Sculptures in the sand
Abu Dhabi has the smarts when it comes to a clean, green and culturally rich future, writes Kendall Hill
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.etihadairways.com.