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Masdar City, Abu Dhabi

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Hattie Hartman visits Masdar City, the ‘living laboratory of low-carbon design’ that aims to secure Abu Dhabi’s position as a leader in environmental masterplanning and renewable energy

Masdar City is an incongruous development: a six million square metre, £14 billion, carbon-neutral, zero-waste city in tiny Abu Dhabi, one of the world’s smallest nations, yet one of its largest oil producers. Masdar sits amid Abu Dhabi’s four-lane motorways. These connect the city to nearby islands that, by 2018, are planned to house a Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, a Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre, a Performing Arts Centre by Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum.

Foster + Partners’ Sheikh Zayed National Museum is already on site on Saadiyat Island, 500m on Abu Dhabi Island, and will chart Abu Dhabi’s 50-year transformation from pearl-diving village to global player with a population of around 1.6 million. The Benoy-designed Ferrari World will open later this year, adjacent to the city’s three-month old Formula One racetrack on Yas Island.

Abu Dhabi is hedging its bets, readying itself for the day its extensive oil and natural gas reserves run out. In January, within days of commissioning a South Korean group to build four nuclear plants in the United Arab Emirates, the Abu Dhabi government announced that IRENA, the newly created International Renewable Energy Agency, whose mission is to transform global energy supply, will be located in Masdar City. Abu Dhabi lobbied hard to wrest IRENA from Bonn in Germany, where it was conceived. Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture is already tweaking its Masdar Headquarters building to accommodate IRENA.

The stroke of genius in the Masdar concept is prioritising education as a route to global thought-leadership on renewable energy. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, established in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), already has its £ rst cohort of 90-odd students.

It is not without irony that they are being housed in Abu Dhabi’s Petroleum Institute as they await the move to the Masdar Institute’s Foster-designed labs and housing in September. Switzerland, another small country looking to reinvent itself in the 21st century, plans to build a mixed-use cluster of clean-tech companies adjacent to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The ‘Swiss Village’ is already backed by over 120 Swiss businesses that see business opportunities in the Gulf and value in the Masdar aura.

Masdar’s high-density - 135 people per hectare - is its most radical feature

Located 17km from Abu Dhabi’s city centre, Masdar is intended to house 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters on an undistinguished site adjacent to the airport. In terms of masterplanning, Masdar’s high density - 135 people per hectare - is its most radical feature, according to Christopher Choa, a principal at AECOM Design + Planning, which is landscaping Masdar’s public realm. ‘Think Monaco, as contrasted with Kensington and Chelsea at roughly 129 residents per hectare and Paris at roughly 215 residents per hectare,’ says Choa. It’s impossible to imagine just how radical this is without describing the range of housing on offer in Abu Dhabi: large walled villas, gated communities, beachfront tower blocks, and tenements of varying quality on the city’s outskirts, which house the countless immigrants who service this economy.

To achieve such density in this inhospitable desert environment, where it’s impossible to walk outside during eight months of the year, Masdar is built above a service podium, with a personal rapid transit (PRT) system. This will require major behavioural change, because people will have to leave their private cars (essential for moving around the rest of Abu Dhabi) in car parks at entrances to the city, and continue in the PRT’s driverless ‘cars’. These will accommodate four passengers and come in two classes: leather-finished for VIPs and standard-upholstered for everyone else.

’ Everyone talks about zero-carbon cities, but nobody has put their foot forward the way Abu Dhabi has’

Like its PRT system, Masdar is carbonneutral in first-class style. The buildings are designed to be extremely energy efficient, in line with the sustainability agenda (see pages 30-31). Gerard Evenden, senior partner at Foster + Partners, says: ‘Every design decision and material choice in the Masdar Institute buildings has an absolute reason for being.’ Massive amounts of renewable energy will be required, and Masdar is currently testing solar technologies on the site and has invested in a photovoltaics plant in Germany.

Abu Dhabi is deliberately differentiating itself from its energy-hungry neighbour, Dubai. The landscaped courtyards and retractable roofs of Foster + Partners’ Central Market project - on the site of the city’s souk, which was destroyed by fire in 2002 - are a far cry from the vast aquariums and airconditioned spaces of Dubai Mall.

It would be easy to criticise Masdar were it not part of a larger strategic vision. In addition to its long-range Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 - a masterplan that divides Abu Dhabi into districts and defines uses, densities and building heights - the emirate has developed Estidama (AJ 30.10.08), its own environmental rating system with weightings adapted to reflect local climate and resources. Last year, Abu Dhabi Municipality adopted new building regulations, based on those due to arrive in the USA in 2012. Energy modelling will be mandatory for all buildings, and glazing will be restricted to 30 per cent of a building’s envelope. A low-carbon schools programme is underway and a water plan addresses rising sea levels.

Abu Dhabi’s resources and political structure permit it to cherry-pick the best examples from around the world and implement new policies straightaway. The £350 million Sheikh Zayed Mosque (2007) and the seven-star, £2 billion Emirates Palace Hotel (2005) demonstrate this small nation’s ability to get things built, even if the taste for luxury and show is a cause for wonder.

Masdar aspires to be a living laboratory of low-carbon design, yet it faces serious challenges. The climate is inhospitable and sand coats all surfaces, including solar collectors. Two men spend one week a month cleaning the 110,000m² photovoltaic test array on the Masdar site. Abu Dhabians are betting that technology can dominate the climate, and, with almost limitless resources, they just might succeed.

The level of ambition and resources seen here - both financial and human - are exceptional and would be difficult to replicate elsewhere. ‘Everyone talks about zero-carbon cities, but nobody has put their foot forward the way Abu Dhabi has,’ says Evenden. The big question is whether a knowledge centre for renewable energy, a cultural quarter and the Ferrari World complex will create a city with soul - a self-sustaining place where people want to live, work and visit. One thing is certain - Masdar adds a unique ingredient to the mix.

Personal rapid transit (PRT) system
All private cars arriving at Masdar will park in one of nine gateway car parks, and people will continue on foot or via PRT vehicles. These driverless electric-powered vehicles will travel at up to 40km/hour. They run on lithium-phosphate batteries, with a range of up to 60km on a 1.5 hour charge. Dutch company 2getthere has supplied Masdar with the first 10 vehicles, which will serve a 1.2km route with two stops in phase 1. The total proposed system includes almost 90 stations and 3,000 vehicles.

To read more about Masdar City as it develops, visit Hattie’s sustainability blogajfootprint.com

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