Arts Desk

“Post-Oil City” at the University of the District of Columbia, Reviewed

Xeritown

Hankering for some architectural and urban-planning wonkery? "Post-Oil City" is your ticket.

Presented jointly by the University of the District of Columbia and the Goethe-Institut Washington, the small but dense exhibition surveys a variety of futurist proposals for designing cities after the age of oil and automobiles passes. A few of the ideas are old and largely obsolete, such as the self-contained automated vehicles built in the 1970s for a pilot project in Morgantown, W.Va. Others will be confined entirely to the drawing board for the foreseeable future, such as "skycars."

But the most compelling projects on view are those that are being built now. Ironically, many of these projects are being constructed in oil-rich, Middle Eastern nations.

Xeritown (top), in the desert outskirts of Dubai, is designed to be a new style of sustainable city. It uses native, easy-to-sustain vegetation; renewable energy; and pedestrian-oriented design, with buildings oriented so that the narrow corridors in between suck in cool wind from the ocean as graduated-height buildings block the sun and redirect hotter desert air away from the urban core.

Another project in Abu Dhabi, Masdar City (bottom), is perhaps most notable for a central open space that’s dotted with large, motorized umbrellas. During the day, they provide shade; the energy they passively capture during the day warms the space at night.

New York City’s High Line, a derelict railroad spur turned eco-friendly elevated park, makes an appearance in the exhibit. A plan for filling in vacant stretches of Philadelphia with farmland looks alluring in artists’ renderings, even if the idea seems pie-in-the-sky.

Indeed, the exhibit’s utopian impulses don’t leave much room for grappling with the mundane issues of economic, rather than environmental, sustainability. One project that receives attention in the exhibit—Better Place, an effort in Israel to build out an integrated network of battery-swapping stations for electric cars—sounded good but ended up declaring bankruptcy in 2013 and was liquidated.

The question is whether we can afford to make the ideas in the exhibit a reality—or whether can afford not to. And that's a question that remains unanswered.

The exhibit is on view to March 1 at the University of the District of Columbia (follow yellow signs from Connecticut Avenue NW).

Masdar umbrellas

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