“Cities dependent on the car will fail”: Architect, Sir Norman Foster in The Economist’s “Intelligent Life”

December 19, 2012

Society/Living, World

The December 8-14th   issue of The Economist on ‘Intelligent Life’  features a profile of Norman Foster, English Architect whom J.M. Ledgard – the magazine’s East African correspondent describes as being in his “Legacy period”.


Norman FosterSir Norman Foster,  The Economist.

His designs offer pointers to African countries.

I’m no architect but I’ve presented visitors here with book reviews, Forum reviews, etcetera, including subjects I’m really a neophyte at, but hei, Archi. as a daughter-architect used to describe the subject while in college two decades ago – is LIVING!  And, by the way, I had a subscription for years to Architectural Digest, which to Archi is like one of those English tabloids to The Times [London]!  No, not exactly! Not that fluffy.  AD, which I still pick up a couple of times a year, is a show-and-tell interpretations of Archi., the decorative aspects to the trades: furniture & furnishings, even paints, etcetera.

Here are some paras from two different sections that I believe should be of interest to Africa of the more than 4,000-word profile, and below is a link to the essay.  The first para here is from one section and the rest is the last section of the profile. 

You may wish to go straight to The Economist’s profile through the first link or you may prefer to check the excerpts while saving the longer read for your leisure. The second link goes to “INTELLIGENT LIFE.”


”He is adamant that cities dependent on the car will fail. Rising fuel prices make this inevitable, he argues, as does the sprawl of the car-driven city. “Probably African cities are ghettoised because of a fly-wheel effect, born of the second wave of cheap energy.” He draws a comparison between Detroit and Copenhagen. They are roughly the same climate and size. Detroit is totally blighted, it has almost been taken over by nature, it uses ten times more energy than Copenhagen, building more and more roads, using more and more cars, consuming more and more gasoline, and in the end it is an unsustainable model. But do emerging economies learn from the twilight years of developed countries?

“WHICH BRINGS US back to Masdar. I went there to see if there were lessons for African future cities—could it serve as a trim tab? An architect from Foster and Partners, Gary Owen, led me around. It was a surprisingly cool day, and I kept stepping out of the shade and into the sun, the opposite of what you are meant to do. So far the biggest tenant is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, and the outstanding building is the institute’s library, the front of which is shaped like an eye, with beautiful use of ash wood. Owen patiently showed me the solutions to making the city liveable and yet carbon-neutral, the small windows bouncing natural light onto the ceilings, the insulating cloaks on the sides of the building, the attempts made to limit thermal shock between street and apartment by using screens and shaded corridors and hallways, the wind chimneys which pull down cool air into courtyards, and everywhere the tasteful use of Islamic motifs. All of which might have some application in lower-rent Africa.

Masdar is intended to have tens of thousands of real residents, and become a defined and loved community. Ditches at the edge of the city will gather rain to water parks and football pitches. It will be possible to walk the few kilometres from one end of the city to the other. Perhaps Foster will even take an apartment and stroll across town in the heat of the day. But Masdar is also an attempt to build a self-contained community to the highest environmental standards, using oil money. It is still a building site, it cannot be fully judged yet, but to me there was a threatening sense of the ers-atz. Abu Dhabi has virtues, not least its dynamism and fits of sobriety, but strip away the sycophancy and it is Money World, surrounded by smaller satellites such as Ferrari World. Masdar may just be Green World. Certainly, no one is under any illusions it will be for locals; for now, Emiratis prefer the privacy of their five-bedroom, three-car villas.

Foster has insisted Masdar is the most idealistic of his projects. “This is not about fashion, this is about survival,” he said, back in 2008. The main means of getting around Masdar is by “pod car”: driverless, computerised vehicles. They lack solidity, and jounce out from the “personal transit station” as if onto the set of a sci-fi film (think Michael York in “Logan’s Run”). The idea is that you park your petroleum vehicle at the edge of Masdar and pick up a pod to take you where you want to go. Only a fraction of the city has yet been built, so the options are limited. It seemed an unnecessarily expensive way of getting about. Why not use a rickshaw, I asked Gary Owen. He looked alarmed. “That was never discussed.” The sustainability of future cities should include providing jobs for young people; but perhaps developers will always favour a pod over a rickshaw.

Everything Norman Foster does is about letting in light, increasing comfort and utility, and above all sloughing off weight—the weight of the building itself, and of hierarchical work habits. His skyscrapers, bridges and airport terminals attest that he is in many ways gravity-free. Yet Foster’s lasting achievement would be to embrace gravity, the gravity of the vast squatter settlements of Africa, grave in their heaviness, sucked into the mud, made of mud, wet, stinky, wormy, yet bearing fruit, growing daily. If he can bring his experience to a reconsideration of the lowliest shack, help let in the light there, and clean water and sanitation, his name would take flight even among the poor.”

J.M. Ledgard is the east Africa correspondent of The Economist and a novelist. His latest book is “Submergence”

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