12 mar 08 | Regina Leader Post

Architects building new cities

By Ed Willett

Once upon a time, I took a vocational aptitude test in high school guidance class. By that time I already had a pretty good idea I wanted to be a writer -- specifically, a science fiction writer -- and yet, writer did not show up very high on the list. Right at the top of the list was architect. I ignored that result, as I ignored pretty much every other result of every other test I took in guidance class, and didn't pursue architecture -- but I have kept a lifelong interest in it, so maybe the test wasn't completely out to lunch. Which is why a couple of recent articles on new architectural visions caught my eye.

The grandest is Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas's design for the proposed 1.5-billion-square-foot Waterfront City in Dubai. Built on an artificial island, it would consists of 25 identical blocks containing neat rows of towers, varying from tall and slender to short and squat.

If that sounds rather, well, generic, it's supposed to: Koolhaas is known for his concept of "the generic city," which Nicolai Ouroussoff, writing in the New York Times, describes as "a sprawling metropolis of repetitive buildings centered on an airport and inhabited by a tribe of global nomads with few local loyalties."

The Dubai project, Ouroussoff says, is Koolhaas's "carefully considered critique" of both his own generic city idea and what's sometimes called the Bilbao syndrome: "the growing use of high-end architecture as a tool for self-promotion" which "reduces cities to theme parks of architectural tchotchkes that mask an underlying homogeneity."

To that end, the monotonous towers of the generic city would be broken by fantastical buildings: a spiralling 82-storey skyscraper; tilting intertwined towers; a 44-storey sphere that Ouroussoff says "brings to mind the symbolic forms of the 18th-century architect Etienne-Louis Boullee" but which those of us who aren't architecture critics for the New York Times will see as a dead ringer for the Death Star from Star Wars.

(Oddly enough, although Ouroussoff doesn't make the obvious reference to Star Wars, he later references George A. Romero's 2005 zombie movie Land of the Dead. Go figure.)

The sphere would be a "self-contained three-dimensional urban neighborhood," with various public institutions encased in smaller spheres suspended inside the space, surrounded by residential housing and connected by tube-encased escalators. It's an indication, if any were still needed, that given enough money -- and Nakheel, one of the biggest developers in the United Arab Emirates, has lots -- architects can now build anything they can imagine.

Still, I think the more fascinating of the two projects that caught my eye this week is the one planned for Abu Dhabi's Masdar City. The city is intended to be the first zero-carbon, zero-waste city, and Chicago architecture firm Adrian Smity + Gordon Gill Architecture has just won a global competition to design its headquarters.

What's special about it? The building will actually generate electricity -- that is, not only will it power itself, through one of the world's largest building-integrated photovoltaic arrays and built-in wind turbines, it will feed surplus power into the grid. It will have no carbon emissions, produce little waste, and use 70 per cent less water than typical mixed-use buildings of the same size.