Masdar: So Many Questions
So Nicolai heads out of town in order to find a sustainable city, and returns questioning the nature of utopia, suburbia, and Manhattan.
And yet Masdar seems like the fulfillment of that idea. Ever since the notion that thoughtful planning could improve the lot of humankind died out, sometime in the 1970s, both the megarich and the educated middle classes have increasingly found solace by walling themselves off inside a variety of mini-utopias.
This has involved not only the proliferation of suburban gated communities, but also the transformation of city centers in places like Paris and New York into playgrounds for tourists and the rich. Masdar is the culmination of this trend: a self-sufficient society, lifted on a pedestal and outside the reach of most of the world’s citizens.
Masdar, IKYDK, is “the world’s first zero-carbon city” built on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and designed by Foster & Partners. And Ouroussoff’s point is well-taken, though I question shoehorning in a critique of the current state of Paris and New York so casually, unless he intends to take up the populist urban cudgel later.
But (and you know there would be a but) so many other questions occurred to me as I read his critic’s notebook, questions that seem to pre-date whether or not this was just another gated community.
Like, how much carbon does it take to build a zero-carbon city, much less one in the desert? Aren’t there places on earth better suited to such efforts, if lacking in oil money? Is it carbon neutral if the gas we’ve been buying for the last 10 years paid for the wind towers and solar arrays?
From a design perspective, aren’t those gorgeous pierced screens, based on the traditional mashrabiya, a little too cute? They are made of concrete, tinted to match traditional terra cotta, and remind me excessively of the 1950s and 1960s modernist American embassies by Edward Durell Stone, Harry Weese, et. al. that wrapped your basic Bunshaft box in a concrete version of the traditional ornament. Meanwhile, the research buildings are as high tech, and placeless, as can be.
The slideshow shows Masdar to be a present and future architectural extravaganza. Are there any fabric buildings, or does it include every idea Foster wasn’t allowed to build elsewhere? Ouroussoff rightly notes the retro-futuristic nature of those electric cars. They hail from the same era as the screens, and an entirely different mindset than the ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene—“a super-strong translucent plastic”—facades.
The most casually chilling comment is probably Foster’s:
The result, Mr. Foster acknowledged, feels a bit like Disneyland. “Disneyland is attractive because all the service is below ground,” he said. “We do the same here — it is literally a walled city. Traditional cars are stopped at the edges.”
I would love to explore this a little more. Was Walt Disney the ruling urbanist for the 21st century? How different is the way Disneyland buries services underground than, say, Brooklyn? What else is buried here?
This is all a little too sci fi for me, a world split into new archi-cities in which service is soundless and carbon neutral and the messy realities we manufactured from 1851 to 2009 (pick your own dates). Does Foster really think he can plan so far ahead that Masdar will never have its own version of the Second Avenue Subway? Years in the planning, massive urban disruption, the unattractive innards rearing their head above the city’s skin. If H.G. Wells were writing today the Morlocks would be the systems that serve us. To push Ouroussoff’s critique to a spookier place, Masdar is a city apparently designed for Eloi.