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Doha, Qatar – Ambitious and expansive Qatar plays host to the Aga Khan Awards

Doha hosts the Aga Khan Awards and sets out its stall for the future

News that Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 soccer World Cup had been successful sent this smallish Gulf state into paroxysms of excitement; anything it seems, is possible.That tied in with the impression given to the 250 guests at this year’s Aga Khan Award for Architecture, held in Qatar’s capital Doha in late November. The decision to hold the awards here was largely due to Qatar’s policy towards contemporary architecture - to encourage it as part of a cultural programme aimed at making the city state unashamedly modern, but in the context of the region’s cultural, religious and design histories.

Guests experience at least three aspects of how this policy is working in practice. First, at the level of individual building, IM Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art was used as the venue for the ceremony, and was much admired for its calm volumes and for the way it exploits a marvellous site. The second example of a proactive architectural policy was nicely displayed in a visitor centre for the £3.5 billion ‘Heart of Doha’ project, which is now under construction. This is a major piece of urban regeneration in central Doha, but quite unlike the business district with its sub-1970s office towers. Developer Dohaland is using a largely British-based team on the project, masterplanned by AECOM, Arup and Allies and Morrison, with individual buildings by David Adjaye and John McAslan and a central square by Michel Mossessian.

The intention here is to provide the sort of features that respond to the intense climate, for example arcades, plenty of trees, and relatively low-rise buildings with brise-soleils in abundance. You rarely find this sort of urbanism in the Gulf, other examples being the Masdar City project by Foster + Partners in Abu Dhabi, and a commercial complex in Dubai by Michael Hopkins. Environmental design ought to be easy to export to this part of the world, but it’s not always the case.

The biggest project in Qatar, however, is Education City, being delivered by the Qatar Foundation under the patronage of Sheikha Mozah. This is an £8.9 billion project outside the city, masterplanned by Arata Isozaki and featuring a range of international architects including Rem Koolhaas and Yamasaki Architects. It is a world university in which each faculty is run by a cherry-picked college (mainly US) renowned for its excellence in particular subjects. The carrot for the colleges, apart from using their normal selection procedures and teaching standards, is that the Foundation provides them with a state-of-the-art complex.

The radical nature of this project in the Gulf is symbolised by a quote from the Sheikha on display in the visitor centre: ‘Not only is education a pillar of democracy, but democracy is also a pillar of education’. That is the spirit of the Aga Khan Award, which celebrate a universal humanism as much as the Islamic culture that generally provides the context for the awards. With only five winners from 19 shortlisted projects, the standard was extraordinarily high.

As the Aga Khan put it: ‘We are looking for exemplars; we observe, we try to learn, and we try to share… We should try to govern the process of change rather than let change govern us.’ The winners are all reflections of this philosophy, which was a re-affirmation of architectural values rather than prejudice about style or scale. Long may the awards continue.

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