Dialogue Series, Race & Society
Transitions in Qatar’s Architectural Identity
Ibrahim Mohamed Jaidah, renowned Qatari Architect and Group CEO & Chief Architect of the Arab Engineering Bureau, was invited to deliver the inaugural CIRS Monthly Dialogue of the 2016-2017 academic year with a lecture on “Transitions in Qatar’s Architectural Identity” on September 26, 2016. The talk focused on the definitions of Qatari architecture; its history, influences, aesthetics, and the future of its development.
Jaidah explained that the history of the Gulf region in general, and Qatar in particular, has always been one of global influences through trade routes and contact with neighboring countries and cultures including Basra, Najd, Zanzibar, India, and Iran, among many others. Qatari culture, he said, has always been a blend of borrowings “from the way we dress, to our dialogue, to our cuisine, to our music,” and to the diversity of the local architecture. These are all products of historical learning.
Defining the history of Qatari architecture, Jaidah noted that it falls into broad time periods that can be categorized according to pre- and post-oil styles of development. He explained that, in a few decades, Qatar achieved what other nations strived to accomplish over centuries, and this incredibly rapid growth has had massive effects on the nation and its architectural growth and design. The transition from one period into another occurred relatively rapidly, where Qatari architecture that was once defined by haphazard mud houses in the pre-oil period, was quickly transformed with oil wealth in the immediate post-oil period to encompass a growing town defined by cement and bricks, and, in the contemporary period, a global city brandishing steel and glass towers.
The invention of cultured pearls in Japan in the 1930s brought about the decimation of the pearling industry in Qatar—its primary source of wealth—plunging the nation into poverty and affecting its architectural development. “In the pre-oil period,” he recalled, “the architecture was quite straightforward; simple houses, courtyard houses, that expanded as the families required.” The architecture of this time period was defined by respect to the environment, sourcing local materials and building according to optimum orientations to make best use of the natural weather conditions. Jaidah noted that “all natural materials were used, and that is why it was responsive to the environment and it was pleasant to live in.” In fact, “the only thing that was brought from abroad was the wood—because we didn’t have enough trees—which we call the danshal was brought from either Zanzibar, from Iran—usually recycled from other buildings—and from India,” he said.
The discovery of oil a few years later, set Qatar onto the path of industrial wealth and with it immediate effects on the growth of the urban environment. Although the styles of the buildings and the arcades remained largely the same, natural materials were gradually being replaced by cement and bricks and architectural lines became more even and straight. In central Doha, “the clock tower, I think, is one of the most important buildings, because it was the start of the new construction,” made of concrete and other manmade materials. The old Ottoman fort that was the center of administrative rule, was replaced with the first diwan amiri. “As soon as the Ottomans left, the first thing the ruler did was to build the diwan amiri there in different stages because it had the most prime and historical control of the whole bay,” Jaidah explained. This transitional period was defined by a blending of natural and manmade materials that were combined within the same buildings.
This immediate post-oil period was defined by increasing incoming wealth, which was being transformed into the design of the local landscape. Prosperous residents were able to commission, for the first time, architects from India, Pakistan, and Lebanon to build unique, art deco designs, full of motifs and symbolic flourishes, or what Jaidah calls, “Arabian deco.” During this period, there was a whole era in the 50s that, unfortunately until today, is not considered as part of Qatar’s history, and so buildings have been systematically demolished to make way for the new high-rises and urban developments. Jaidah noted that he had an opportunity to preserve some of these buildings, and to document others, before they were demolished. Today, the renovation of the Fire Station building and its re-purposing to accommodate art initiatives and galleries is an example of preserving the early modern history of Qatar. He noted that these buildings are crucial to the story of Doha; “it doesn’t have to be a mud house to become history. Our modern history is what is forming the new generation.”
In what Jaidah describes as the contemporary “post-oil period,” there was a boom of construction and urban developments in the 1990s and 2000s, especially with massive land reclamation projects and the development of West Bay, Lusail, and the Pearl island. With the government’s announcement that it would rent buildings and offices in West Bay, a construction race took place to take advantage of the new policy, leading to massive growth in the construction and infrastructure sectors. However, Jaidah said, “there was a sort of scary moment because architecture became a commodity,” and towers were being constructed within a few short months. In this period, architecture became more about unique, innovative, fashionable, and flagship designs that completed with each other, and with other countries, rather than serving a function or harmoniously fitting within the exiting cityscape. Jaidah admits that during this period, not many of these construction were environmentally sustainable and “mistakes happened” in the rush to compete.
However, he argued in conclusion, “there was a wakeup call,” and new regulations were put in place to guarantee a more sustainable style of urban development, which is important for the future of the landscape and the environment. In the contemporary period, the architectural development of Qatar is taking a more measured and mature stance and is involving leading international architects. Today, there is “the beauty of getting people from all over the world to participate and to…redefine what is culture,” and to preserve our history, not only in architecture but in other areas of cultural development. Today, there is a kind of “cultural revolution” reconnecting Qatar to its history and heritage by taking the local, vernacular architecture into the future. Today, Jaidah concluded, “there is a language that is being created, sensitive to the environment and to the culture”—one that is as respectful of the past as it is open to the future.
Ibrahim Mohamed Jaidah is a researcher and author of The History of Qatari Architecture and 99 Domes who grew up in the old neighbourhood Al Jasra in the heart of Doha. He ranks as a pioneer of a new architectural movement, which combines the far reaching influences of traditional Qatari architecture with modern style, creating memorable landmark structures that are helping to shape the developing State of Qatar. Jaidah is a highly recognized architect who has won numerous awards such as the Islamic Cities Award, the Arab Town Organization Awards, and has been nominated for the Agha Khan Awards. In 2005, Jaidah was honored with the medal of the State of Qatar Encouragement Award. His projects reflect the cultural, historical, and environmental contexts in which they exist. Ibrahim is a dedicated advocate for sustainability and is a co-founding member of the Qatar Green Building Council.
Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications.