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A radical new masterplan for Doha

Part of the Qatari capital of Doha is being redeveloped to reconnect with the traditional urban patterns and textures of historic Arab cities

Many modern Middle Eastern cities face huge long-term difficulties. To have built with such environmental disregard that scale went untempered by climate, to think that the desert heat would be forever annulled by the depths of the oil well, has created for today’s world of diminishing resources a region in real risk of disaster. These are known problems, but their solutions remain obscure. There is the lone star of Masdar City, the eco-settlement by Foster + Partners, but this is in the sands of the Abu Dhabi Desert. How can we build sustainable urban models in existing cities?

Qatari developer Dohaland is hoping to provide a guiding answer to this question with its first scheme, Musheireb. Investing $5.5 billion (£3.3 billion) into a 31ha site in the historic core of Qatar’s capital Doha, the development will combine retail, commercial and leisure programmes with housing for 25,000 people, and - crucially - public spaces usable in searing temperatures.

A subsidiary of the Qatari government’s education foundation, the ultimate client is Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, the reigning Emir’s glamorous second wife. The project’s driving force, Sheikha Mozah is also its eminent campaigner, and her opening promotional epigrams - ‘a mixing, not a melting, of cultures’ - set the tone a league apart from the usual developer spiel. Masterplanned by multi-disciplinary giant Aecom, with practice Allies and Morrison developing the architectural codes, the scheme’s aim is to introduce to Doha a truly synthetic relationship between its urban moves and its architectural resolution. Currently working on the latter are three London-based practices, Adjaye Associates, John McAslan + Partners and Mossessian & Partners.

‘Her Royal Highness Sheikha Mozah told us that we want a modern Islamic city, but rooted in the past, the heritage and the culture,’ says Kevin Underwood, vice-president with Aecom’s Design + Planning practice. ‘Sheikha Mozah said “Our architecture is simple and elegant, it’s not ornamentation, pattern, colour; it’s not Morocco or the Alhambra.” For us the most important thing was looking at the history. In 1947, it was just a fishing village, then the 1950s oil and gas money hit and there were big urbanisation and eventually suburbanisation issues.’

Following historic city traces, Aecom has made the streets as narrow as possible, to maximise solar shading, and oriented them to the prevailing wind to capture the cool sea breezes. The north-south streets have good airflow and shading, whereas those on the east-west axis do not receive much wind or helpful solar protection, so Aecom has made these southern buildings higher than their opposites. To reconcile the desire for a walkable city with the demand for car use, the lost tighter pedestrian patterns have been integrated with a looser contemporary grid for motorcars and servicing trucks. Additionally, at huge expense, all the car parks and servicing have been hidden underground to enhance the public realm. This is a huge change for Qatar, where even the smallest distances in its macro-zoned, micro-disjointed city can only be traversed by vehicles.

Sheikha Mozah’s challenge to get Qataris to live back in the city is as much about social as environmental sustainability. ‘Historically the old courtyard houses were sustainable, with little fenestration on the outside and thick walls to stop the solar gain; socially it was great because everybody talked to each other,’ explains Underwood. ‘Now they have Western-style villas in suburban plots. No one talks and they are fed up with the unsocial arrangement, the commute, the traffic jams.’ In response, the masterplan seeks to create an ‘urban village’ of horizontally and vertically mixed uses, which will allow a more socially integrated, car-free lifestyle.

Creating usable outdoor space has been critical. Domestically, the traditional fereej (a semi-private courtyard for clusters of related families) has informed Aecom’s and Allies and Morrison’s proposal for a townhouse model that rearranges this lateral precedent vertically.

At an urban scale there is a dearth of civic public space in Qatar, so Aecom’s introduction of a public square the size of Piazza San Marco in Venice is a radical gesture. Shading will be crucial and this may in part be supplied by a suspended screens inspired by the layered leafy landscapes of Córdoba in southern Spain. Elsewhere, the pavements of Musheireb will be shielded by colonnades, influenced by the French additions to Heliopolis in Cairo.

Musheireb is a pioneering scheme for the Middle East, but even defining it in those terms doesn’t really do justice to its monumental ambitions. To combine the critique with the proposal, not only to ameliorate the seemingly intractable urban condition, but to invent an architecture that resolves the disjuncture between the city’s origins as a fishing village and its oil-reliant suburban sprawl today, is in itself a huge undertaking. But then, through the figure of the most captivating royal since Princess Grace of Monaco, to rhetorically associate this paradigm reversal, not just to the future of the capital city, but to the heart of national identity, makes this an urban proposition that will be genuinely exciting to see realised.

Currently on site, the first phase is due to be finished next year, with overall completion scheduled for 2016. But Musheireb is already, rightly, winning plaudits. The main square and its surrounding buildings by Mossessian & Partners won two MIPIM Architectural Review Future Project Awards this year. With the focus shifting to the architects, it will be fascinating to see over the next five years how fully the architecture delivers an authentic expression of 21st-century Qatar.

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