Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi

Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi

by Gökçe Günel

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In 2006 Abu Dhabi launched an ambitious project to construct the world’s first zero-carbon city: Masdar City. In Spaceship in the Desert Gökçe Günel examines the development and construction of Masdar City's renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures, providing an illuminating portrait of an international group of engineers, designers, and students who attempted to build a post-oil future in Abu Dhabi. While many of Masdar's initiatives—such as developing a new energy currency and a driverless rapid transit network—have stalled or not met expectations, Günel analyzes how these initiatives contributed to rendering the future a thinly disguised version of the fossil-fueled present. Spaceship in the Desert tells the story of Masdar, at once a “utopia” sponsored by the Emirati government, and a well-resourced company involving different actors who participated in the project, each with their own agendas and desires.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002406
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/14/2019
Series: Experimental Futures
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 20 MB
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About the Author

Gökçe Günel is Assistant Professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona.

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Inhabiting the Spaceship

An Enclosed Space

"Imagine — imagine a place where the challenge of living in an extreme climate is overcome at no cost to the environment," announced a Masdar City promotional video produced in early 2008. "Imagine a place of the future with all of the benefits of twenty-first-century living, yet none of the stresses of outdated twentieth-century cities." The video went on to explain how the new city's master plan drew inspiration from the vernacular forms of Arab architecture, relied on cutting-edge technology, and helped its residents minimize their energy consumption and carbon footprint. Densely populated narrow streets and shaded walkways would decrease the need for air-conditioning by reducing direct sunlight in a pedestrian environment. Rooftop photovoltaic panels would produce enough electricity for the whole city, powering driverless automated transit pods for public transportation. Through a wide variety of innovations, ranging from wind towers to personal automated transit pods, Masdar City's planners aimed from its start in 2006 to create a zero-carbon eco-city that would eventually fulfill its energy demands through renewable energy sources, emitting no carbon dioxide. The final message of Masdar's promotional campaign was ambitious and clear: "Masdar City is the city of the future and the role model for the world. Masdar City: one day all cities will be built like this." This is how the future of Masdar City was marketed, initially.

At the groundbreaking ceremony in 2008, Sultan Al Jaber, then CEO of Masdar, declared: "We are creating a city where residents and commuters will live the highest quality of life with the lowest environmental footprint. Masdar City will become the world's hub for future energy. By taking sustainable development and living to a new level, it will lead the world in understanding how all future cities should be built."

According to the first digital renderings, a wall would surround the "desert utopia," or "high-tech oasis," insulating it from desert winds and sand. Inside, previously unimagined technologies would terraform the surrounding landscape as a space of experimentation. Fascinated with the proposed technologies, some critics extrapolated that human sweat and other ambient moistures would be "plucked out of the air" in Masdar City and recycled into drinking water. A German engineering professor at MIT whom I spoke to in early 2010, and who was not officially affiliated with Masdar Institute, provocatively stated that Masdar was "the only utopia to emerge from the Middle East since Islam." According to him, Masdar was so revolutionary in its aspirations that it could reorganize social, political, and economic relations in the region — like a new religion.

Behind the scenes, many professionals who worked at Masdar's various departments argued that the company's marketing budget was its largest investment. Many saw the marketing and communications campaigns as portraying a "science fiction" project. In describing the city, many referred to films such as Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997), Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), or Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982); the latter was based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from 1968, and Margaret Atwood's recent novel Oryx and Crake, from 2003, was also considered a good analogue. Most of these works are set in bounded cityscapes where life is impossible outside technologically supported zones. Soon, Masdar's promoters forecast, life would need to be sequestered in enclosed and self-sufficient spaces due to climate change and energy deficiency.

As a city built from scratch, Masdar offered a vision of technologically complex, eco-friendly, and enjoyable modes of living, and aimed to serve as a potential engine for economic growth. But the future that animated interest in this complex was at times dark. By the logic of Masdar's marketing campaign, the time and space of Masdar City was at once apocalyptic and utopian. Indeed, when executives working with Masdar City utilized analogies based in science fiction narratives, they received tongue-in-cheek criticism from reviewers. An environmental news website quipped, "Masdar City is bringing Blade Runner to the fore? No one wants to live in a city full of replicants, even if it's eco-friendly. Someone better call Deckard to fix this mess before it gets out of hand." The news website pointed out that many works of science fiction are critiques of totalizing environments, where corporate power looms large, the police seem omnipresent, and large-scale social problems remain inevitable despite extensive rational planning. At the same time, Blade Runner signified a future that had already passed. Masdar City was relying on and reproducing an imaginary of the future dating back as far as the 1960s; it was not necessarily generating the fresh and innovative future its marketers promised.

This chapter focuses on the imagery employed in speaking about the "futuristic" Masdar City project in the years that followed its launch in 2006. Why and how did Masdar become conceptualized as a city of the future, and what did it mean for the project to be located at an "other" time, in addition to being located within a bounded area in the desert, often conceptualized as an "other" space? What, or perhaps when, was the future imagined through Masdar City? The chapter explores the spatial and temporal discourses and mechanisms that were put to use while planning and building the eco-city. How did the residents of Masdar City understand the labor involved in producing a green city in the middle of the desert in an oil-producing country? It examines how students, architects, and executives imagined a technologically enhanced space that did not yet exist, within a present in which they could not be held fully accountable for their projections. By pointing out how major renewable energy and clean technology companies shared and contributed to these spatial and temporal discourses, this chapter also contextualizes Masdar's strategies within a more general framework of renewable energy and clean technology innovation. Consequently, it shows how switching scales becomes a prevalent method, allowing renewable energy and clean technology professionals to use planetary-level concerns as justifications for their projects, and letting them depend on imaginaries of an abstract, idealized future.

Spaceship in the Desert

The description, in September 2010, of the Masdar Institute as "a spaceship in the middle of the desert" on the blog of an American student named Laura, new to living there, was soon being cited by all manner of sources. The president of the Institute, and many other media like The Guardian newspaper, or the ecology blog Green Prophet, recalled Laura's blog when reporting on developments at Masdar. While Laura had used the description "spaceship in the desert" to refer to the Masdar Institute campus, located on the Masdar City site, her metaphor soon grew to stand for all of Masdar City. Laura had a studio apartment on the new campus, and had assumed her blog would reach a handful of friends and family members; she later searched for reasons as to why and how it had become so popular. Her post, like many other communications regarding the eco-city, was supplemented by computer renderings that ornamented the walls of Masdar Institute to articulate the promise that the futuristic city would one day be "finished."

In Laura's understanding, the Masdar Institute campus became an innovative technological model, proposing a means of survival based on rational scientific management. The spaceship would conserve life as it had long been known on earth, presenting a provisional solution to an uninhabitable environment outside. In this way, the spaceship would act as an ark: an artificial interior space expected to give birth to a next generation of resource pioneers. The spaceship would signify enclosure, archiving, selection, hierarchy, movement, and — most importantly — the maintenance of strict boundaries between interior and exterior spaces. The experimental hub (of another time and another space) would technologically maintain the lives and livelihoods of its residents indoors.

Since the 1960s, space travel technologies have inspired ecologically sensitive architecture, producing a blueprint for survival in a context of rising environmental concerns. As historians of science such as Peder Anker and Sabine Höhler have noted in their overviews of ecological design developments, the American space program of the 1960s had considerable impact on the ways in which designers imagined and planned eco-friendly life on earth. Buildings would constitute self-regulating and decentralized systems with comfortable climatic conditions for humans, provide enclosed shelters for an impending ecological disaster, and serve as means of escape from possible destruction on earth. This is perhaps best symbolized by the well-known Biosphere 2 project, where in the fall of 1991 eight scientists entered a glass and steel complex in the Sonoran Desert in Oracle, Arizona, about an hour outside Tucson, to test whether they could sustain their lives in a sealed environment, with the hope that the model would someday be replicated to colonize outer space. Occupying buildings inspired by space technologies, humanity would behave like astronauts with clear outer space missions.

In these histories, the spaceship is a finite, technically sophisticated, and insular habitat for an exclusive group of beings facing an outside world of crises. In his book Shipwreck with Spectator (1996), Hans Blumenberg explains how humans "prefer in their imagination, to represent their overall condition in the world in terms of a sea voyage." The idea of the spaceship (much like the submarine that preceded it) then serves as an extension of the ark metaphor, demonstrating the inevitable boundaries of human activities, vilifying the space beyond human habitability, and producing the outside as a vacuum that should not be inhabited. As seas full of mythical monsters surround the livable environments on earth, the ship provides a safe interior space thanks to its strict boundaries, or as the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk suggests, it acts as an "autonomous, absolute, context-free house, the building with no neighborhood." In this way, the ship puts forward an alternative environment of peace and rationality, standing in opposition to the destructive and irrational crises of earth.

In prioritizing enclosure for some over collective survival — the tension that underpins most spacefaring movies — the spaceship also advances the principles of selection and endorses what Sloterdijk calls "exclusivity dressed up as universalism." Despite saving only a very small number of those who suffer a metaphorical shipwreck, the spaceship insists on addressing the planetary-scale questions of survival in the unknown, the sustenance of the species beyond ecological catastrophe, and the preservation of an existing civilization, albeit in highly limited and confined form. In fact, as anthropologist David Valentine shows, current space entrepreneurs also share this vision, intending to produce human communities in outer space, mainly with the purpose of ensuring species survival. Valentine adds that contemporary space advocates "see space settlement as beneficial in removing polluting resource extraction and manufacturing to space, enabling Earth to heal from human-induced damage," and touches upon the types of universalisms that these communities propagate.

Masdar City was conceived to perform the role of "a spaceship in the desert" — to maintain the lives and livelihoods of its residents by relying on renewable energy and clean technologies. Architects working with Foster + Partners, based at the Masdar City site to monitor both the design of Masdar Institute and the implementation of the Masdar City master plan, suggested that the ecological mandate assisted Norman Foster, founder and chairman of Foster + Partners, as he produced his legacy, having himself been inspired by the history of ecological architecture in the 1960s and the 1970s. One of the on-site Foster + Partners architects told me, "Norman wants to be the Bucky Fuller of this century."

Buckminster Fuller was a multidimensional, somewhat eccentric twentieth-century inventor who attempted to resolve the global problems of housing, transport, education, and energy through his innovative design and writing projects. He conceived of the earth as a beautifully designed spaceship that lacks comprehensible instructions, which he sought to provide in publishing, in 1969, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. "We are all astronauts," in Fuller's assertion. "We have not been seeing our Spaceship Earth as an integrally designed machine which to be persistently successful must be comprehended and serviced in total." In learning to successfully operate "Spaceship Earth" and "its complex life-supporting and regenerating systems," humankind was confronted with the challenge of self-instruction. Earth was an operable technological object, fully accessible to humankind. Fuller not only wrote about his technocratic understandings of earth, but also conceived many design and engineering projects to illustrate his philosophy, such as the geodesic dome, a lattice-thin shell structure that is able to withstand a very heavy load for its size, and that can be used for quick and lightweight housing projects around the world.

As a young architect, Norman Foster met Buckminster Fuller in 1971 to collaborate on the construction of the Samuel Beckett Theatre at Oxford. The theater — never built — marked the beginning of their twelve-year relationship (which involved several more collaborative endeavors that would never be materially realized). The theater would have been a subterranean building designed to house classrooms and exhibition spaces for St. Peter's College, and it would have utilized the geodesic, lightweight structures that had made Fuller famous by then. Foster claims this plan had a significant impact on the later stages of his own career: "I remember that Bucky made the comparison with a submarine because the structure of the building had to be resistant to water, like a seaworthy vessel. The building had to stand up to the ground water and other natural underground forces. So it's no coincidence that my later underground projects also take the form of ships and submarines." Foster has also said, on different occasions, "The thing about Bucky was that he made you believe anything is possible," and that "perhaps the themes of shelter, energy and environment — which go to the heart of contemporary architecture — best reflect Bucky's inheritance. ... For me Bucky was the very essence of a moral conscience, forever warning about the fragility of the planet and man's responsibility to protect it."

At Masdar City, where Foster was realizing one of his most ambitious projects to date, I met Brad, an Irish man in his early forties who had been trained as an architect and who had, since 2009, been mostly managing the relations between Masdar, his employer, and Foster + Partners. Brad had substantial experience working in the Arab world; his previous employer was the Energy City of Qatar, and he had also managed a campus development project in Libya. When I asked Brad if he understood the Masdar City project to represent the Buckminster Fuller legacy, he reminded me, "When Bucky spoke, no one listened to what he had to say." Brad was excited that Fuller's ideas were finally being applied today at Masdar City — at least to a certain extent. Later, in an email exchange, he elaborated on how he related to Buckminster Fuller's work:

What he did was synergetics, meaning taking a holistic view of things, he was also structure oriented. He looked at nature for instance, at fractals, and then did biomimicry. Bucky, just as we do, understood that the problem was with the system i.e. the industry. Bucky's visions and aspirations all orientated around creating a new system and solution instead of attempting to change the existing establishment. All the resistance he faced was from institutions or unions opposing radical change, hence many of his ideas were never realised, sadly until today, 50–60 years after invented or in some instances — not at all.

But Brad was also aware of the difference between Masdar and the model city Buckminster Fuller had in mind:

One way that our cities today differ from Bucky's visions, is that a Bucky city would probably have been self-built by communities and perhaps would have been both mobile by nature, and completely off-grid/off-system in all its infrastructure and services. Something that is easier to write or imagine than accomplish in reality, due to various challenges and barriers that are political, social, economical, personal, cultural and regulatory.


Excerpted from "Spaceship in the Desert"
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. The Soul of Carbon Dioxide  1
Part I. Knowledge
1. Inhabiting the Spaceship  37
2. Beautiful Buildings and Research Contracts  65
Part II. Technology
3. Ergos: A New Energy Currency  101
4. An Expensive Toy  127
Part III. Governance
5. Subsurface Workings  157
Epilogue. The Potential Futures of Abu Dhabi's Masdar  183
Notes  199
References  237
Index  249

What People are Saying About This

Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria - Brian Larkin

“In this inventive, original, and readable book, Gökçe Günel explores the line between the visionary and the folly, examining the planning, execution, and imagination of the first post-oil, renewable energy, carbon neutral smart city in the Middle East. Folding together urbanism and energy politics, climate change and spectacle, knowledge economies and the end of oil, Günel is alive to the ambitions and the contradictions of creating a city so unique it is a ‘spaceship in the desert.’”

Laleh Khalili

“This absorbing and beautifully researched book is about the technopolitics of environmental resource management in an unlikely eco-site: Masdar City in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. But it is also about the dreams, cosmologies, and technical skills of the people who made Masdar City. Based on compellingly recounted ethnographic work, this theoretically sophisticated book shows how instead of questioning the fundamental tenets of capitalism which hurl the world toward environmental degradation, the ‘technical adjustments’ of such ecological interventions accommodate consumerism and capitalism while donning the mantle of progressive eco-politics."

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