An eco oasis rising up in the Abu Dhabi? Photographing the 'City of Possibilities'

Updated 19th September 2016
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An eco oasis rising up in the Abu Dhabi? Photographing the 'City of Possibilities'
Written by Angelica Pursley, CNN
Contributors Sophia Chalmer, CNN
In 2006, Masdar, Abu Dhabi's renewable energy company, launched and shortly announced plans for an ambitious sustainable urban development comprising of businesses, residential housing and educational facilities.
The project, helmed by British architecture firm Foster + Partners, was to be located in one of the world's most oil-dependent nations, the United Arab Emirates.
Located near Abu Dhabi's airport, Masdar City would be home to 50,000 residents and serve 40,000 commuters.
Understanding the need to diversify away from fossil fuels, the aim was to help the Middle Eastern state become a world leader in green energy.
Its streets would be free of automobiles, with people ferried around in driverless electric cars. Thousands of solar panels would line the outskirts of the city, making Masdar self-sufficient.

Adapting to challenges

But a decade on, the project has come up against some challenges.
After the global economic downturn, Masdar City's development model was redefined to include third-party investors.
Chris Wan, design manager for Masdar City, told The Guardian at the beginning of 2016 that the city's zero carbon dream would definitely not be coming true anytime soon.
And with its completion date pushed back to 2030, the city has previously been dubbed a green ghost town -- today there are only around 300 residents living in Masdar, and all are graduates of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.
But progress, albeit slow, is being made. In a recent statement to CNN, Masdar City's Director of Planning and Delivery Anthony Mallows wrote: "Masdar City has faced challenges along the way but is experiencing the most rapid development in its relatively short history.
"Today, we have evolved from an entirely self-funded project into one primarily driven by third-party investment. This allows us to ensure the city grows at a commercially viable pace, while also sharing sustainable best practices with wider industry, a key part of our mandate to support the diversification of the UAE economy away from oil & gas."
Workers and visitors enjoy lunch in Masdar City.
Workers and visitors enjoy lunch in Masdar City. Credit: Masdar City
Around 35 percent of the planned built-up area will be completed over the next five years, and nearly 30 percent has already been committed to, including private homes, schools, hotels and more office space.
Students visit Masdar City's 10MW solar plant.
Students visit Masdar City's 10MW solar plant. Credit: Masdar City
"Around 2,000 apartments are either built, under construction or in design through Masdar or third-party investors. This will bring the residential population at Masdar City to more than 3,500 within the next two to three years. And the working population at the city is also growing, from around 5,000 today to over 15,000 by 2018/2019," said Mallows.

Turning a creative lens on Masdar City

French photographer Etienne Malapert learned about the project while studying for his Bachelor's degree at the École cantonale d'art de Lausanne in Switzerland. "I was looking for a place that could unite the topics of environment and architecture," he said. "It's something that speaks to me."
He first traveled to the Masdar City in 2014 and returned a year later. Shooting on a large format camera he captured a series of striking images.
CNN spoke to Malapert to hear about his personal experiences photographing the unique development.
Can you describe the Masdar City to us?
When I first went to the city there were still very few images of Masdar available and so I didn't really know what to expect.
When I did actually get there, I had to stay in Abu Dhabi, because when there weren't any hotels in Masdar itself yet. I would take the bus for an hour to get there in the mornings.
I think in general, from the outside, it looks like a big ship which has been put on the sand.
Upon entering the city, I was surprised because the buildings are quite low, which means that you aren't really suffocated by a big mass of imposing architecture.
Malapert describes the city as appearing like a "ship which has been put on the sand."
Malapert describes the city as appearing like a "ship which has been put on the sand." Credit: Etienne Malapert
I found it very elegant -- the little side streets were very pretty, there's a lot of greenery, there are fountains.
And then as I continued my walks, I wanted to go further and further, go to areas like the one with the solar panels, go into the desert, which is a part of the city but is on the outside of the main buildings, to see what it really was, how it all worked.
What were the most interesting aspects of architecture?
I think the main thing to realize is that the entire city has been created as a single piece.
To have an autonomous city, in this country, there are still quite a lot of challenges to solve; the heat, the wind, the sand... by enlisting the architects Foster + Partner, they came up with one of the simplest solutions to lower the temperatures, which was to bring all the buildings closer together to create spaces with shadow and lower the temperature of the city.
They also built Masdar City on stilts, at a height of almost 6-8 meters, so that the wind, which carries away all the sand in the desert around, passes under the city and not through the streets.
Was there anything that surprised or shocked you?
Surprised, yes. Actually, at the beginning it took me some time to get used to, because I had the sensation that the city was dead.
All the people who work there are in their offices the whole day, there are still very few tourists -- at least when I went, in 2014-2015. And it's very hot. So people don't stay outside.
As a photographer who was spending his days outside, I was a little lost in the beginning.
This is why I often like to say that I still have a bit of trouble calling this a city, I consider it more as an open-air laboratory experiment.
Everything from the new solar energy panels, new forms of energy, tests where they were treating water with algae -- everything is done on site. And this I found really interesting.
Was is it as deserted as your photos show?
I did exaggerate that a little bit.
I wanted to show the city as I experienced it. But, in reality there are a few people around, I don't deny this. I also took portraits of men and women there, workers -- there are a lot of workers there.
So while I've shown them, I've shown them separately, because I like being quite direct, in the sense that if I want to show a building I'll show a building, if I want to show a person, I'll show a person.
I don't really like to mix everything together, it can confuse the reading of the image. So it was exaggerated a little bit, but there is still a very big feeling of emptiness and a sensation that this city is dead.
What did you want to communicate with this project?
When I went there, I didn't really have a project in mind.
I wanted to discover something different which has nothing to do with what we can see in Europe. So, I ended up focusing as much on the architecture as the portraits, as all these electrical installations.
As time went on it was really about trying to find a discourse between this completely futuristic architecture, and the people who live there, or who work there, I should say.
Malapert also includes some portraits in his photo series.
Malapert also includes some portraits in his photo series. Credit: Etienne Malapert
About 80 percent of the people I met there were day workers.
So these were Pakistani, Indian workers, and people from the Philippines. I spent a lot of time with them.
What I was trying to do was, not construct a story -- because there is no beginning, there is no end -- but to try and create a project which shows what this city is, without judging too much.
It's a project that could create controversy, and I was not there for that at all, I really wanted to show this to people who were curious to see what a city of the future could look like.