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Architectural Spotlight

Masdar Springs From The Desert

“The environmental ambitions of the Masdar Initiative – zero carbon and waste free – are a world first. They have provided us with a challenging design brief that promises to question conventional urban wisdom at a fundamental level. Masdar promises to set new benchmarks for the sustainable city of the future.” Norman Foster of  Foster + Partners

I remember seeing a post about Masdar in the past, back during the height of the Dubai construction orgies when it seemed like every week there was a new project coming out that was fantastic this, super-sized that!  Given that I had a bit of an anti Dubai stance, (take a look back at the Dubai tag and you will see how little attention I paid to it) I have to admit that I wrote Masdar off as just another mega project of a dubious nature. Well it seems that I am now playing catch up on this project as it is in fact being built and it is a significant chapter in the development of new sustainable cities.  My attention was re-piqued after a colleague of mine sent me a link to a New York Times article in the Critic’s Notebook about the opening of the first phase of Masdar. They also have an awesome photo slide show given that they were able to fly a photographer over there.

The New York Times takes issue with the fact that the city is at this point essentially a gated community and identity is not helped by its construction techniques.  Visitors to the city drive through the desert until they reach the blank wall of the city.  While the city wall has a function and basis in sustainable design; enabling the raised city to capture desert breezes and regulate transportation functions to its lower level.  It reinforces the perception that this is a city for elites, and not a city for every one.  Of course given that the city just opened and its first residents are only now moving in the government (who happens to be the landlord) still has time to make sure that the city houses a cross section of society.


Upon arrival to the city a visitor must leave their car at a parking garage just inside the city’s edge. All transportation functions within the city are covered by a fleet of driver less cars that navigate through a series of tunnels at ground level, below the main pedestrian level of the city 23 feet above.  Once the transportation system comes online a fleet of hundreds of personal transportation pods that have been likened to the transportation pods in 2001: A Space Oddessy will transport people and goods around the city by following the destination commands inputted by users through a simple LCD screen interface.  It’s a method of separating circulation functions that Le Corbuiser first envisioned and would have loved to employ in many of his residential projects.

The design aesthetic for the city is a combination of modernism and traditional aribic architecture.  Laboratories and office spaces are predominantly hosted in large concrete buildings that have been clad in panels of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene. Residential buildings tend towards the traditional and appear similar to the Terra Cotta construction techniques found across the Middle East.

By way of design the city aims to tackle one of the biggest issues in the modern day Middle East; obesity. Elevators from the lower levels are tucked out of sight behind stairwells, and on the main level the only way to get around is by foot.  It’s a design response to the growing problem of obesity in the Middle East as anyone can afford to travel by car to escape the heat does so.  The city also uses traditional wind towers to funnel winds down to street level, and orients the streets at an angle to the suns trajectory in order to maximize shade. On top of all of these features the city is also aiming to be one of the first truly solar cities.

Some of the public spaces will also feature reactive architecture: international architectural firm LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture) won an international design competition for its proposal to utilize a series of giant umbrellas base on the sunflower principle that open during the day to provide shade, store heat, and then close during the night opening the public squares to the sky and releasing their stored heat.

It is impossible to see the city as anything other than visionary in the way it approaches new city building.  While the Times is correct to raise questions about its utopian purity and its creation in isolation from the real city that lives next door, the Times also ignores the fact that brand new from scratch cities is a reality for the next century.  Experts agree that in order to handle the world’s growing population at least 20 new cities will need to be constructed, predominantly in the Asia, Africa and the Middle East in order to handle the world’s growing a urban population.  In Korea New Songdo is being used as a test case for a fully wired its city, and in the middle east Masdar is most definitely a test case for a carbon neutral city that responds to the constraints of its environment.  It is entirely likely that future cities combine the lessons learned from both in their construction.

From Foster + Partner’s Website:

The Masdar Institute

The Masdar Institute (MI) is the first part of the wider Masdar City Master-plan to be realized and creates a focus for the entire programme, as well as setting the context for subsequent development. Initially, five MSc programmes will be established and as well as undertaking research with MIT, Masdar faculty members will be able to work within the Masdar Research Network. The MI campus embodies the principles and goals of the Masdar City Master-plan to create a prototypical and sustainable city, one in which residents and commuters can enjoy the highest quality of life with the lowest environmental footprint. All developments within the city are to be carbon neutral and zero waste.

The buildings are oriented to provide optimum shade and reduce cooling loads. Shaded colonnades at podium level exploit the benefits of exposed thermal mass and transitional thermal spaces are integrated to mediate between internal and external zones. Facades are designed to respond to their orientation and photovoltaic installations on every roof are combined with carefully positioned photovoltaic panels to shade streets and buildings. Green linear parks adjacent to the buildings capture cooling night-time winds, with wind gates employed to control hot winds. The ventilation strategy for the streets and night time cooling is further enhanced by wind towers and courtyards.

Pedestrian circulation is primarily at podium deck level, where a shaded route throughout the campus is provided. The buildings within MI are made up primarily of laboratories and residential accommodation, supported by a gymnasium, canteen, café, library and landscaped areas that contribute to the campus environment and forge a new destination within the city. The laboratories – and the interactive laboratory space – are at the heart of the development and offer the optimum flexible, column free space possible within the strict loading and vibration criteria. The residential element further integrates the principles of the master-plan and provides one, two and three bedroom apartments in low-rise, high-density blocks. These complete the master-plan street-scape and urban form, while acting as a social counterpoint to the intense laboratory environment. Source

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