Monday, September 27, 2010

Midnight at the oasis?

Maybe not, but surely it's late and high time the camels were sent to bed.

I know I'm exhausted after yet another article about an insta-city in the desert (just add water) that I, as a world citizen and architect, am supposed to care about.  Saturday's NYT offering by Nicholai Ouroussoff introduced us all to Masdar, Abu Dhabi's fledgling, one-mile square, raised city, designed by Norman Foster's firm to be carbon neutral.

Because...why not?  They've got the space, and heaven knows they have the money (for now), and utopian, planned communities have always been so successful in the past....

Ok, I'll admit:  the carbon-neutral thing hooked me despite the dyspepsia I've developed from a diet too rich in stories about the Gulf Region's latest Hong Kong/Las Vegas/Santa Barbara-by-the-Sea.  It would certainly be a pretty cool (and ironic) trick for a place requiring lots and lots of air-conditioning and patrons made rich by fossil fuels.

Foster's team doesn't disappoint.  In addition to mining the region's centuries/millennia?-old passive techniques like locating streets and buildings for maximum shading and harvesting the breeze with wind towers, the architects take advantage of the latest technological systems like solar farms and electric, driver-less cars.

All of this is great, prima facie.  One can only imagine how much we will all learn from such an experiment.  Maybe even some of this will one day inform how we might create a self-sustaining colony on the moon (a place not so unlike the desert, minus the palm trees and oxygen).

But.

Jon Stewart recently had some fun with the one-can-but-should-one argument by suggesting Catholics could build a church next to a playground...but should they?  I find myself confronted with the very same question when it comes to Masdar.  Apparently, so does Mr. Ouroussoff.  After duly recognizing the Neat and Nifty -- even the Nuanced and Necessary -- the critic implicitly questions the need for a tabula rasa when there is a "real city next door" (Central Abu Dhabi).  Is this development suggesting that, instead of being introduced piecemeal into the existing urban fabric, it should be completed in isolation so as not to be infected by the terminal patient next door (who will eventually be taken off life support and allowed to die)?

Then there's the perennial labor question for this part of the world: who's building it?  under what circumstances and conditions?  for what wages?  For a number of reasons that should be obvious, I fully admit this is not a fair comparison; but I cannot help being reminded that a twentieth-century German government used slave labor to help build an Autobahn on which shiny, well-engineered BMWs now glide carrying their well-healed passengers from one part of the country to another.

Maybe it's just a little bit fair.


[Image via Deutsche Welle, which incidentally informs us that part of the funding for this project comes from the sale of emission certificates.]