Sculp­tures in the sand

Abu Dhabi has the smarts when it comes to a clean, green and cul­tur­ally rich fu­ture, writes Ken­dall Hill

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

N a des­o­late desert plot 30km from Abu Dhabi, the fu­ture is tak­ing shape. This oil­rich emi­rate is spending $US22 bil­lion ($26.4bn) trans­form­ing a patch of sand into a pro­to­type green metropo­lis called Mas­dar City, the first zero-car­bon com­mu­nity. It’s a utopian vi­sion that has in­spired top global brand names to align their clout to the cause. Nor­man Foster’s ar­chi­tec­tural firm is over­see­ing the project, while the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, BASF, Siemens and an al­liance of some of Switzer­land’s lead­ing busi­nesses have al­ready signed on to the dream. ‘‘ We aim to build the world’s Sil­i­con Val­ley for clean tech­nol­ogy,’’ Mas­dar chief ex­ec­u­tive Sul­tan al Jaber says.

The multi­na­tional de­sign firm EDAW pre­pared the mas­ter plan for Mas­dar City and is in charge of all its ‘‘pub­lic realms’’: ev­ery open space, ev­ery land­scape.

EDAW’s in­volve­ment with Mas­dar is sub­ject to a strait­jacket of con­fi­den­tial­ity clauses, but in a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion EDAW’s Syd­ney-based manag­ing prin­ci­pal Stu­art Bow­den was able to pro­vide a glimpse in­side this em­bry­onic 21st-cen­tury city.

‘‘The ba­sic premise is that this will be a zero-car­bon, zero-waste sus­tain­able city and that means nil en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact and com­pletely self-sus­tained in ev­ery core com­po­nent: wa­ter, food, en­ergy. There will be no ve­hi­cles at all. It will have light rail and most im­por­tantly a per­sonal rapid tran­sit sys­tem. They are tri­alling the PRTS on-site right now.’’

In this self-suf­fi­cient idyll there will be fields for crops along­side re­new­able en­ergy farms; a 10MW so­lar plant is al­ready op­er­at­ing and pow­er­ing the city’s construction. The con­cepts are so novel they are dif­fi­cult to vi­su­alise, so I ask Bow­den to de­scribe the city to me as if he’s stand­ing in front of it.

‘‘You can see the city, build­ing by build­ing, ris­ing out of the desert,’’ he be­gins. ‘‘Ev­ery time I go, which may be a month apart, you will see a new build­ing form out there. The whole city sits above the nat­u­ral ground level. There’s an area at the base of the build­ings that we will call the city ground level, but that sits two floors above the desert. The per­sonal rapid trans­port sys­tem is ef­fec­tively run un­der­ground.’’

The PRTS is a fleet of six-per­son, com­puter-op­er­ated pods that will ferry Mas­dar’s 90,000 res­i­dents and com­muters cleanly and qui­etly through­out this model so­ci­ety. An above­ground light rail will con­nect the city to greater Abu Dhabi. Mas­dar’s in­ter­na­tional me­dia re­la­tions arm says the first phase of the PRTS will be op­er­at­ing next year, co­in­cid­ing with the com­ple­tion of the first build­ings. Stage one of the city is its ed­u­ca­tional and re­search quar­ter hous­ing some of the lead­ing names in global tech­nol­ogy. GE is the site’s an­chor ten­ant with its so-called Eco­mag­i­na­tion Cen­tre.

The MIT will back the new Mas­dar In­sti­tute of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, a post­grad­u­ate col­lege de­voted ex­clu­sively to clean en­ergy so­lu­tions, and the nascent In­ter­na­tional Re­new­able En­ergy Agency has an­nounced it will also be based here.

Grand vi­sions such as this are a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of the new Mid­dle East. Neigh­bour­ing Dubai is the poster-child for oil-fu­elled ex­cess in the Per­sian Gulf with its seem­ingly end­less quest for tallest, big­gest, most ex­pen­sive.

By con­trast, Abu Dhabi is forg­ing ahead with a far more in­ter­est­ing mantra of greener, smarter, more cul­tured. Dubai is sassy; Abu Dhabi is smart.

On a wan­der through Abu Dhabi’s mod­ern but not alarm­ingly fu­tur­is­tic city cen­tre, my guide Ziad re­flects on the dif­fer­ences be­tween th­ese close but con­tra­dic­tory neigh­bours. ‘‘Dubai is faster than us, but they are do­ing things wrong. We take our time to do things here, and we do them right. My friends in Dubai come here and ask me how I can live in this vil­lage.’’

It’s un­likely his friends will be so dis­mis­sive of Abu Dhabi in the fu­ture. Ris­ing from the sands with sim­i­lar alacrity to Mas­dar is Saadiyat Is­land, a new cul­tural

Ris­ing from the desert: Oil-rich Abu Dhabi’s $US22 bil­lion vi­sion for the fu­ture in­cludes a cul­tural cen­tre with new Lou­vre and Guggenheim mu­se­ums

Cen­tre stage: Pro­posed per­form­ing arts com­plex cen­tre­piece boast­ing the su­per­star ar­chi­tec­tural line-up of Gehry, Ha­did, Ando, Nou­vel and Foster. When com­pleted in 2020, it will com­prise a new Lou­vre, a new Guggenheim, a na­tional mu­seum mod­elled on the Bri­tish Mu­seum, a per­form­ing arts com­plex, a mar­itime mu­seum and ac­com­mo­da­tion for 150,000 res­i­dents.

Other high­lights of Abu Dhabi’s dizzy­ing in­ven­tory of in­fra­struc­ture in­clude the re­cently in­au­gu­rated Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (a fine ad­di­tion to the trea­sury of Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture), the vast Al Raha Beach project and the Yas Is­land de­vel­op­ment. Emi­ratis are about to flaunt their in­ner petrol-head with the de­but of the Abu Dhabi For­mula One race on Yas at the end of Oc­to­ber.

In all, ac­cord­ing to jour­nal­ist Jo Tatchell, au­thor of

the Abu Dhabi gov­ern­ment has al­lo­cated $US354bn over five years to trans­form bar­ren penin­sula into global pow­er­house.

It’s a far cry from the 1960s when, as old pho­tos in the city’s Cul­tural Foun­da­tion at­test, Abu Dhabi was a sparse col­lec­tion of boxy houses on the sand, a mere fish­ing vil­lage. But un­der the lead­er­ship of Sheik Zayed bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan, UAE ruler from 1966-2004, and bankrolled by oil re­ceipts, it de­vel­oped a pow­er­ful voice in the Arab world and a rep­u­ta­tion as a land of vi­sion­ary en­ergy.

The trans­for­ma­tion un­der way is due in large part to Zayed, whose legacy con­tin­ues un­der the present ruler of Abu Dhabi, his son, Sheikh Khal­ifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Af­ter achiev­ing in­de­pen­dence from the Bri­tish in 1971, Zayed vowed to lead his na­tion into pros­per­ity. ‘‘It’s time we pro­vide [our peo­ple] with what they missed so long, so they en­joy at last the gen­eros­ity of the Almighty,’’ he promised.

Khal­ifa has like­wise pledged to fash­ion Abu Dhabi into a ‘‘global cap­i­tal city’’.

The Abu Dhabi 2030 plan, pre­pared by the emi­rate’s Ur­ban Plan­ning Coun­cil, fore­casts that in two decades the city’s pop­u­la­tion will grow from its present one mil­lion to three mil­lion. An en­tire new cap­i­tal district com­pris­ing gov­ern­ment offices, em­bassies, uni­ver­si­ties — the brain of the city — will com­ple­ment the cor­po­rate heart of the es­tab­lished cen­tral busi­ness district. The over­ar­ch­ing prin­ci­ple of all th­ese fan­tas­ti­cal projects is sus­tain­abil­ity, ac­cord­ing to the plan.

‘‘Abu Dhabi’s fu­ture lies in the abil­ity to cau­tiously use ex­ist­ing wealth,’’ it says, ‘‘to ac­tively ex­plore re­new­able en­ergy pro­duc­tion, to re­duce the con­sump­tion of non-re­new­able re­sources and to ed­u­cate fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.’’ It is an hon­ourable aim, though with so many bil­lions of dol­lars back­ing un­prece­dented projects, it is also an enor­mous gam­ble.

But Abu Dhabi’s lead­er­ship is not given to fail­ure or hu­mil­i­a­tion. Its determination and ex­e­cu­tion of big ideas have won the emi­rate many ad­mir­ers and in­creas­ing num­bers of tourists. As one blog­ger has de­scribed it: ‘‘The UAE cap­i­tal is not only ex­pected to set in­ter­na­tional stan­dards for cre­ativ­ity but for the fu­ture of de­sign and construction.’’

It is a vi­sion splen­did, and one that many ob­servers hope be­comes a re­al­ity. What with Mas­dar’s sus­tain­abil­ity, Saadiyat’s in­tel­lec­tual stim­u­la­tion and a raft of other in­trigu­ing projects in the works, Abu Dhabi is looking less like a desert and more like a cul­tural oa­sis by the day.


Eti­had Air­ways flies daily from Aus­tralia to Abu Dhabi, with econ­omy re­turn fares from about $1800, de­pend­ing on the sea­son. More: www.eti­hadair­


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