source: Rachel Keeton
source: Rachel Keeton
|The Blue City was meant to be Oman’s big breakthrough on the global stage. For the relatively quiet Arab nation, this health and resort new town for 200,000 was intended to raise Oman’s international profile as a tourist destination. Stalled by the economic crisis, the Blue City’s future remains unclear.
The Blue City or also Al Madina A'Zarqa is Oman’s mega project of $20 billion, sitting one hundred kilometres up the coast from the capital of Muscat. In just a decade, 34 square kilometres of arid desert landscape will be turned into the most luxurious resort city in the country.
Governed by the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said since July 1970, Oman is an Islamic absolute monarchy. In addition to his position as Sultan, Qaboos also serves as prime minister, defence minister, finance minister and minister of foreign affairs, giving the ruler a massive amount of direct control over the sultanate. Throughout his time in power, Qaboos has been recognized for his commitment to the country’s development and modernization by contrast to his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, who ruled the country from 1932 until 1970, in total isolation from all other nations. This country’s transformation under the rule of Sultan Qaboos, was conditioned by Qaboos’ studies in England.
As soon as Sultan Qaboon took over the government, he immediately began a national strategy of modernization and took necessary legal steps to ensure the recognition of foreign powers to be able to build up the long-range cordial cooperation with all nations.
Within the first five years of his rule the sultan established 262 new schools and institutions, joined the League of Arab Nations and the United Nations, built the country’s first international airport and initiated a low-cost housing scheme. All of these developments were made possible by the sale of crude oil.
In the four decades since his ascension, Sultan Qaboos has effectively transformed an insular, dogmatic nation into a state that is now known for its neutrality and religious tolerance.
Despite the lack of democratic process, the sultan’s policies have generally been popular with the Omani people and have never been met with criticism.
Recently, however, the younger generation of middle-class Omanis have expressed growing impatience with what is perceived as ‘rampant corruption and nepotism’ in the upper echelons of Omani society. Because Sultan Qaboos’ power is absolute, he alone receives all the credit and all of the blame.
Unlike protests taking place in other Arab states, however, the protests were not aimed at the Sultan himself, but rather at a lack employment for the young population, as well as government corruption.
Oman, as other states rich in oil reserves, tries to diversify its oil-based economy and utilise its seaside location. For this purpose, the government drafted the Oman’s 2020 Vision in 1998, laying out the development goals for the country. The focus is on infrastructure, shipping, tourism development, higher employment, which is all part of the creation of Blue City.
Foster + Partners’ plans for The Blue City are massive and ambitious in the Omani context. Along a triangular piece of land jutting into the Arabian Sea, the planners have designed a city for 200,000 people. The triangle is bounded on its south-western edge by a coastal highway that also links the new town to Muscat, one hundred kilometres south. Light industry parallels the highway, providing a soft edge between the interior residential areas and the unbroken desert just across the artery. Public amenities appear in small cores dotted amid the massive swath of residential program. One such core is reserved for medical and research facilities, another is dedicated to entertainment, a third to trade. The largest is designed as an education hub, with facilities ranging from kindergartens to universities. A large ‘urban core’ at the northern tip of the plan links to the city’s marina. The triangle’s interior is mostly classified as ‘green’, with a natural creek providing a source of leisure, as well as protected wetlands. Along the shore, residential communities alternate with hotels and resorts. According to Foster + Partners, the beaches lining the triangular site will be upgraded to ‘resort standards’ and the creek and wetlands (or Al Khor) will be enlarged to create a more substantial waterway. Along the Al Khor and shoreline, hotels, restaurants and shaded walkways will activate the areas. Another network of pedestrian paths will extend into the urban core.
The city’s architecture and urbanism are similar to Foster + Partners’ designs for Masdar City (the United Arab Emirates) in that they are low-rise, inspired by historical styles, and quite dense. The renderings of snug, shaded pedestrian paths once again reflect attention to traditional Arabian design, and even incorporate the ancient Omani ‘aflaj’ irrigation system (a system involves a series of man-made underground channels that divert water from mountain or subterranean sources for use in both agriculture and domestic life) in the plans. Foster + Partners have transformed these traditional underground channels into visible watercourses that act as structuring elements on the ground plane.
The residential architecture is a modern interpretation of historical Arabian domestic typologies, employing the flat roofscapes and orthogonal forms typical of this region. The designers couple these vernacular elements with modern technologies to achieve better climate control in this harsh region.
The residential areas are designed as neighbourhoods of their own identities with auxiliary facilities such as clinics, schools, libraries, retail centres, restaurants, hotels and mosques. Foster + Partners’ master plan uses a clustering organization to translate the traditional Arabic private courtyards and narrow alleys into a modern metropolis. In addition, the residences will combine a variety of different scales and types, designed to appeal to a diverse social mix.
Oman is infamous for strict building regulation, preserving not only the architectural homogeneity of the sultanate but mainly the Arab and Islamic heritage of Oman. The building codes limit, for example, the height of buildings (low-rise) or exterior paint colours (usually white or some camouflaged shade of sand) or material.
However, government’s regulations are taken less seriously the further from Muscat one travels. In the village currently occupying the future home of Al Madina A’Zarqa, houses come in every color of the rainbow and glitter with mirrors and bright tiles. The renderings for the new town have a somewhat more sober aesthetic, with facades obediently stuccoed in shades of cream. Nevertheless, one element is common to both – conservative design.
Oman, and the Blue City in particular, have not been immune to the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 that heavily set back the whole development and almost drove the project into liquidation. In June 2010, Essdar Investments Ltd. (a Cayman Islands-based investment fund owned by members of the Abu Dhabi ruling family) stepped in to rescue the new town and bought 99.1% of the Blue City’s debt which effectively saved the city from bankruptcy and secured its influence on one of the largest Omani Integrated Tourism Complexes (ITC), intended as a symbol of the country’s grand plans and deep pockets.
Although the Phase 1 of Al Madina A’Zarqa was scheduled for completion by 2011, as of July 2010, only 10% of Phase 1 had reached completion. By February 2011, the city’s official website had removed all construction updates and press releases from the site.
source: Rachel Keeton