta facades of the student accommodation, segregated by sex and made intimate by intricately pierced walls inspired by traditional Arab mashrabiya screens. At street level there are a few small shops, planting and the constant, welcome shade. The pavements are exquisite, a tessellation of Islamic motifs cast in concrete which create a seemingly endless variety of pattern - stars, octagons, diamonds. A more extravagant structure beyond, with a characteristically shell-like roof, is less successful, an unwelcome intrusion of iconism to a scheme that had avoided it so well. The city’s central monument, a cooling tower that draws hot air up from the square below while sprinkling a mist of cooling water at ground level, suffers from the same angst about creating icons and markers.

Work may have slowed but it is continuing, Masdar certainly seems a long way from the home to the planned 50,000 residents but it is smoothly efficient and genuinely impressive. Among the serious criticisms levelled at the scheme, it has been condemned as a gated city, though in fact it is accessible to all 24 hours a day. ‘Walled city’ is closer to the mark, in part to defend against the encroaching desert, the abrasive sand and wind. But you can only get there by car, which, until the light rail arrives (20 years is the current estimate), is obviously a profound failure.

It has also been criticised on social grounds as the plaything of a wealthy international elite. Certainly it has no ‘labour camps’ for the inevitable sub-continental workers, but housing here is intended to be mixed. Whether it turns into a diverse city has yet to be seen. It does, however, have an undeniable problem of context: if this development had been attempted in the heart of Abu Dhabi, proximity to business and infrastructure would have made it more commercially viable. It is also jarring to see that the wider context for a sustainable city experiment is the nearby Ferrari World and the new Yas F1 race circuit. There is a gas-guzzling, air-con-blasting mainstream which can make these experiments look laughably insignificant. But that does not mean we should not take this seriously. Masdar could represent a pivotal moment in architecture, in energy, academia and urbanism. It is an extraordinary beginning. Even if it is starting from the wrong place.

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