While Doha, Qatar, is home to acclaimed architecture, including Jean Nouvel’s National Museum, OMA’s National Library, and I.M. Pei’s decade-old Museum of Islamic Art, the city abounds in flash and trash, even though (or perhaps because) it’s the capital of one of the richest countries in the world. The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development is trying to raise the bar—most notably with Msheireb Downtown Doha, a model development that replaces a crumbling sector of the inner city and should be completed next year.
Constructed in phases over the past 10 years, Msheireb now comprises more than 100 buildings, grouped in megablocks of irregular shape that contain a mix of residential, office, retail, dining, and hospitality, as well as three mosques. Four below-grade levels accommodate parking and services. Most structures in the complex are low-rise, except for towers of just over 20 stories on the southern edge to draw winds through the development. Broad and narrow streets are oriented to channel breezes and maximize shade in a city where temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees; overhangs and arcades enhance the pedestrian experience. Every building is targeted to achieve a LEED Gold or Platinum rating. Visitors and residents are encouraged to walk or bicycle, or use an electric tram that loops around the community or the new station on the citywide subway network to get around.
In 2005, the Qatar Foundation tapped Arup, EDAW (since purchased by Aecom) and Allies and Morrison to master-plan the 77-acre site adjoining the Emir’s palace and the souk. Named for the subterranean river and springs on the site, Msheireb (which means “place of sweet water”) was envisioned as a harmonious ensemble of buildings that would abstract the regional vernacular and employ passive cooling strategies. Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, who chairs the Foundation and is part of the ruling family, wanted to create a strong sense of place—to reinforce the identity of Doha and reinterpret the traditional culture that was ebbing away.
Allies and Morrison spent two years researching indigenous architecture. As partner Simon Gathercole discovered, “the prevailing style was minimal, with bare walls enclosing courtyards, framed by recesses, pillars, and parapets. Ornament was used sparingly, usually only on important portals.” The firm distilled their observations into seven design principles that would guide Msheireb’s development by emphasizing continuity with the past. The architects aimed to build on Qatari tradition “by using a new language rich in reference and strong in resonance . . . to be spoken in many accents,” as the guidelines prescribe. The Foundation chose eight other offices, including John McAslan + Partners, Adjaye Associates, and Gensler, by competition, to contribute buildings that would engage in a low-key conversation with their neighbors rather than shout “look at me.” Structures and open spaces were to be “carved from urban clay,” according to the client brief, instead of standing out as objects. Above all, the new neighborhood was to provide a good living environment, to encourage families who commuted through clogged traffic from suburban villas to move back to the city.
Though Msheireb has yet to be fully realized, it seems poised to fulfill the vision of its planners. The first megablock was built and tested to validate the concept before construction continued, and facades were mocked up in a yard close by. More than 100 architects and engineers from participating firms have found inventive ways of interpreting the guidelines, concealing the infrastructure, and avoiding the monotony and sterility of some master-planned communities. Upward of 30 different kinds of stone, imported from Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran (local stone is too porous), clad the steel-and-concrete structures, imparting a feeling of permanence. Subtle color variations enhance the irregular openings and patterns etched into metal and carved into stone. McAslan restored a cluster of four historic houses to serve as museums that chronicle the history of Qatar and demonstrate how the affluent lived before oil and natural gas, as well as electricity and air conditioning, transformed the country.
There is a constant shift of scale and perspective within Msheireb, as narrow lanes open onto landscaped courtyards and the main square. On summer days, this expansive space can be shaded by a retractable awning, and misting devices lower the temperature by some 15 degrees in the sidewalk cafés. Undulating ribbons of concrete conceal one of the two cooling plants, and the street furniture, from lighting to bollards and bicycle racks, has been meticulously designed. Msheireb is a stage awaiting its full complement of players, and a fount of inspiration for planners around the world—though few municipalities can afford the investment this has required.