The Foster factor

Lord Norman Foster's groundbreaking projects has transformed cityscapes around the world.
The Foster factor
By Monika Grzesik
Mon 21 Apr 2008 04:00 AM

One of the most innovative architects of our time, Lord Norman Foster's groundbreaking projects has transformed cityscapes around the world. Now he is leading a revolution in eco-friendly architecture with his most ambitious project to date - a zero carbon, zero waste city, right here in the desert.

Few architects have made such a mammoth impact on the world of architecture as Lord Norman Foster. Founder and chairman of London based Foster + Partners, which has offices in more than twenty countries, over the past forty years he has been responsible for some of the world's most remarkable buildings and technologically groundbreaking projects, including the reconstruction of the Reichstag in Berlin, the design of the great court at the British Museum in London, the Millennium Bridge (the first new Thames crossing for more than 100 years), and the new Hong Kong International Airport - the world's largest terminal.

We have a passion as designers to a sustainable agenda; we are also passionate optimists. You can't be a designer for the future unless you are an optimist.

But while his buildings are known for setting new standards in terms of their interaction with the environment, his next project will push the boundaries of sustainable development further than ever before.

Foster's plan is to turn a patch of dusty desert right next to Abu Dhabi airport into the world's greenest city. Funded by the government-owned World Future Energy Company, construction on the development known as 'Masdar' begins this month.

Upon completion in 2018, the zero-waste, zero-carbon city will house around 50,000 people and become a sustainable urban development blueprint of the future. It will have no cars, all its energy will come from renewable sources such as sunlight and wind, and all its waste will be re-used and recycled.

It's a hugely ambitious project, and Foster himself admits that taking on such a challenge particularly in this part of the world was no mean feat.

"I think that to do this now in any climate, in any part of the world would be an inspiring and almost daunting challenge for everyone involved in such a project," he says "But to do it in a desert environment is exceedingly demanding."

He's not joking. Cities produce millions of tonnes of CO2 every year, and out here in the UAE with our air con and our gas guzzling cars we are the worst offenders.

In fact, sitting on nearly 100 billion barrels of oil, Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world and its inhabitants are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than any other population on the planet.

But now the government has pledged to support sustainable development with an investment of US $15 billion, and Foster has stepped up to the challenge.

He radiates enthusiam for the project, and listening to him speak at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, it is impossible not to be completely captivated by his vision for Masdar. So how will he build the world's first green city?

In complete contrast to the shiny modern towers of Abu Dhabi, Foster has taken inspiration from traditional desert settlements and in many ways Masdar will feel like an ancient city.

Buildings will huddle together in a dense, compact form and will not rise higher than five storeys to eliminate the need for energy consuming lifts.
Wind towers will help to cool buildings and shading will be used to provide respite from the sun.

The narrow streets, many of which are just 3m wide, mean pedestrians are constantly shaded. Foster says that the closely packed nature of Masdar means inhabitants will be able to get everywhere on foot.

"The value and joy is in the liberation of the pedestrian experience, and the urbanity as an alternative to suburban sprawl. You can walk just 100m, 3 or 4 minutes to nurseries, playgrounds and shops."

Green space was also of huge important. "Very important are the green spaces, the parks, pocket parks and small squares, and the quality that this as an environment will produce and attract. The activities of the city will happen around the very compact urban squares," explains Foster.

So as well as being better for the environment, the city will also provide a better quality of life. "If Masdar is not a place that really lifts the spirits, it is not fulfilling its function, it must have a better urban quality," he adds.

While it may look historic, Masdar is in fact the very latest in cutting edge sustainable technology. With cars banned, inhabitants will be whizzed around on a light railway, or will have the option of calling up a futuristic personalised transport pod (a bit like a driverless taxi) to take them anywhere they want to go. "We want to be free from the disadvantages of the car," says Foster, "its pollution, its congestion and its intrusion."

The energy to power the city will come largely from sunlight. Every surface in the city will be an energy harvester. Photovoltaic cells on roofs and south facing walls will harness the suns rays.

On top of that wind farms will harness sea breezes for extra power and recycling plants will salvage spent materials from the city leaving residue to be incinerated to produce more energy. All waste in the city will be recycled and re-used.

As for water, the goal is to cut water consumption by at least 50% and to re-use all wastewater.

"This is genuinely a self-sufficient community," says Foster. "Those are the goals, which the client has set, those are the goals which we have enthusiastically bought into, those are the goals that the team is committed to."

In these times of global warming, a zero carbon city will be a landmark achievement. Foster is convinced that Masdar will not only exceed its goals but will be the beginning of a revolution in sustainable development on a global scale.

"We have a passion as designers to a sustainable agenda; and we are also passionate optimists," he says. "You can't be a designer for the future unless you are an optimist."

Norman FosterFamed for projects such as the Swiss Re tower (otherwise known as the Gerkin) which has become the most iconic building on the London skyline, Foster was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1999 and was later honoured with a Life Peerage to become Lord Foster of Thames Bank.

Since establishing Foster + Partners 40 years ago the practice has won more than 70 international competitions and 440 awards for excellence. Now at the ago of 72, Foster is showing no signs of slowing down.

His practice is currently running projects in 25 countries - including the redevelopment of a vast convent in Milan, a zero-energy regeneration scheme in St Petersburg, and Beijing's new airport. Ongoing projects in the UAE include the Aldar Central Market in Abu Dhabi and The Index tower in DIFC.

For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.