Masdar City Two & Abu Dhabi landscape planning

Hasan Fathy design for New Gourna (photo 1975)

Hasan Fathy design for New Gourna (photo 1975)

Without knowing too much about Masdar City, I am sceptical about Norman Foster’s proposals. So my suggestion is to develop a Masdar City Two with its focus on using a happy blend of traditional technology with as-little-as-necessary high technology. I would have David MacKay as the energy supremo and Hasan Fathy (had he not died in 1989) as the chief architect – and a landscape planner responsibile for the strategic direction of the new city. I guess there would be lots of mud walls, planting, and shade with excellent provision for cycling and electric floats for transport (as in Nanjing Street, Shanghai). All the roof space would be roof gardens with retractable awnings and limited vegetation supported by grey water. The gardens would be legendary – and related to the lost gardens of Ancient Mesopotamia. I think the result would be cheaper, better, more sustainable and more popular than Masdar City One. It might get less coverage in the architectural press but we could live with this.
Sorry about the quality of the above photograph, taken in 1975. I went to re-take the photo 30 years later and could not find the place – I guess it has been destroyed. The residents of Old Gourna (or Kurna or Qurna) did not want to leave their homes amongst the tombs of the nobles, which had rich pickings and many tourists. Fathy was unpopular in Egypt but designed some beautiful and environmentally appropriate homes for Saudi princes.
Odd that Iran should want nuclear power and Abu Dhabi should want solar power. What next? Will Iceland start making artificial snow? Or is Masdar City One really, as I will assume, an enlightened example of a rich country using its resources to develop technology which will benefit the world? The competition between Masdar City One and Masdar City Two would be very healthy and there should be a prize for the winning design team. Success would be judged from three criteria (1) construction costs (2) measures of sustainability (3) popularity with residents.

11 thoughts on “Masdar City Two & Abu Dhabi landscape planning

  1. Christine

    My favourite part of your plans! The gardens would be legendary – and related to the lost gardens of Ancient Mesopotamia.

    I am a great advocate of heritage and I appreciate the need to design contextually in respect to heritage settings, otherwise I am mostly in favour of advancing the frontiers of design in the present context.

    As for the architecture of Hasan Fathy it is beautiful in a timeless sense. [ ] I would prefer it to many things, but perhaps I wouldn’t view it as a substantial contribution to the discipline of architecture.
    [ ]

    Perhaps this is due to my ignorance of the context of Egyptian architectural practice?

    I am in favour of your competition between the two cities of Masdar.

  2. Lawrence

    I think that one must wish Masdar 1 success. With its insistence on technological solutions it may turn out to be like the development of Formula 1 cars or space shuttles, giving rise to one or the other spin-off solutions that find their application outside of their original boundaries. But the advertising premise on which it is based – that we can all live in an environment that is hip and clubby and none the less sustainable – is probably not helpful when it comes to re-educating people to change their habits:
    Masdar is big on CO2 harvesting, only that the harvested gas is injected into marginal oilfields, helping to squeeze out those last drops… Yes, it is very easy to be cynical. I would probably greatly prefer Masdar 2, but then I don’t mind sweating through the heat, just as others are prepared to work through the winter in 16 degrees or less. I imagine that the inhabitants wouldn’t be very rich, but hopefully happy.
    Abu Dhabi also has a nuclear power programme. Despite the assumption that the French would triumph, the contract for the first generators has recently been awarded to a Korean conglomerate: No news on where the waste will be stored…

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    I most certainly wish every success to Masdar 1 but, as Oliver Cromwell advised his men ‘Put your trust in God – but keep your powder dry’. One can be far from sure that Masdar 1 will work – so it is good sense to proceed with advancing tried and trusted alternatives based on ancient technology. I like the analogy of Formula One: Masdar One. Formula One would be an utter and complete horrible waste – were it not for the spin-offs to ordinary motorists. But one needs to continue with the development of the ordinary, comfortable and useful in parallel with developing the wastefully exotic luxuries of life.
    Regarding the ancient gardens of Mesopotamia, I am thinking of them more as a garden type than as visual type (about which very little is known). Physically, they were probably mud-walled orchards with shade, flowers, fruit and irrigation canals.

  4. Christine

    Lets just hope all the new electric cars are plugged into power provided by renewable electricity sources!

    Tom how would you describe the ancient gardens of Mesopotamia as a garden type?

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    The Sumerian word for a garden was sar and it was written with a cunieform heiroglyph apparently showing a walled enclosure with palm trees. Sumerian dictionaries translate this word as ‘orchard garden’ and this provides reasonable evidence concerning their character. Additional information comes from carved relief panels showing kings and queens dining in garden settings (though it is probable that the purpose of the meal was ritualistic) and from archaeological work on gardens made in later periods (eg in Persia). There is a simple diagram on the Overview page for Asian gardens and I like the idea of a Gulf state making a ‘best guess’ re-creation of a Mesopotamian garden with advice from archaeologists etc. There was some talk of a similar project for an ancient Egyptian garden but I have not heard any more about it.

    Re the competition between Masdar One and Masdar Two, the latter should be seen as an Appropriate Technology approach, or an Intermediate Technology approach of the kind favoured by Buckminster Fuller. Culturally, Masdar Two could mark a turning away from the last half century of building American cities in the Gulf. They should also stop building ‘Block-Villa-Highway Cities’ (BVH Cities) in America. They are the urban equivalent of gas guzzlers – archaic examples of old technology which cock a snoot at Nature with a flip ‘we know better’. The Arab Street should base its cities on Arab streets!

  6. Christine

    I think re-creating a garden that once existed as nearly as possible from documentary (rather than physical)evidence is a wonderful idea.

    Not really sure what I think about city plans in the Gulf as apart from a very brief airport transit I have not spent any time there! But yes as a general principle Gulf cities should be refounded, evolved or revisited in their own cultural forms….not sure that the outcome of these processes should be proscribed?

    Culture in our ethically mixed and multicultural world is an odd thing…[–Nightlife/Le-Dune-Pizzeria/ ]
    Is is possible to have an authentically English experience is London? What would it be?

    Ironically, Le Corbusier’s rethinking of the city arose because of the problem of the car (replacing the horse) so with a revision of the car (in its current form) as a mode of transport it is very appropriate to rethink the city.

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    I am very very doubtful about symbolic reproductions of cultural symbols – as when Kenzo Tange (in his pre-war work) proposed traditional Japanese roofs on top of Western-style buildings (and as is still done in China). But responses to climate, geology, hydrology, social patterns etc are extremely relevant. Similarly, in the Gulf, there is every reason to continue with orchard gardens, arches, domes and sun shades.
    Re London, I like the idea of continuing with ‘good taste’ and ‘good manners’ as general approaches and with appropriate climatic responses in public areas: we have needs, at different times, for sun/sun-shades, wind shelter (most of the time!), rain shades (too often) – so make glazed public open space. And with regard to materials we should make FAR more use of a locally abundant and altogether wonderful paving material: flint gravel. For tree planting, there should be an emphasis on Platanus acerifolia – the London Plane.
    Are there comparable policies for contextualizing Australian cities?

  8. Christine

    You are right reproducing the vernacular within new work takes an astute eye…Glenn Murcutt in Australia has one…but it is a rare quality. [–home/murcutt-the-heavyweight/2006/12/05/1165080945902.html?page=fullpage ]

    At the city scale it more difficult: but at the same time each city is quite unique. [And I think this true also globally although finding that uniqueness may require different degrees of sensitivity.] So I believe it is possible to ground designing in locale. However, reversing the usual formula I would say, 99% of artisty is in the inspiration, with 1% in the perspiration of realisation.

    With the right inspiration perhaps you can throw out the rules book…which says use local materials, understand local forms, observe the climate, use indigenous species and notice local ways of occupation.

    In an unfamiliar environment ‘difference’ often stands out more clearly than it does for a resident. Which means the ability to observe the undervalued or the overlooked qualities of place. Or to become enchanted or captured by the magic of the newly discovered or recognised. While for a resident the ‘discordant’ note in a familiar environment is more noticeable. Which means the ability to recognise a strange or quirky interpretation of the familiar, an imported reference insufficiently abstracted or way of resolving issues which doesn’t quite fit the local paradigm.(So there are advantages and disadvantages in both perspectives or ways of seeing and experiencing.)

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    There was a terrible case in the UK, about 25 years ago, when a large city (I think it was Leicester) wanted to introduce the type of policy we now call home zone/traffic calming/shared space. The government department with responsibility for transport refused permission, just like that – though it subsequently changed its position and said ‘Well yes, its a good thing if you do it our way’. The centralist way of thinking militates against the natural and desirable individualism of cities. But urban individualism still exists and it is still very important. I wish we could have more of it.
    Ashamed not be familiar with the work of Glenn Murcutt, I have had a quick look on the web and I like it. The buildings look like the kind of places one would want to live and work in hot and dry climates with a zest for outdoor living.
    Re perspiration and inspiration, you may be right on the time required – but the “99% artisty” tends to come to minds which have been prepared by long periods of preparation. Young designers can do wonderful things – but, I think, only if they have been thinking about design for a good while.

  10. Lawrence

    One advantage of the lower-tech Masdar 2 will be its lack of dependance on property-driven income. Masdar 1, conceived in the heady days of 100% “off-plan” sales has taken a blow:
    It is to be hoped that its effectively government-financed research units will not fall victim, but it does now seem clear that the original concept will at the very least be scaled back, if not completely revised.

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    Maybe now is a good time to interest Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar One, in the planning of Masdar Two. Higher quality at a lower price is often an appealing choice! And if the character and technology are more traditional, it could survive even a sharp downturn in the property market.
    We should all remember the wisdom of the former Saudi oil minister, Sheik Yamani: “Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil – and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.”


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