Tim Makower
Msheireb Properties
‘…a simple, powerful and contemporary interpretation of Qatar’s unique architectural vernacular…’
Qatar National Vision 2030

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #24

The Msheireb Downtown Doha project, at the heart of Doha’s old city, has launched the search for a language of buildings, and the spaces between buildings, which is in some way uniquely Qatari, rooted in local tradition,
but at the same time embraces all that is best in terms of innovation and insight from the wider international community; both rooted in the Past and looking to the Future

Msheireb Downtown Doha is Msheireb Properties’ flagship regeneration project. It is both the re-birth of a neighbourhood and at the same time the re-awakening of an architectural sensibility, which was in danger of extinction. This revival relies not on replicating the architecture of the past but on re-interpreting it and in so doing, re-affirming the link between the past, the present and the future. Under the inspirational leadership of Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser. Msheireb Properties’ vision is underpinned by a commitment to create a sustainable new piece of city. As well as facing the challenge of optimizing the use of resources, in particular energy, and minimizing carbon emissions and waste, a development such as Msheireb Downtown Doha, in order to be sustainable’, must be built for the long term, both in terms of quality and adaptability, and must also foster a “Sense of Belonging It is essential to achieving these aims that the vision is not limited to architecture. A new language’ of design must also embrace the social and economic aspects of the city, for which its physical fabric forms a setting. From an early stage, the team were asked “how can you create an urban environment which will attract Qatari families back into the city centre? Msheireb was Doha’s first suburb: a natural place for the city to grow, and in due course streets and spaces, alive with shops and businesses as well as homes and mosques began to develop, as wealth flowed into the country after the discovery of oil. The area got its name Msheireb, meaning Place of Sweet Water’, after the well which used to be focal point for the community located towards the southern part of the site. The Master Plan Guidelines form a textbook for the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of a contemporary Qatari architectural language. They have been summarized in seven principles, known as the ‘Seven Steps’ that range from the general to the particular.

Continuity

Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser’s brief has been to achieve a contemporary home-grown’architecture, which is deeply rooted in the past. The past is present in the future as memories live and grow. The soft lines of Kahraba Street and the Wadi are overlaid with the rectilinear grids of the plan. The Master Plan is an overlay of new and old and the patina’ of age enriches the character and identity of this new piece of city, echoing the soft irregularity of the sikkas and barahas of Old Doha. At the scale of individual buildings, the combination of simplicity and solidity, combined with the selective use of ornament, result in a contemporary architecture that has indeed grown from its context.

The Relationship between Space and Form

The composition and organisation of buildings and urban blocks needs to give positive form to public spaces in a network of ‘outdoor rooms’. Houses and fereejs are focused around inward looking courtyard spaces with layered thresholds. Inner spaces tend towards regular geometries while perimeter walls respond to the evolved irregularity of the city. The centerpiece of Msheireb is the Barahat al Nouq, which celebrates the importance of the inner space at an urban scale; a singular rectangle, it forms the city’s focal point. The sculptural forms of traditional Qatari buildings, and the broken skyline which arises from an animated roofscape, are essential to the spirit of Qatari architecture, new or old. Buildings such as the Msheireb Enrichment Centre have re-coded this intuitive compositional language in a contemporary way, much in contrast to the towers of West Bay. Its forms directly reflect the proportions and relationships of the spaces within. The composition is held in ‘asymmetric balance’, echoing the carved profiles and moulded volumes of buildings such as the Radwani and Company Houses.

Aspects of the Home

Msheireb’s sustainable vision is under-pinned by the necessity for successful homes and successful streets, to ensure that Msheireb is a thriving, living place in the long term; a legacy for the Future. As in the past, the nucleus of the city is the home, although its physical form and context will inevitably be something new, in response to today’s standards of comfort, access and servicing. Early on in the Master Plan process, Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser highlighted to us that our strategy for the clustering of family homes around communal spaces was in fact the creation of a 21st century “fereej’ – the contemporary re-invention of an ancient urban typology which lies at the heart of Qatari tradition. She suggested that each fereej should have a communal majlis; an essential aspect of family life, which she observed was in danger of dying out. Cars are accommodated below ground with communal gardens above. Welcoming thresholds are emphasised and formal and family areas are organised to meet the expectations of Qatari families. Rooftops are brought to life with private walled gardens, pools and shaded terraces. In this way equivalent space standards to the suburbs are on offer but with the city on your doorstep.

Aspects of the Street

Streets are the arteries, veins and capillaries that bring life to the city. It is impossible to summarise the extraordinary wealth of shops, businesses, cafes and restaurants, mosques, cultural and educational buildings and other activities which will be on offer to those living and working in Msheireb, to the wider city and to visitors. It will be a unique resource for the city, a meeting place in the day and at night and a defining component of Doha’s identity; the making of memories. The Master Plan strikes a careful balance between the priority of pedestrian movement and the convenience of vehicular access – all vehicular servicing and the majority of parking are below ground. Two obvious environmental aspects of the Master Plan help in keeping streets cool enough to walk in comfort for as many months as possible through the year. Firstly streets and spaces have, as far as possible, been aligned towards the prevailing Northwest wind and secondly, all major streets are shaded with colonnades while pedestrian sikkas are sufficiently tight to offer shade through the day.

Designing for Climate

The use of both old and new technology is promoted, firstly to achieve maximum comfort with minimum energy use, and secondly to optimise choice for the end-user, to control his or her own environment. The traditional thick wall, with controlled use of glazing, provides direction for contemporary construction, creating an architecture which resonates’ with tradition. For example the ‘malqaf’ or split-wall, reinterpreted in a contemporary way, can be used to create light-washed walls, a direct response to the extreme solar glare of the region, and the ‘liwan’, creating both shade and privacy, while offering flexibility for living spaces to expand out of doors when the weather is good. Ranging from the micro to the macro, care is to be put into simple details such as shutters, moveable screens and openable windows, meanwhile high-tech innovations are promoted at the scale of site-wide infrastructure, such as central cooling plant and grey water recycling. Just as the architecture of Qatar’s past was a natural response to climate, all the measures employed to achieve a highperformance architecture for 21st century Qatar should be integral to its architectural identity.

A New Language of Architecture

Drawing this together into a new architectural languageinvolves de-coding the past and re-coding it for the future. The guidelines of Msheireb have not sought to determine an end product but rather to establish a common starting point for an eminent group of international designers to achieve an architecture which is uniquely home-grown. The overriding goal is to achieve resonance with local context; a celebration and affirmation of local identity; a feeling of appropriateness, transcending fashion and avoiding pastiche; a timeless response and lasting legacy.