25 September 2010

I live in a spaceship in the middle of the desert

Students have been living in Masdar City for about a week, so I've had the chance to settle and form some impressions.

The first day felt like culture shock.  The buildings are beautiful here, and they look so different from anything I've ever seen, anywhere.  My brain really struggled to believe what it was seeing.  Is this real?  What reality am I in?

Masdar student apartments. See the solar panels peeking out over the roof?

A computer generated graphic of the original vision for a part of the city.
My friend Ilham moving in.

Students walking toward the library
The first night of living in a Masdar apartment was hilarious.  I didn't understand how anything worked: the stove, the lights, the bathroom faucet, the cabinets, and I couldn't figure out how to turn off the AC. Most of the cabinets and closets everywhere here don't have handles on them, so they look like flat plain wall panels. The secret way to open these secret doors is to press into them, which releases a catch and the door swings out.  I also thought I would do some laundry the first night, but in the laundry room I couldn't figure out how to turn on the machines. And of course, the user manuals in the laundry room were written in Russian and Polish.*

[*Apparently, the power had not been connected to the laundry room for the first few nights.  After the power was connected, turning them on became obvious, but I still was relieved to receive an English user's manual to wade through all the settings on the laundry machines.]

I keep telling people that it feels like I'm living in a psychology experiment.  Every time I flip a light switch in the living room and the faucet in the bathroom starts running, or I desperately push all buttons on the stove to try to turn on a burner, I can't help looking over my shoulder and wondering if there's a scientist observing my behavior and reactions in this strange environment.  Especially when I go around pressing all the walls to see if there are more secret doors, or I stare up in bewilderment at the kitchen cabinet shelves that are so tall and far off the ground that I doubt the tallest human on earth could use them effectively. Or the time I was working in the lab, a short alarm went off on the loudspeakers, and a male voice said something official-sounding in Arabic with a French accent.

The Masdar Institute is the first part of the city to be completed, it includes the library, laboratory buildings, and the student residences.  And all these buildings fit together in a cube.  And this cube is located in the middle of what is still a giant, flat, dusty, deserty construction site as progress on other phases of the city continues. It's quite a mind flip to be in such a strangely beautiful environment, then look a window and see flat dusty landscape stretching out to the horizon.  It really feels like I'm living in a spaceship in the middle of the desert.

Masdar from the outside.
The library is on the right, student residences on the left.
The bedroom in my apartment.  See? It looks like a spaceship. Actually, this is quite a lot of space for a bedroom on a spaceship.
So we are finally taking our classes in Masdar city, and the faculty and students are working to get the labs set up and running.  But it definitely feels like the students, faculty, and staff are far outnumbered by the security guards and construction crew on the site.  This place is a non-stop hive of activity, construction workers are everywhere in neon yellow and orange vests, fixing wiring, testing systems, installing fixtures. On my way to class or the labs, I dodge neon-vested work crews carrying tables and climbing ladders to tinker with pipes and wires in the ceiling.

Workers outside at night. I swear I can wake up at any time and look outside and see someone working on something.

In fact, the barrenness of the landscape contrasted with the lush architecture inside, plus the whole vision of building a completely renewable energy city makes me feel like I'm living in a science fiction novel.

The library by moonlight.  I swear I took this picture myself.

The view from my apartment window.  On the right is the 10 MW solar photovoltaic array.  On the left is the site where all the construction waste is carefully sorted into piles for reuse and recycle.

Sometimes this place just doesn't seem real.

View from the library window.  Construction materials and wasteland.
On the second day I was sitting in my apartment when I heard a noise.  "I swear that sounds like a landspeeder," I thought.  Turning and looking out the window, I laughed out loud. There was some sort of elongated construction vehicle cruising down the road.  Not quite a landspeeder, but the sound is really similar.

Here's the construction vehicle:

Compare to the following.  (At least the lab environment here is a bit more civil than Mos Eisley.)


Joost Bonsen said...

Hilarious! Nice moonshot photos, btw. And the parallel landspeeder videos are priceless.

Hope you're doing well.


The Littles in Doha said...

What you call a "landspeeder" is a road grader. It is used to smooth the surface of roads [gravel] as well as for leveling construction sites, etc.

Unknown said...

A road grader, cool. Thanks for the info. Learn something new every day.

Boman said...

Really interesting.... especially comparing your account to the NYT article and its position on the relevance of the overall concept: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/arts/design/26masdar.html

Ken said...

While I understand the need for (Russian) washing machines, I hope you can take advantage of DESERT for your laundry drying needs.

AH said...

Amazing note !!!

Karin Kloosterman said...

Can we repost this on the blog Green Prophet? www.greenprophet.com?

Tafline Laylin said...

Laura: we made you famous...


I'd love to interview you... can you write me @ tafline at greenprophet dot com?

ana said...

I am LOLing at "secret doors"

rach said...

Hi Laura,

I'm a researcher at the International New Town Institute in the Netherlands, and we are working on a book about contemporary New Towns (including Masdar). I'd like to contact you about possibly using some of your impressions or photos in the book. If you are interested, could you contact me at r.keeton@newtowninstitute.org? Thanks so much, looking forward to hearing from you!

Rachel Keeton

Mr_Grant said...

Is the PRT open yet?

Dave said...

Good Anya Laura!
I spent 2+ years working on-site in SAF with a great group for many companies and all corners of the world and have been hoping waiting for real news would get out (not just interviews and renderings from Fosters + Partners, and comments for international reporters) I KNEW the students would come through! Brave people living on the island, it will get better and better, especially when it gets cooler in a few weeks.
Keep posting!

malgosia said...

Hi Laura,

my name is ~Malgosia, I'm a science journalist from Poland. I 'd love to ask You few questions about Masdar City and your experience with living in it. I'd be really grateful if You could contact me at: malgorzata dot minta at gmail com

Neil Cocker said...

Brilliant. Sounds like an amazing adventure. Been reading about Masdar for a few years and it's fantastic to see it become a reality. Would love to visit one day.

Recipethai said...

wow, hope u r do it well. great location, i like your photo.