Penguins in Arabia Arunava Sarkar on climate change, globalisation and mass-produced cities

“T hey (Penguins) have a staff of 13 ‘butlers’ to cater for their every need; they dine on restaurant-quality fish (imported from Canada) and they enjoy the lifestyle of respected diplomatic ambassadors… Ski Dubai has built a housing area and pool (for penguins) at the resort to resemble an Antarctic environment.”

– James Gabrillo, Penguins go on show at Ski Dubai

“How much does it cost to pet a penguin in Arabia?” my friend Abu asked as we settled down at a coffee shop at the Mall of Emirates (MOE), Dubai. Abu, a retail strategist, was visiting Dubai for new business ideas and he was obviously referring to the penguins he has befriended at the huge ice-skating rink in the Mall, the largest indoor Ski Resort within the UAE. That day we deliberated extensively on the business model of maintaining a premium penguin habitat under the scorching desert sun as an anchor to one of the largest and most successful malls in history. Obviously, it did make business sense as the penguins of the MOE beat the intricately detailed traditional gold souks of Dubai hands down when it came to the business of luring 40 million odd tourists per year. That evening we couldn’t help but reflect on how the penguin represents the power of  technology to annihilate space, time and order to create compelling hyper realities that can be replicated effortlessly across the globe.

The analogy of the ‘Penguin in Arabia’ can perhaps be extended as a lens to look at any 21st century city, which comes without its stamp of climate, context and culture. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, technology has been the holy grail of city builders as it allows leverage over the limitations of context. By adapting standardisation, stretching structural limitations and switching to climatic controls it was possible to replicate prototypes and build fast, far and wide to absorb the demands of rapid urbanisation. This marks a clear departure from the unique, site oriented, context specific urban design traditions in favour of efficient, fast and cost-effective prototypes that can be replicated across the globe with minimum time and cost overruns. Today, as construction technology matures, our cities increasingly take the shape of a shapeless world devoid of the contours of any territorial associations. Like a pack of cigarettes on a supermarket shelf, cities are generic, be it Beirut or in the Bahamas. ‘Genius Locii’ as a design ethos appears to be very well a part of distant history, glorified by experts in academic

circles as a reference to an idealistic world, as they engage in a narrative of loss.

Undeniably, contemporary cities do play to the tune of technology, but it is actually Globalisation that is the real ‘Pied Piper’. In a Globalised world, the global citizen increasingly inhabits a reconstructed reality; safe, secure, standardised, extremely efficient and closely controlled by a set of ‘Universal’ values. Technological advances have enabled these bubbles of hyper reality to proliferate and create a continuum of experiences: ubiquitous, accessible and so aspirational that it has defined a new territory of familiarity which we are addicted to and are scared to depart from. As a generation, we are now conditioned to the comforts of an abstract standardisation mostly unrelated to our geographic location or our cultural traditions.

Globalisation is credited with ushering in the fastest period of poverty reduction the world has ever seen, lifting around 70 million people – the population of Turkey or Thailand – out of destitution annually. Through its remarkable success in the fight against poverty, Globalisation strongly validates the ethos of the free flow of man, materials and ideas as a desirable future for mankind. However, Globalisation has its own challenges, namely economic disparity, environmental degradation and climatic change. Cultural Globalisation, an associated phenomenon, is argued by many as an inevitable outcome with dubious repercussions. ‘Universalisation’ of cultures, traditions and enterprises, with a marked ‘western’ hegemony, can be perceived across socio-cultural ecosystems globally. As production shifts to the Global South, cultural imports, both as objects and ideas, often cannibalise local cultural ecosystems. No doubt there are tremendous benefits – technological leapfrogging, socio-economic development and associated prosperity – but this transition is often seen as detrimental to the built environment. As labour flows transitional, so also does culture and this implicates how we inhabit cities.

Global Cultural flows translate to profound changes at numerous levels, from identity to iconography, use/abuse of space and potentially even climate change. To give an example, large span, fully glazed air-conditioned buildings, which are typologically associated with IT workspaces are typically maintained at 22 degrees Celsius (+-2 degrees Celsius) as a protocol irrespective of the climatic zone in which they are situated. Equatorial climates experience a higher adaptive Thermal comfort zone compared to tropical climates where these typologies were initially designed. In Equatorial climates the adaptive comfort zone can rise up to 30 degrees Celsius with sufficient wind speed. By setting the temperature to merely 25 degrees Celsius, an office’s daily air-conditioning energy consumption can be cut roughly by 18 per cent in such climates.

Adaptation of other contextual design solutions like adequate building envelope controls, shading, solid walls, as often seen in local vernacular typologies, can potentially lead to further reduction of energy costs by up to 30%. In fact, local vernacular building traditions indicate the best possible solutions in any climatic context, which transnational flows of globalisation, with its sole focus on standardised protocols, often bypasses. The US department of Energy (DOE) in their review of German Passivhaus standards for designing Zero Energy Homes in the US notes that the passive/ conservation performance metric used as the envelope design guideline for space-conditioning criteria (following the German Passivhaus standard) is not responsive to the wide diversity of climate and energy market conditions in the United States and recommended a shift to annual heating and cooling standards that are specific to a project’s climate, national construction costs and regional energy costs.

In the recent century, urbanism has strayed from the traditional ‘close coupling’ with the environment in its urge for standardisation. Building prototypes are essentially associated with a specific climatic and environmental context and unlike a mass-produced automobile it can hardly operate with similar efficiencies in varying geographical contexts. The European Commission reported that residential buildings constructed between 1945 and 1980 are the major culprits of building energy waste  primarily due to their design. At present, about 35% of the EU’s buildings are over 50 years old and almost 75% of the building stock is energy inefficient. A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) states that in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, where “roughly 65% of the total expected buildings stock in 2060 is already built today, the energy intensity per square metre (m2) of the global buildings sector needs to improve on average by 30% by 2030 (compared to 2015) to be on track to meet global climate ambitions set forth in the Paris Agreement (UNFCC, 2016)”. The report further stresses the contribution of energy inefficient building stock towards climate change and notes that: “Current buildings’ energy-carbon intensities are far from the 20 tonnes CO2 per TJ or less needed by 2050 to meet ambitions for a 2°C world or below”. A part of this problem can be attributed to lack of environmental regulations as these cities were being built. But adopting uniform standards globally may not work as observed previously in the case of adopting the German Passivhaus verbatim in the US climate.

Mass produced cities, structured to produce and consume en mass manifests a global urban form streamlined to accommodate global flow of materials, processes and cultures. Built typologies, perceived as successful within a narrow longitudinal band around the tropics, are freely exported globally along with associated cultural and environmental protocols. The task for the development fraternity is clearly to rediscover vernacular solutions and integrate them with global prototypes at various scales. There seems to be a trend towards rediscovering the ‘Genius Locii’; as Jane Jacobs (Jacobs, 1996)  observed, “Globalisation does not signal the erasure of difference but a reconciliation and revalidation of place, locality, difference.” She noted that a reconciliatory approach generates “a new analytical language in which such constructs as hybridity, disaspora, cerolisation, transculturation etc. figure predominantly” (Jacobs, 1996) .

Nezar Al Sayyad (Al Sayyad, 2001) extends this hypothesis by observing that in cities across the world, globalisation leads to the creation of “Third Places…. in between spaces of spatial reconciliation of incommensurable construction of subcultures” over a span of time. Cities evolve with time and as aptly observed by Al Syyad, “the history of the world demonstrates movement towards cultural differentiation and

Top Left & Right: Hybrid Spaces Bottom: Promotional material for penguin enclosure in the Emirates Mall

 not homogenisation” and, “one can observe the specificity of local cultures and their attempt to mediate global domination” (Al Sayyad, 2001). Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, represents this trend where global aspirations of the developers have been localised through adaptation of environmental and cultural typologies uniquely suited to the specific location of the project in a desert climate.

Local Knowledge, Global Goals

The 21st century city is a product of, by and for globalisation, shaped to align with its cherished fruits. In our pursuit for prosperity we should not dissociate from indigenous knowledge, which provides a crucial foundation for adaptation and mitigation actions that sustain resilience of social-ecological systems at the interconnected local, regional and global scales. Our built heritage is an asset not only for conservation but as a vital cue to develop contextual typologies that can sustain economic development while not failing the planet in its sustainability goals.