Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 is a staggeringly ambitious document that promises tens of thousands of hectares of new build
Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 is an astonishing document. Architects in Abu Dhabi live with it on their desks, occasionally stroking its pages – which promise tens of thousands of hectares of new build – and cracking their fingers. If anything, there is too much work. Yet while the scale is epochal, in contrast to the pandemonium that is Dubai, the detail of the masterplan is meticulous and considered. Infrastructure is thoughtfully planned and, in all cases, precedes programmatic development. Density levels are judiciously aligned to public-transport options. The coastlines of Abu Dhabi’s natural island formation are cleverly exploited. A distaste for ‘undifferentiated urban sprawl’ and a strong pedestrian focus permeate all aspects of the plan, as does an ambitious environmental theme.
For firms working in the city, Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 sets the framework (use, density, parking, height, etc). Beyond that, the most common brief is ‘build me an icon; here is the budget’. Architects out there talk rapidly about what they are working on, with the sense that they are at the vanguard of a new mode of urbanism. The bigger the project, the more groundbreaking the expectations. These are exemplified by the Masdar initiative to build an environmentally sustainable city in a barren landscape that naturally sustains no life.
Evenden insists: ‘It’s just as viable to be green in the desert as anywhere else – in fact, more so, because you have the solar resource.’ Desalination and cooling are the environmentally heavy elements, but these simply mean architects have to ‘work harder’. Passive design techniques come to the fore, and Foster’s designs make extensive use of traditional Middle Eastern walled-city configurations to maintain comfort with minimal air conditioning. Solar-thermal water heating and the reuse of grey water for irrigation are key elements, and salt by-products from desalination may be used for smelting aluminium. Bolting on the photovoltaics comes last.
Beyond technical targets for the architecture, the core aim of Masdar is to become a ‘Silicon Valley for renewables’. Even before Foster became involved, Abu Dhabi was in negotiation with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Imperial College London about a Masdar research centre focusing on environmental breakthroughs in new energy technologies.
This evidences a ‘depth of thought’ that, for Evenden, makes Masdar categorically unique. ‘If you tried to do these things in the UK, people would stop you,’ he says. In Abu Dhabi they produce £9 billion up front, and have columns coming out of the ground one year later. Evenden is unequivocal: ‘For Foster + Partners, our greatest projects are coming out of Abu Dhabi.’
Part three: Development frenzy