Masdar City: 
A Heterotopia in the Desert

Instructor: Ariane Lourie Harrison

Foster and Partners’ masterplan for Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is one of the most eagerly anticipated architectural projects of recent years. Funded primarily by the government of Abu Dhabi, the city seeks to position itself at the forefront of global innovation in sustainable technologies and attract companies and institutions leading research in the field. The design of the city reflects this interest, incorporating systems that are aimed at reducing its carbon footprint and overall energy consumption. Masdar functions as an experimental enclave, a space whose technological ambitions promote a utopian vision of a sustainable future that informs both its architecture and the behaviour of its citizens. However, beyond the city’s qualitative performance, it functions as a critique of contemporary urbanism and a model for future urban development, one whose significance goes beyond its systemic output. Despite Masdar’s promotion as a technological project and its analysis in qualitative terms, its conception as a contemporary utopia is critical to any evaluation of its success. Promotional materials describe the city as ‘pioneering,’ ‘forward-thinking’ and ‘visionary,’1 and renderings produced by Foster and Partners depict the city as a verdant oasis glimmering in a featureless desert (Fig.1).

Figure 1 . Aerial view of Masdar City showing its context in the desert outside Abu Dhabi

Figure 1. Aerial view of Masdar City showing its context in the desert outside Abu Dhabi

The word ‘utopia’ itself is a composite of the Greek compounds eu-topos, (meaning a happy or fortunate place) and ou-topos (no place). Utopia is at once a good place and no place, a tension inherent in the term and one that is critical to the concept, allowing utopias to ‘challenge prevailing definitions of the possible and the impossible.’2 The history of the utopian city can be traced back as far as Plato, and his description of the polis, which served not only as a description of a model city, but also a critique of contemporary Athens. The paradigm of the utopian model, Plato’s polis is a depiction of an ideal state, a ‘panacea applicable worldwide and indifferent to factors of local context whether historical, geographical, cultural or other.’2 Within this ideal, the city is indistinguishable from the body politic and there is a reciprocal relationship between the form of the city and the behaviour of its citizens. In addition to utopia’s function as critique and ideal, it also offers a conceptualization of an ideal power structure that is intrinsic to its spatial organization. Masdar’s conception is certainly tied to a utopian vision of a sustainable future, though the city’s realization (the first stage of construction is now complete) locates it between eu-topos and ou-topos (Fig.2).

Figure 2 . Exterior view of Masdar Institute campus

Figure 2. Exterior view of Masdar Institute campus

Foucault terms this category of space ‘heterotopia’, a space whose physical manifestation reveals something of the nature of the spaces around it:

‘All the real arrangements that can be found within society, are at one and the same time represented, challenged, and overturned: a sort of place that lies outside all places and yet is actually localizable.’3

A heterotopology of Masdar allows the city to be evaluated as both critique and paradigm, examining its potential to inform contemporary urbanism and provide a model for future urban development. Literally meaning an ‘other’ place, the concept of heterotopia is broad, encompassing schools, psychiatric institutions, prisons and a multitude of other places. Foucault locates heterotopias within a history of space, one that leads from the hierarchical space of the middle ages, through the modern understanding of space as expanded field to network space and the contemporary ‘space of emplacement.’4 In order to use the concept as a productive tool for analysing Masdar, it is important first to understand the contradictions and complexities inherent in Foucault’s deliberately fluid definition. Heterotopias have shifted from being understood as moments of rupture to ‘realizing or simulating a common experience of place’5 through the expansion and distribution of heterotopic conditions in contemporary society. It is important to understand this shift and to question to what degree Masdar represents a space of rupture or a propagation of a normative condition. At stake is the city’s ability to create an environment capable of sustaining an ambitious technological project and to forge a new identity in a region struggling to consolidate the presence of the past and the sweeping changes brought about by rapid development following the discovery of oil. Foster and Partners’ vision for the city is summarised in the following statement: ‘Inspired by the architecture and urban planning of traditional Arab cities, Masdar City incorporates narrow streets; the shading of windows, exterior walls and walkways; thick-walled buildings; courtyards and wind towers; vegetation and a generally walkable city.’6 This statement reveals an approach that refuses to accept a dichotomy between past and present. Unlike many contemporary masterplan projects such as HOK’’s Dubai Marina or Asymptote’s masterplan for Prague (Figs. 3 & 4), Masdar is not conceived of purely as a vessel for profitable development or a means of housing a burgeoning population. Freed from the economic or practical considerations that can stifle the potential for a meaningful dialogue between new developments and their immediate or regional context, Foster’s design strategy attempts to create an innovative urban fabric that combines history and technology to create a new experience of the city. The fusing of vernacular and contemporary technologies also creates an iconic new language for the construction of the city, one that begins to define an identity that is at once forward-looking and embedded in its cultural context.

Figure 3 . Dubai Marina, HOK Architects

Figure 3. Dubai Marina, HOK Architects

Figure 4 . Masterplan for Prague, Asymptote Architects

Figure 4. Masterplan for Prague, Asymptote Architects

The relevance of this strategy to Masdar can be understood in the context of other developments currently occurring in the region. The unbridled westernization of Dubai and Abu Dhabi is well documented, but attempts at preservation elsewhere in the UAE receive less attention. The city of Al Ain is located at the easternmost edge of the emirate of Abu Dhabi and is considered to be one of the most ‘authentic’7 cities in the UAE. An important part of the region’s cultural legacy, it was recently nominated for World Heritage status. Al Ain’s core is defined by six oases, around which settlements merged and grew to form a single, larger city (Fig.5). The discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi in 1958 brought drastic changes to the region and the heritage of many of the region’s cities - in many cases dating back to the 5th millenium BC - has been all but eradicated by the development that has occurred in the last 50 years (Fig.6). Al Ain’s growth no longer centres on the unit of the oasis, though the oases continue to be tied to national, ethnic and regional identity. Sites such as Al Ain, which represent the country’s symbolic origins, are becoming increasingly important in the face of rapid urbanization. It is telling that Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the former president of the UAE, ensured the protection of Al Ain’s city fabric through severe legal decrees designed to protect the oases and maintain both the human scale of the city and its agricultural industry.8

Figure 5 . A view of the greenery of Muzabarrah, a district in the city of Al Ain

Figure 5. A view of the greenery of Muzabarrah, a district in the city of Al Ain

Figure 6 . Dubai's burgeoning economy has led to rapid growth

Figure 6. Dubai's burgeoning economy has led to rapid growth

Though effective in preventing the oases’ obliteration, the decrees do not take into account the contemporary needs of the city and have lead to a situation where the city’s ‘dialogue with the oases has come to a halt,’ affecting the ‘overall perception and authenticity of the oasis environment.’9 People have moved away from the historic core to the amenities and convenience of modern developments, and transport infrastructure has begun to isolate the oases from the rest of the city. It is clear that the the issue of preservation is of critical importance, but a simplistic approach to preserving monuments cannot be successful in a region experiencing such dramatic changes, nor can it engender a sense of identity and cultural continuity among a city’s citizens. The incorporation of vernacular forms in the design of Masdar is therefore tied to the broader issue of cultural identity, and is not purely a technical decision based on environmental performance. The simplistic addition of vernacular idioms to Western projects in the Middle East is a familiar trope, and Masdar’s success depends on the sensitivity with which Foster and Partners’ are able to infuse a project that aspires to a global significance with a relevant regional identity. The first phase of Masdar’s construction has recently been completed and it is possible to begin to evaluate its success. 680,000 square feet of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology have been constructed and buildings are distributed around a series of courtyards (Fig.7), an organisational strategy in use since the planning of the Sumerian city of Ur in 2000BC and prevalent throughout much of the Arab world 10.

Figure 7 . Central Courtyard of the Masdar Institute

Figure 7. Central Courtyard of the Masdar Institute

Effective due to the climactic phenomena of the region, courtyards also incorporate the religious and social requirements of a private family space 11. Concrete latticework on buildings surrounding the courtyards reference traditional mashrabiya screens (Fig.8), providing privacy and shade and are arranged to create narrow, non-linear alleyways. These public routes are flanked by colonnades to provide shaded spaces for shopping, walking and socialising (Fig.9).12 Vernacular references and symbolic associations are seamlessly integrated with contemporary technologies which are free of embedded cultural associations to create a hybrid architecture that is simultaneously global and local. This strategy informs the design of the city at multiple scales, and is of particular interest in the design of the city’s wind tower; a hollow cylinder that draws hot air from the street level upwards to generate a cooling breeze (Fig.10). Wind towers are used in many Arab settlements, but here, the structure has been optimized through the addition of adjustable louvres that also allow air to be drawn downwards, creating a stronger breeze that can decrease the temperature by an additional 5 degrees. In additon to this functional innovation, a series of LEDs at the tower’s base is programmed to turn green if the city is operating below its optimum energy consumption, or red if it has exceeded it. Thus the vernacular idiom becomes a complex artefact in the city: at once iconic and symbolic, it also serves as a means of covert subjugation. The effect of subjugation is critical to the city’s technological project as a means of reconditioning citizens to promote a sustainable way of living.

Figure 8 . Traditional mashrabiya screen

Figure 8. Traditional mashrabiya screen

Figure 9 . A typical streetscape at the Masdar Institute campus

Figure 9. A typical streetscape at the Masdar Institute campus

Figure 10 . Center courtyard and windtower

Figure 10. Center courtyard and windtower

By combining past and present, the architects are able to create a heterotopic condition of juxtaposed spaces and times. Echoing the heterotopia of the museum, the architecture of Masdar seeks to propel time towards a utopian vision of the future, but also to accumulate it through a process of reference and adaptation. In doing so, it forces a degree of reflection from citizens who are exposed concurrently to a normative interpretation of a static and accepted cultural identity and a tantalising vision of the future. Furthermore, the space between these two conditions reveals the ‘illusory’ aspects of the contemporary city in a manner that is characteristic of the heterotopic experience. In order to elaborate further on the nature of the heterotopic condition within the city, it is necessary first to examine its boundaries and the ritual of transition that occurs between the normative space of the metropolis and Masdar’s interior. Located 11 miles from Abu Dhabi, arrival to the city necessitates a short drive through a desert region; the first in a series of acts of displacement that define the experience of arrival. At the perimiter of the city, visitors must leave their cars and enter a personal rapid transit vehicle (PRT). The PRT system is fully automated and enables passenger and freight transportation within the city walls (Fig.11).13 An innovation in sustainable transportation, the system also heightens the degree of disconnection from Abu Dhabi and subverts the infrastructural systems that organize it.

Figure 11 . Personal Rapid Transit docking station at the Masdar Institute

Figure 11. Personal Rapid Transit docking station at the Masdar Institute

The act of removing visitors from their cars and exposing them momentarily to the harsh desert environment is the violent culmination of a process of displacement that prepares the visitor for admission. The vulnerability of the individual in the face of the extremities of climate beyond the city walls contrasts the protection and conditioned comfort provided by the PRT and the shaded environment within the city walls. A new and unfamiliar system is presented to the visitor in a state of choreographed impotence. The act of entry is thus one of simultaneous isolation and penetration, an experience Foucault terms the fifth principle of heterotopia and one which allows for a degree of subordination to the logic and systems of the city. The explicit nature of Masdar’s hard edges, and its current distance from the urban fabric of Abu Dhabi is in diametric opposition to contemporary theories that relate the concepts of networks and flows to urbanism. The idea of a flexible, responsive city informs projects such as Hadid Architects’ masterplans for Cairo and Istanbul (Fig.12), which features abiguous edges embedded within the surrounding urban fabric that are capable of advancing and retreating amorphously.

Figure 12 . Zaha Hadid Architects’ masterplan for the Kartal Pendik peninsula in Istanbul

Figure 12. Zaha Hadid Architects’ masterplan for the Kartal Pendik peninsula in Istanbul

Foster and Partners resist the temptation to simplify the complex relationship between the spatial and the social to the problematic trope of ‘flow urbanism.’ However, Masdar’s proximity to Abu Dhabi and the desire to create a high-speed rail link between the two cities will have a dramatic effect on the experience of entering the city. The growth of Abu Dhabi’s suburbs and the erasure or erosion of the present boundary will have a normative effect, one that diminishes the city’s ability to generate the heterotopic conditions necessary for the pursuit of its radical technological project. In addition, the city’s parasitic relationship to Abu Dhabi’s amenities and transportation hubs is a critical element of Masdar’s success in attracting investors and citizens. This suggests that its potential as a model for truly sustainable urban development, capable of functioning as an autonomous enclave, may be limited. This issue is tied to the complexities of the notion of heterotopia; the city must promote a sense of autonomy and separation in order to create a space of displacement, while its unavoidable connection to a normative urban fabric only serves to reduce its potential as a site of rupture and progression. Within the insulated space of the city, areas of housing are designed to be within walking distance of essential amenities such as shops, offices and public spaces, while longer journeys require re-entry into the PRT, a system that though flexible, cannot substitute the autonomy provided by the car. By reducing the need for cars and raising buildings from the ground, the space of the city is entirely devoted to a pedestrian realm. Thus, the rhetoric of vehicular autonomy propagated by modernism is subverted and overturned. However, it is important to consider that since visitors arrive by car, the extent of this subversion is limited to the space within the city walls. The individual’s exposure to a process of isolation, subjection and subversion echoes Arnold van Gennep’s thesis of universal division of rites of passage into three stages:

The first effecting the separation of the ritual subject from society at large, the second effecting a marginalization, a liminal process of decoding and recoding, and the third effecting an aggregation of the subject thus recoded and the society from which he or she had been isolated or the society to which he or she has thus become qualified to belong.’14

The liminal state that occurs between a subject’s point of departure and point of return is a fertile one, creating conditions that give rise to ‘myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems, and works of art.’15 The importance of this space in promoting the innovation that is essential for Masdar’s success has already been discussed relative to the experience of entering and inhabiting the city. However, the possibility of sustaining this resistance, and perhaps more importantly, of propagating it, is a question of the city’s adaptability and the degree to which it can operate without ties to exisiting urban context. The current boundary of the city draws on the leitmotif of the walled garden (Fig.13), common to much Islamic architecture.

Figure 13 . Mugal Miniature from the 17th centuryshowing the emperor Babur supervising construction of his walled garden

Figure 13. Mugal Miniature from the 17th centuryshowing the emperor Babur supervising construction of his walled garden

The Islamic garden is based on the Qur’anic image of the oasis turned into celestial paradise, a place of ‘abundant water, fragrance and fruit trees...feauturing lofty shaded places where the believers can sit in perfect peace and enjoy exquisite pleasures.’16 In addition to the religious iconography of the garden, its cultural value stems from its practical, agricultural implications. The two notions are joined through Islamic law, which considers the vivification of ‘dead’ land a good deed worthy of entitling the person responsible to ownership of the land.17 The plan of Masdar reveals a great deal of garden space woven throughout the city fabric in a manner typical of many historic Arab cities. A particularly interesting feature of the city is a field of photovoltaics located at the city’s northern edge (Fig.14). Echoing the provision of arable land close to the urban fabric in historic Arab cities,18 this photovoltaic field is a technological manifestation of the practical garden. By charging the space of the garden with religious and cultural symbolism, the strict dichotomies of urban/rural or local/ global begin to be eroded.

Figure 14 . Render of the city showing the field of photovoltaics at the city’s northern edge

Figure 14. Render of the city showing the field of photovoltaics at the city’s northern edge

However, the effectiveness of this gesture depends on the presence of a religious and cultural symbolism that is embedded in the region, raising the question of its potential relevance outside an Islamic context. Furthermore, the creation of a distinct boundary space at the limit of the city results in an inflexibility that cannot negotiate the issues of dramatic population growth and urban migration that are central to contemporary urbansim. It is tempting to reduce Masdar to an ‘autonomous fragment set in opposition to the compositional totalization of the city,’19 but it exemplifies the complex and often contradictory nature of Foucault’s definition of heterotopia. Masdar is a space of subversion and resistance that simultaneously relies on a rich cultural heritage and its connections to an existing urban framework to create the conditions necessary to sustain its radical technological project. Foucault presents the Eastern garden as the paradigmatic example of heterotopia for its ability to represent the totality of the world within a small fragment of it, yet it is uncertain whether Masdar can fulfill its potential to act as a model for larger-scale urbanism. Though it is likely that the city will be succesful at the micro-level of individual buildings and particular technologies, but its ability to synthesize these innovations into a new conception of the 21st century city is undermined by its relative freedom from the demands of population and economy that many contemporary projects must contend with.


1 << aspx?MenuID=42&CatID=21&mnu=Cat >> These descriptions are from the Mubadala company’s CEO in his description of Masdar on the company website. 

2 David Anthony Pinder. Visions of the City. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005), 7

3 Michel Foucault. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Rethinking Architecture: a Reader in Cultural Theory. (New York: Routledge, 1997), 335.

4 Michiel Dehaene and Lieven De Cauter. Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society. (London: Routledge, 2008), 4. 

5 Ibid.,5.

6 Foster and Partners. 07 May 2011. < /Projects/1515/Default.aspx>.

7 Jorge Silvetti and Felipe Correa. Invention/transformation: Strategies for the Qattara/Jimi Oases in Al Ain. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2010), 8

8 Ibid., 12

9 Masri, Sami El. “Sponsor’s Introduction.” Invention/transformation: Strategies for the Qattara/Jimi Oases in Al Ain. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2010), 8 

10 Stefano Bianca. Urban Form in the Arab World: Past and Present. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), 56 

11 Courtyards provide shaded public spaces during the extremely hot days and thermal mass to mitigate the drop in temperature at night. 

12 Nambiar, Sona, and Joann Gonchar. “Masdar Institute | Foster Partners | Abu Dhabi | Project Portfolio | Architectural Record.” Architecture Design for Architects | Architectural Record. 07 May 2011

13 Mostafavi, Mohsen, and Gareth Doherty. Ecological Urbanism. (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, 2010), 401

14 James D Faubion. “Heterotopia: An Ecology.” (Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society. London: Routledge, 2008), 33. 

15 Ibid., 35 

16 Stefano Bianca. Urban Form in the Arab World: Past and Present, 65

17 Idem. 

18 This arrangemet can be seen in the irrigation channels which pass under and between houses in the city of Fez or the irrigated fields of the Algerian Saoura valley. 

19 Hilde Heynen. “Heterotopia Unfolded.” Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society. (London: Routledge, 2008), 35


Bianca, Stefano. Urban Form in the Arab World: Past and Present. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000. 

Coates, Stephen, and Alex Stetter. Impossible Worlds. Basel: Birkhauser, for Architecture, 2000. 

Dehaene, Michiel, and Lieven De Cauter. Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society. London: Routledge, 2008. 

Eaton, Ruth. Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (un)built Environment. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2002. 

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Rethinking Architecture: a Reader in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1997. 329-58. 

Guattari, Felix. The Three Ecologies. London: Athlone, 2000.

Mostafavi, Mohsen, and Gareth Doherty. Ecological Urbanism. Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, 2010. 

Pinder, David Anthony. Visions of the City. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005.

Silvetti, Jorge, and Felipe Correa. Invention/transformation: Strategies for the Qattara/Jimi Oases in Al Ain. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2010. 

Thackara, John. “The Gram Junkies: In Transportation Design the Key Issue Is Not Speed, but Weight.” Change Observer: Design Observer. 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2011.

Webb, Michael, and Sam Jacob. 49 Cities. New York, NY: Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2010. 
“Clean Technology: Masdar Plan | The Economist.” The Economist - World News, Politics, Economics, Business & Finance. 04 Dec. 2008. 18 Feb. 2011. .


“Welcome to Masdar.” Welcome To MASDAR. Mubadala Company. 15 Feb. 2011. .

Foster and Partners. 07 May 2011. 

Nambiar, Sona, and Joann Gonchar. “Masdar Institute | Foster Partners | Abu Dhabi | Project Portfolio | Architectural Record.” Architecture Design for Architects | Architectural Record. Web. 07 May 2011

List of Illustrations

All images apart from those listed below were sourced from Masdar City’s official website:

Other Sources:

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Figure 13. Stefano Bianca. Urban Form in the Arab World: past and Present. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000),58 

Figure 14.