I once had a homeless person walk up to me and express incredulity that the car had been ‘invented’ in 1908 (Model T) and since then, it had only been made prettier. I was somewhat taken aback by this to-the-point critique. But the truth is that he was and continues to be right, and it doesn’t just pertain to cars. Cities are something that have been with the human race for literally millennial. And they have essentially continued to be massive users and polluters and in spite of all our new technology, only really gotten prettier. Nothing has really changed. I think the problem is perhaps one of smell.

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In the past, a city would stink of the waste it produced. This waste was typically rotting food or just plain old excrement. It was physical, in your nostrils, stuff. This was the kind of stuff that made people step back and say ‘You know, it’s wonderful that we’re all living so close and it’s making us ever so much more productive, but we gotta do something about all the shit everywhere- it smells like shit.’

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Today, our cities are enormous bastions of productivity. They produce and reduce and refine and all of it happens behind the scenes. Our cities are larger and they don’t stink as much. Haven’t we solved the problem. Pat on the back. Unless… maybe we just got smart and started producing things in ways that only give off odorless, colorless gasses and our cities are much dirtier only in a less noticeable way? It is interesting to me that for many years now it has been known that any combustion should have proper ventilation to prevent excessive build-up of exhaust; you know, don’t run your car in the garage with the door closed. And yet, we as a species failed to make the mental leap comparing self-contained garage to also self-contained planetary atmosphere. So now that it’s getting hard to ignore, we worry about it. This is where Masdar City comes onto the scene.

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Built in the UAE, it is set to be the first zero-waste, zero-carbon footprint city in the world. Designed by Foster+Partners, they describe the city as inspired by the architecture and urban planning of traditional Arab cities, Masdar City incorporates narrow streets; the shading of windows, exterior walls and walkways; thick-walled buildings; courtyards and wind towers; vegetation and a generally walkable city.”]

The city’s orientation is northeast-southwest, which coupled with narrow, carless streets cuts down on how much city dwellers are exposed to the hot, daytime winds and increases their access to night breezes. This seemingly little thing is to me perhaps the most important. It signifies a deeper examination of situation. Mankind’s solution to problems has for a long time been to throw something else at it. ‘Everything can be fixed by making it bigger’. It is becoming increasingly clear that no amount of high-technology can beat nature. So Foster+Partners has chosen to work with it in setting up a city that will hopefully become a hallmark for the future.

 

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